Posted by: talkjack | July 19, 2008

Is DRM killing PC games? (Part 2 – Starforce)

In the second part of my investigation into the affect that DRM is having on PC gaming, I take a look at StarForce, one of the big DRM systems used with PC software. The official StarForce website boasts of ‘hundreds of millions of protected copies’, ‘guaranteeing high reliability’ and ‘technologically perfect products’.  Let’s examine these latter two claims, and in doing so call upon my personal experience with StarForce and upon feedback from end users.

What brought StarForce to my attention?

I first became aware of StarForce a few years ago, when my old PC developed a technical fault. The fault was unusual, and took a lot of effort to resolve. My computer would intermittently fail to detect the presence of the CD drive in Windows. It would always find it at the boot screen and in the BIOS, but randomly Windows would not show the D drive, meaning that I could not use the PC.

An odd problem! The BIOS always detected the CD drive on boot up, but Windows would sometimes be unable to recognise it. Opening up the case and refitting the cables etc. made no difference. Rebooting Windows once or twice in a row would fix the problem, but it came back again and again, every few days. Very annoying, and wasted a lot of my time. I tried everything to fix the problem, and was on the verge of wiping my computer and doing a full reinstallation of Windows. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon some online information about StarForce DRM.

The online information explained what StarForce was, how to see if StarForce is installed on your PC and more importantly, how to remove it. I followed the instructions and found to my surprise that StarForce was installed on my PC without my knowledge. I followed the instructions for manually removing StarForce. I rebooted. The CD fault never came back after I uninstalled StarForce, ever again. I suppose this could be a coincidence, but what do you think?

How did StarForce get on my PC in the first place?

Well, I never did find out which game first installed StarForce. I have purchased a lot of PC games over the years, and have subsequently discovered that some of the come with StarForce. I can say for certain however that:

  1. I have never taken a conscious decision to install StarForce on my PC.
  2. I have never noticed a StarForce logo prominently displayed on the packaging of a game.
  3. At the time of purchase I have never been aware that StarForce was included with a game.
  4. There was no Uninstall option in Windows Control Panel to cleanly remove StarForce.
  5. I have never been aware that a StarForce setup program was running on Windows; it has always installed covertly. The only exception to this is when I was forced to manually download a StarForce update in a futile attempt to get Spellforce 2: Shadow Wars DRM to work – see below for more information.

Later support problems

Sometime later I was asked to fix another computer in order to get a child’s game to work on a family PC. I get this sort of thing a lot because people think I am ‘good with computers’. I must be a sucker for a compliment. I took a look at the machine, and found that the game had StarForce protection.  I did some more research. I found some home DVD editing software on the machine. I think it was called DVD Lab, but it has been a few years so forgive my memory. Anyway, the point is that it was perfectly legal home DVD authoring software and not PC game or DVD copying software.

I emailed the company support address and waited a few days for an answer. The problem turned out to be this. The DVD authoring software had used something called a VSO driver I read online that VSO is an alternative to Adaptec’s ASPI driver for talking to the DVD drive. This seems fair and reasonable. The problem turned out to be that StarForce identified that a VSO driver was installed on the machine, and blocked the game from running.

Why on earth did StarForce do this, I wondered? I did some googling and found out that some DVD copying software such as Blindwrite also used a VSO driver. So in effect this was a false positive on the part of StarForce, which decided to block the gamer from playing the game they had purchased because it detected a driver on the machine which had the potential for being used for piracy. The truth is that no piracy was involved, but the game would not work anyway.

A solution was offered by tech support. Go into Windows Device Manager, select the option to display hidden Windows devices, and disable the VSO driver. I did this, it worked. StarForce DRM no longer blocked the game, which then ran OK.

Of course the DVD authoring software no longer worked. It turned out this solution was unacceptable, so the game was returned to the shop and exchanged for a different game that the kids wanted. Effectively StarForce DRM cost a sale on this occasion, and wasted my time.

A lesson learned

I made the mistake of buying Spellforce 2 as a Christmas present. I really regret this. I wasted two evenings trying and failing to get this to work. JoWood tech support did not respond to any of my support questions in trying to make the game start.

Had I known that the game used StarForce DRM I would have chosen a different game, due to my past experiences. Again, the StarForce DRM software had been installed covertly on the PC. There was no DRM information supplied on the packaging. I really do think that the DRM system included should be listed alongside the other info in the technical details section on PC games packaging for all games.

