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Controversial StarForce Copy Protection Creators Quizzed 952

Thanks to FiringSquad for its interview with the creators of the StarForce copy protection scheme for PC videogames. The author explains: "In recent months there's been an increasing awareness and alarm over StarForce copy protection. It's actually a driver that installs itself with the [Windows] games that come shipped with it, and originally it didn't uninstall when the game was uninstalled." StarForce's Abbie Sommer argues the advantages of "driver-level copy protection", explaining: "The drivers are what prevents the use of kernel debugger utilities such as SoftICE, Cool Debugger, Soft Snoop etc. Also the drivers prevent emulators from spoofing a drive, and thwart burning tools such as Alcohol 120%." The author concludes by injecting a little personal opinion into the mix, arguing: "PC games will never go away, but if the market keeps shrinking due to the increasing ease of piracy... then the number and quality of games will almost certainly decrease."
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Controversial StarForce Copy Protection Creators Quizzed

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  • by rokzy ( 687636 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @04:52AM (#10010321)
    >"I wouldn't buy it anyway" - doesn't matter, fact is you didn't pay for it but benefited from the labor of the publisher and developer - that's theft.

    so... linux is theft!?

    >"Games are crap so often I don't want to get ripped off" - try reading reviews and playing demos. Besides, good luck getting a car dealership to refund you your money after you so much as signed the contract, never mind drove the car. Not all that many goods can be used and returned for your money back.

    good luck getting a demo for many modern games. good luck getting a review that hasn't been bought, if not with money then "exclusive access" deals. in the UK at least, almost ALL non-perishable goods can be returned. exceptions are things like pierced earings due to hygiene. the rest comes under STATUTORY RIGHTS. a nice but unknown one is anything you buy on the internet can be returned within 30 days ("cooling off period") for ANY REASON WHATSOEVER.

    (I'm not saying reasons for piracy are valid/invalid, just that the author is factually wrong)

    note: most Doom 3 piracy was fans in non-US wanting ir right away instead of delayed release, just like all the films I've downloaded are ones I've seen in the cinema but the DVD isn't out yet.
  • Re:missed something (Score:5, Informative)

    by JamesKPolk ( 13313 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:00AM (#10010351) Homepage
    They missed nothing.

    Read the StarForce webpage. Their goal isn't to stop determined experts, since that's impossible to do when the code runs on the adversary's computer. Their goals are to stop "industrial software piracy" (read: businesses buying one CD for all the computers in the office) and "casual copying" (read: Joe Teenager giving a copy to his friend Fred Teenager).

    If these people are thwarted then their mission is accomplished.
  • by Balorn ( 236398 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:04AM (#10010377) Homepage

    And for the lazy (or those behind an abusive proxy server):

    What concerns me about the PC game market is that I'm seeing publishers blaming everything but the real causes for PC game sales decline. It's not piracy. And it's not that everyone just prefers to play games in front of a TV. It's the games. It's the way people who buy PC games get treated.

    It's not like piracy on consoles doesn't exist either. Yet their sales are doing great.

    For a PC game I'm expected to keep track of a serial number -forever-, keep the CD in the drive despite it using gigs of hard drive space, AND I'm expected to have to download patches all too often just to make the game work correctly. That's assuming your computer works with the CD ROM protection in the first place.

    If your competitor (console games in this case) doesn't put you through that hassle, then some people are going to choose that. And others will simply not purchase games.

    People WILL buy stuff if you give them a reason. If you make it more rewarding to purchase it rather than pirating it then you'll get the sale.

    I'm sure, for example, that Object Desktop gets pirated. The whole thing is probably only 50 megs in size as a file. But it doesn't get pirated that much and we sell millions of dollars worth -one copy at a time- over the Internet. Each year. For years. Why? Because we give users a reason to purchase it. We keep updating it on a regular basis which adds value to it. We provide a way to seamlessly get those updates for verified customers which gives an convenience incentive to be a customer.

    As some of you know, we expanded the gaming network to Basically, we moved the gaming network beyond being just Stardock games and into putting third party games on there. You can imagine the effort convincing some of the publishers of putting games on here that don't have any digital rights management, no time outs, no "renting", etc.

    It's not, however, that we want to do that because we're "nice guys". It's business. Just business. People just want to get the product/service and not be hassled about it. I buy WizBang IV and I expect to be able to install it to my regular machine and if necessary, put it on my laptop. And you know what? If I have it on my laptop I want that drive bay used for an extra battery, not used for a battery sucking CD drive that's in there just because the game checks to see if I have the CD in.

