A Broad Spectrum of DRM

by Cybermouse

In my years as a computer user, I've seen quite a wide spectrum of DRM, or digital rights management.

I will not be discussing music DRM, as I've not had much experience with it, and the way it is accomplished is fundamentally different than how software DRM is handled.  Typically, software DRM is either embedded as part of the software itself, or as a wrapper that also functions as a sort of management system for distributors, such as Big Fish Games.  Regardless of how it is accomplished, DRM seeks to limit the user's ability to play the game or use the software if the user has not yet purchased it.  There is quite a variety of restrictions that DRM can impose, such as time limits, functionality limits, game play limits, the addition of advertising, or otherwise a general dilution of the program's usefulness.

You may recall the video game Spore, which not only took the trophy for the most obnoxious DRM ever designed, but consequently also became the most pirated game in history.  I can't think of anything that better illustrates the complete failure of DRM.  The pirated version of Spore is far easier to install and appallingly runs better too.  The real annoyance is that even if you own a legit copy of Spore, playing the pirated version instead to avoid the DRM is still considered software piracy.  This marks one end of the DRM spectrum.

Fortunately, most software companies have the good sense to use DRM in moderation.  Any more is a waste of resources and time.  These days, it's simply naive to have invincible DRM as your goal.  Someone, somewhere, will eventually crack it, and steal your money.  Spore had, admittedly, one of the "best" DRM solutions of its time.  That didn't make it invincible; in fact, the more difficult a challenge, the more tantalizing the reward, even just psychologically.  As good hackmanship goes, it's not about playing a game for free, or even getting back at a company that may have its priorities somewhat amiss.  It's about the challenge itself, pure and simple.  It's a big combination lock, and for any true hacker, that's an irresistible chance to prove and hone one's skills even further.

For some time I have been acquainted with the wonderful company Alawar Games.  While most of their games are comparable to the average match-3 or hidden object game, usually with better graphics and less interesting game play, there are a few definitely worth your time and/or money.  However, I wasn't going to let them off the hook that easily.  I decided to call their bluff on the supposed one-hour free trial game play DRM ubiquitous to all their games.  I guessed correctly that, like many smaller game companies, Alawar's DRM relies on the user's ignorance of their computer, or in this case, the Windows registry, for its security.  To a software developer such as myself, that wasn't very secure at all.

I easily found the appropriate entry in the registry, named, conspicuously enough, Alawar.  So I deleted one of its sub-keys, after changing various entries without any luck.  Now when I restarted the game, the DRM wrapper saw no folder there and thought that the game hadn't been installed, restoring the game play time back to a full hour.  Bingo!

Now that I had discovered the secret, I pushed the envelope a bit farther by deleting the entire Alawar key.  Voilà!  All of the Alawar games I had installed reset their time back to an hour.  I then created a registry script to delete this key, and a batch file which silently invokes said registry script, effectively resetting all timed trials for all Alawar demos back to the full hour with only a double-click (and several annoying dialogues, if you're using Windows 7).

The files are simple.

In ResetTime.reg:

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

In ResetTime.bat:

@regedit.exe /s ResetTime.reg

Even after discovering this, I was still shocked that essentially three lines of script, using nothing more than Notepad, was all it took to render the DRM useless.  While I don't advocate use of DRM, I would advise any game developers who are dead-set on using it to make theirs a tad more of a challenge than this!

I should mention at this point that I don't recommend actually abusing this to play through Alawar Games' great products for free.  As they offer you an hour for free without any other restrictions, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better experience with any demo product, DRM or not.

Until next time, keep on hackin'!