    At the end of the day, I'm just wondering why the industry is so afraid of some 15 year old kid downloading PC games off of Bit Torrent or whatever instead of looking at the demographics of PC gamers (which are older and tend to have more money) and start catering more to them -- people who have money and don't have time to be jerked around with nonsense.

    When I see "piracy" being blamed for sales decline (and I really think that other factors such as lack of mega releases this year and the migration to MMORPGs need to be considered heavily) it worries me. It worries me that publishers aren't really taking these other issues seriously and as a result are making development plans based on faulty data. After all, one can only imagine the justification for the PC port of Spider-Man II (as one example).

  • Safedisk (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:10AM (#10010405)
    Yeah - I'll correct that.

    Safedisk is a PAIN to implement.
    It works by changing the geometry of the disc - the tracks are actally spread out more (it makes it look a bit like the gaps between songs on old vinyl disks)

    Then it measures the TIME it takes the drive to seek across these areas compared to the time it takes to seek across normal areas.

    Their driver is very flaky, due to the large numbers of strange drives it has to cope with. This in turn makes it very difficult to build a drive which co-operates with it reliably.

    Most disks produced with safedisk are within the spec - the spec just says that the track density must lie within such and such limits (I'd have to look them up) - they are expected to vary due to quality of disk and so forth. They AREN'T expected to vary on a single disk (much) - but nothing says that they can't. So they are in the CD/DVD spec.

    The audio protections usually used fall into two camps. The polite camp simply has an audio session and a data session, and relies upon windows preferring to show the user the data session. These are within the redbook spec, and easy to break.

    The slightly dodgier protection issues the same track number to tracks in both sessions, and relies upon data drives mounting the last session first and audio drives mounting the first session first. This DOES break the redbook spec. Quite horribly.
  • Re:do-not-buy list (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:27AM (#10010477)
    A few minutes of googling yielded this: []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:31AM (#10010501)
    Has anyone found/compiled a list of games that use this copy protection so that we can vote with our wallets?

    There's an entire website devoted to that now; It's here [].
  • Re:Games List ? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kegetys ( 659066 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:32AM (#10010506) Homepage
    Here []'s one... Though I believe some of those have it only in certain versions, ie. EU or US version only. Also beware of the demos of those games, they install starforce too.
  • Re:Games List ? (Score:5, Informative)

    by shepd ( 155729 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <gro.todhsals>> on Thursday August 19, 2004 @05:52AM (#10010568) Homepage Journal
    Thanks for the list. According to the interviewee, no StarForce games are cracked.

    According to google, cracks appear to exist for:

    Cycling Manager 3
    Dead to Rights
    Fire Department
    Korea Fogotten Conflict
    Prince of Persia Sands of Time
    Rally Championship Xtreme
    Restaurant Empire
    Runaway A Road Adventure
    Soldiers Heroes of World War 2
    Track Mania
    X2 The Threat

    Now, being that I don't want to get my system all infected with virus laden garbage, I'm not going to download any of the cracks I found. I wonder how many work? Perhaps none of them. Or perhaps they all do. In that case, We have a 58% success record. That's not worthy of saying your protection is crack proof, IMHO.
  • by MaestroSartori ( 146297 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:04AM (#10010608) Homepage
    Worth pointing out (Disclaimer: I work as a game programmer) that it is often PUBLISHERS who add this sort of shit once the game is finished and has left the developers' control.
  • by Stauf ( 85247 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:15AM (#10010641)
    hope they get the Microsoft Hardware Lab to certify this thing or else Windows XP is going to bitch about this and it won't go smoothly

    That's only if they go through the 'accepted' API for adding new hardware. Just adding it to the registry and then asking the user to reboot when the install finishes is enough to install it 'stealthily'.

    Beware anything that asks for a reboot.
  • by jdonnis ( 115371 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:26AM (#10010679)
    Persistent rumours in the copy protection industry tells that the technology used in StarForce3 is actually reverse engineered from CD-Cops [], by StarForce's russian team.

    This is supposed to be one of the reasons the pricing of the StarForce3 systems does not reflect the perceived development costs for the technology.
  • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:30AM (#10010693)
    "PC games will never go away, but if the market keeps shrinking due to the increasing ease of piracy... then the number and quality of games will almost certainly decrease."

    The PC game market is growing, not shrinking. Many companies are losing money, I don't doubt that and I don't question the rest of his assertions, but nevertheless, this doesn't change the fact that the PC market of legitimately purchased PC games is growing, not shrinking.

  • by leeroybrown ( 624767 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:31AM (#10010698)
    Perhaps you should try the the 'removal tool': []
  • by ActionJesus ( 803475 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:41AM (#10010731)

    I think its also worth nothing that starforce drivers CAN mess up your system, and can only be safely removed with the starforce removal tool. (which they dont go out the way to advertise).

    This program is, essentially, a virus. So why is it ok for corporations to spread virii that stop me legally using my own game, but crackers who create trojans and the like are hunted to the ends of the earth?

  • by MtlDty ( 711230 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @07:34AM (#10010953)
    Copy/paste from []

    Im by no means a l33t hax0r but I know my way around icing/dumping procedures and messed around with SF3 a bit.

    First of all, whenever someone writes SF3 uses physical fingerprints, STOP READING - it DOES NOT, and yes a lot of wannabe experts will say that. If you wanna know how the SF3 discs are produced I can write another post here, but for now I'll tell you about the protection itself;

    The Devil (=StarForce3) is INSANELY coded to avoid debugging, and by INSANELY I mean NOTHING COMES CLOSE : you can find over 200 RDTSCs on a SINGLE procedure. WTF is a RDTSC? Its an instruction to read the time stamp on the CPU, that is, they use it to MEASURE the amount of time some routine takes to complete: if you debug+trace the operations, stopping them before they are complete, the reply from the CPU will tell the app they are taking a long time to finish - and you get rebooted while the SF3 creators laugh at you.

    The most low-level interrupts cant be traced as well since the SF3 driver replaces them with their own evil, custom, devilish, encrypted drivers - and thats where the problems for LEGIT buyers start, drivers messing around with system resources = always dangerous. Theres even a INT 2E routine used into SF3, thats an undocumented but widely known backdoor to run COMMAND.COM-based programs!! ... Also kind of a cheap trick, it leaves me no doubt the creators themselves were/are hella good crackers.

    What happens then is, one would actually need to recreate the drivers removing all those ( hundreds of ) evil anti-debugging checks - that would take a *LOT* of time/work already, considering the drivers are encrypted as and when executing - to ONLY THEN start working on breaking the games' protection itself. And for every new SF3 version/update/whatever ( = another game) , you would have to do everything again. Of course after ending up with a working crack, you can remove the "custom driver" thing and just emulate everything with an .exe file - but that would take more work again.

    Truth is, it becomes much more of a challenge than a way to play the game for free, since its much (much much) easier - even cheaper considering the hours a cracker would spend starforcing - to simply buy the damn original.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @07:39AM (#10010976)
    I can only see this affecting legitimate users... seeing as im anon cowarding this post ill just say it, i noticed at least 2 games on that list of starforce protected things, and i pirated both of 'em -downloaded, mounted, installed, cracked, played, didnt even know starforce existed and i still played it. way to go starforce, the pirates will find a way and you just piss off legitimate consumers.

    on the other hand my copy of half life, half life 2, ut2004 and doom3 are all legal, because of online key checking

    and i crack all my games, legitimate or not, because its just annoying looking for disks, frankly.
  • by DreadPiratePizz ( 803402 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @07:52AM (#10011036)
    ALL COPY PROTECTION DOES IS INCONVENIENCE THE LEGITIMATE USER This is untrue. If you read this article by a developer for Spyro, Year of the dragon, their copy and crack protection schemes were able to prevent a crack from being released for over 2 months after the game came out. Such protection did not inconvinience legitimate users AT ALL. .htm
  • by 1u3hr ( 530656 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @08:01AM (#10011066)
    Copyright law says, at root, that if I own create/own a work, then nobody else can use it without my permission.

    No it doesn't. If I buy a book/CD/DVD etc, from you, the copyright holder, I have the right to use it. I also have the right to sell or give it to someone else, transferring the "use" rights I had along with the physical media, without reference to you. I don't, in general, have the right to make copies of it and distribute them.

  • Re:missed something (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @08:50AM (#10011332)
    What do you mean "At some point"? I instantly look
    for no cd cracks when I purchase a new pc game.
  • by AllUsernamesAreGone ( 688381 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @09:03AM (#10011433)
    Completely different domain though. With console games the hardware is known, fixed and stable - you can implement copy protections schemes on one playstation and be sure it'll work on any other correctly functioning playsation (although degrading disc mechanisms cause problems...) You can't do that on a PC. It didn't inconvenience playstation users because they have to leave the disc in for all games and, if the playstation isn't breaking, it will work. On a PC, quite apart fromt he objections to haivng the CD in when the game is alreayd on the drive, many CD copy protection schemes won't work with some makes of drive, the schemes cause problems with other software and all sorts of other problems.

    I don't think you'll ever find a PC game copy protection scheme that stood up as long as Spyro and didn't have any problems on a wide range of machines.
  • Re:Games List ? (Score:2, Informative)

    by neko9 ( 743554 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @09:07AM (#10011455)
    Rally Championship Xtreme no-cd crack works nice. and Breed demo does not install StarForce (at least their remove tool found nothing).
  • by neko9 ( 743554 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @09:18AM (#10011542)
    here [] is list with some games and protections used.
  • foolish hu-MANS (Score:2, Informative)

    by Stalyn ( 662 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @09:34AM (#10011707) Homepage Journal
    the only way to stop piracy is divine intervention from God... btw God has an easynews account
  • Re:Games List ? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @09:38AM (#10011739)
    Quite a few in that list seem to be cracked by a "big name" group, which means, they're not virus ladden and probably do work.

    I can personally attest that X2 crack works, StarForce is far from uncrackable. The sooner they realize there is no such thing as uncrackable the better, maybe they'd go back to simple copy protections and stop pestering paying customers.
  • by Cardbox ( 165383 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @10:28AM (#10012214) Homepage
    Not true that requiring a reboot means the installer is doing something dodgy - at least, not true when you're upgrading already installed software.
    Windows (EXPLORER.EXE) regularly holds application program files open for no reason at all (I suspect it's something to do with displaying icons), so a reboot is the only way to replace an out-of-date file.
  • Re:Games List ? (Score:3, Informative)

    by gbronzer ( 650272 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @10:37AM (#10012294)
    FYI, this list is misleading. I believe they are refering only to Starforce 3 when they claim the games aren't cracked. Most of those games use an earlier version of Starforce which was not nearly as tough, or only the European version uses Starforce 3. I own Trackmania, which was cracked for version 1.0. However, the US release is 1.25 and it is yet to be cracked. It's extremely annoying because even with the CD, sometimes Starforce takes upwards of 5 minutes to validate the CD on startup. In addition, the article is correct that the cracks are much more involved. The Trackmania 1.0 crack included 100+ files that had to be replaced. What's the incentive for a cracker to crack subsequent versions when they're so involved. Personally, I think the copy protection has hurt the game's sales in the US.
  • by Rew190 ( 138940 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @11:39AM (#10013177)
    Doom 3 wouldn't let me play until I had deleted CloneCD. There might be a setting I could've just turned off, but when I first got the game (the day it came out), it wasn't clear what it was. Not cool. I uninstalled anyhow (this isn't a huge loss, just a pain in the ass), but the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @11:50AM (#10013326)
    Most large cracking groups have FAR more respect for the end user than these companies do.

    No "legit" pirate is going to risk damaging their reputation to stick some stupid trojan inside their rip of "The Sims..."

  • by ultranova ( 717540 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @11:51AM (#10013349)

    When you buy from a travel agent, you don't own the building you'll spend your weeks vacation in, nor the plane that takes you there.

    That's because the travel agent is a service provider and not a store. They don't sell me any items there; they simply agree to do something for me (namely, arrang the aeroplane seat and hotel room) in exchange for money. Software store, on the other hand, sells software on nice, shiny, oversized cardboard boxes (or nice, shiny, small and handy plastic DVD packages).

    If you walk into an insurance store...

    You mean an office of an insurance company ? Presumably I want to enter into a contract with them, in which I pay them money (usually in a monthly basis) and they pay me money in certain conditions (usually if something bad happens). Why you compare an office for signing contracts to a store that sells objects is beyond me.

    If you walk into a mobile phone store...

    I walked out with a mobile phone. It sits on my bookshelf currently. It's mine, all mine, to do with whatever I please.

    Why ? What did you expect ?

    As a side note, you shouldn't confuse the mobile phone that I bought from the mobile phone store with the contract I entered with a mobile phone service provider, which allows me to use the service providers network for a monthly fee. While I did sign the contract in the same place as I bought the phone (a matter of convenience), the two events are completely separate events.

    When you buy a computer game (or music), you are buying the physical CD, the box it came in, some assorted bits of paper inside the box, and a LICENSE to use the software (or music).

    No, I'm buying the box and everything it contains, including the physical media and whatever data it contains. Since I own said data, I don't need any license to use it in whatever way I please. The only limitation is that I can't distribute copies of it, since I'm not a copyright holder (but I can wallpaper the rooms of my own home with copies if I so wish - just as long as I don't give any away).

    Do not confuse copyright with ownership; they are not the same thing. A writer might own the copyright to a book, but that doesn't change the fact that this particular copy is mine.

    Now, there has been some typical lawyer tricks about needing a specific license to use computer programs since I'm making a temporary copy into the memory of the machine (which is absurd; if I read something, it gets copied to the back of my retinas and then to the back of my skull where the vision-related brain centers are, and presumably copied forward in some form to my thoughts, where it affacts my every action somewhat (meaning they contain some information about the book); so do I need a license to read a book ?), but, as I already said, the copyright law only forbids distribution of copies, not making of them. Furthermore, the Finnish law specifically grants me a permission to change the data I've purchased into whatever form is most convenient for me (in this case, from the packed installation files in the CD to the run-time data and code structure in the main memory).

    Oh, you were talking about the US law ? Sucks to be American ;).

  • by tenton ( 181778 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @02:23PM (#10015242)
    Are you sure about that with Call of Duty? I'm running it from an image of the original disc I made in Alcohol 120% (ie, a virtual drive). I've always run it like this.

    CoD is supposed to using SafeDisc 3 for it's copy protection.

    (I have Nero installed, as well).
  • by ImpTech ( 549794 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @03:34PM (#10016038)
    My friend had the same sort of issue. We never actually figured out what he had installed that Doom3 was objecting to (he's got a lot of crap on his computer). The solution? No-cd crack from GameCopyWorld. Will *I* be buying Doom3 based on what I had to help him through? Hell no! Its a shame, because it looks like a good game too.
  • by SillyNickName4me ( 760022 ) <> on Thursday August 19, 2004 @03:48PM (#10016204) Homepage
    > A "trojan" is not called so because it purports to be something that it's not to gain entry, as the Trojan Horse did. There are inumerable viruses that pretend to be something else, they aren't trojans. A "trojan" is called so because of what it does once inside... it let's the attackers in. A "trojan" is a computer program that, once inside, allows access (almost always via the network) to intruders

    Uh, for all I care that is called a trojan with a backdoor as payload. It is about the tactic, not about what the tactic is used for.

    ANd rreally, there have been enough trojans out there that did nothing of the sort because they existed in times before most computers were connected to any kind of network. They were programs that posed as being a usefull program while in fact they were destructive. Those have always been called, and are still called trojans. There is no remote intruder involved or even possible there.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:02PM (#10017558)
    Wizardry 3 (Legacy of Llygamn or something) diskettes
    were COPYA-able, but the copy wouldn't run because of
    timing checks. The p-code called a native 6502 routine to
    do the check and returned the status in location $00,
    which was returned to the higher-level code. Zero meant
    success. So by turning the LDA (location 0) opcode ($29)
    into a LDA (literal 0) opcode ($A9), it's cracked. Thus the
    crack instructions are: change track t, sector s, byte b,
    bit 7 from a zero to a one, and you're done!
    Can't recall t, s, and b offhand, though...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:44PM (#10017913)
    Of course...

    The TSCs don't work on VXM. That's why Pure-Stealth mode exists, because even for academic purposes, true encapsulation of a pure virtual machine requires time-domain decoupling, so the TSCs of the virtual processor are, of course, virtual, as is the actual timeline the emulated machine runs under.

    And KINDFADE in fact does a nice job of decrypting all the referenced blocks for you, although you have to make sure it does actually reference all the blocks for the driver to have used all its keys.

    If you're a good cracker, you'll have considered approaching the problem from the other direction - licensing StarForce 3 and reverse-engineering the wrapper. Or, to pose an interesting thought experiment, bypassing the whole damn thing, and stealing the source code, compiling it and releasing it.

    By the way, the wrapper uses polymorphism. There aren't many actual updates, it just selects from tables of different routines to use. That's why it looks a bit different each time. They're not new versions (mostly).

    The best approach, which I haven't actually released something based on (yet), is to use a VXC loader's stealth patches, fake out installing the driver and completely virtualise the driver and the trap hooks, feeding it the embedded timing data from the CD (just a few kilobytes). That idea really shows promise, because it would allow the creation of a generic workaround for it - not unwrapping it as such, but doing a Truman Show on it. And a program loaded with VXC will have a beauty of a time discovering that it has in fact done so, for only about 4-7% overhead, and that only for the code that actually needs complete virtualisation (i.e., only the driver - it's probably faster than the task switch!).
  • by Alsee ( 515537 ) on Thursday August 19, 2004 @06:55PM (#10018011) Homepage
    A "trojan" is not called so because it purports to be something that it's not to gain entry... A "trojan" is a computer program that, once inside, allows access (almost always via the network) to intruders.


    A peice of software which claimed to be a solitare card game but in fact contained hidden code to cause a nuclear reactor to overload and explode would be a trojan. So yes, a trojan is exactly code with hidden functionality inside.


Q: How many IBM CPU's does it take to execute a job? A: Four; three to hold it down, and one to rip its head off.