I installed the Spellforce 2, but it refused to start and kept insisting that I insert the disk into the drive. The disk was inserted, but the game still did not work. The DRM software failed to recognise that the original game disk was in the drive. No amount of reinstalling would do the trick. Of course there were no piracy tools on the PC, but from past experience I looked for VSO drivers regardless, and found none.

The only support I could find at the time was on the game forums. It seemed I was that I was not alone; other people had the same problem. The only practical information I could find was that I had to download and install a StarForce update in order to make the game compatible with more machines. I tried this, it still did not work. I gave it several attempts but I could not get the game to recognise that the disk was in the drive, despite the StarForce update.

In the end I received no personal support whatsoever from JoWood. The Christmas present was totally wasted, all due to a DRM system that refused to let the customer play a game. After two ruined evenings trying to update StarForce so that it would allow the game to run, I gave up, dismayed. Admittedly I later found a website called GameCopyWorld which contains all manner of patches to let people play their game without a CD in the drive, but I am not sure of the legality of this in the UK. To this day Spellforce2 sits on a shelf in its original packaging, unplayed and gathering dust. What a waste of my money, all due to a DRM error.

From my experiences with StarForce I learned a valuable lesson. To this day I have learned never to impulse buy PC games again, but to check the DRM system online before deciding to purchase a PC game. If I see that StarForce is included with a game then I choose not to make a purchase. Despite the official StarForce website using phrases like, ‘guaranteeing high reliability’ and ‘technologically perfect products’, I prefer to use my own judgement based on personal experience with this product.

I have suffered so much nuisance at the hands of StarForce DRM that I prefer to avoid the product. After all, it’s my money I’m spending. I just wish PC games companies were more honest on their packaging so that honest customers can make an informed decision at the time of purchase.

Other gamers’ reactions to StarForce

So much for my personal stress with this product, what about other people’s experience with StarForce?
Well, it would seem I am far from alone in suffering stress caused by StarForce. Here is a list of relevant websites.

Please note, I am not affiliated with any of the following sites, we can only judge for ourselves whether they are accurate or reliable. However, there does seem to be some consistency between these sites and other online resources. I have just picked out a few to highlight. As always, I encourage you to form your own opinion. Do you think StarForce DRM is benign to gamers?

http://www.onlinesecurity-on.com/
An official removal tool to take StarForce off your computer.  If you scroll past all the unhelpful rhetoric criticising other companies drive emulation products, there is a link to an official download for the removal tool buried near the end of the page. I wish this tool had been available when I first had to uninstall StarForce while fixing PCs all those years ago.

Seems like an odd technique for software though – to fail to uninstall the DRM when you uninstall the game it came with. To fail to provide an uninstall option in Windows control panel. To put an uninstaller online for download, but on a different website and not on the StarForce official support pages. In my opinion there is scope here for StarForce to be more helpful to game buying customers.

Actually, think about that for a minute. From the perspective of StarForce the company, members of the public are not paying customers are they? I think they are actually end users. The ‘paying customers’ would be big software companies who license StarForce DRM to protect their games. Am I right? If so, who then is actually responsible for paying for the provision of support to PC gamers?

http://www.glop.org/starforce/

I stumbled upon a public ‘Boycott StarForce’ campaign!  Wow, it looks like I am far from alone at having experienced problems with StarForce. There are allegations of StarForce damaging CDs and  DVDs – both the media and the drives. Some people are complaining that having StarForce installed on their PC caused their DVD writers to malfunction (they use the phrase ‘irreversible hardware failures’).

There is even a movie recording of a PC being forcibly restarted in the middle of a game, allegedly due to the StarForce DRM software.

Something that might prove useful is the page showing how to detect whether your PC has had StarForce installed without your knowledge. If you have had problems with your PC then it might be worth checking.

http://www.cdfreaks.com/news/Starforce-enforces-DRM-by-instant-reboot-without-warning.html
Well worth a look. Provides some information about what StarForce is programmed to do to your PC. It might explain the video on www.glop.org showing a PC rebooting itself in the middle of a game.
Just a thought.. In my experience Windows PCs have a shutdown routine to ensure that all data is saved and Windows closes in a clean fashion. This avoids data loss and the possibility of file corruption on the hard disk. I would be distressed if a DRM system made my PC repeatedly reset in the way shown on the video; it seems to me to be potentially damaging.
Several of the published comments on this StarForce related page are worth a read, such as shaolin007 quoting a definition of a computer virus, or dvdfaetter reporting serious technical problems with his PC which he thinks may be related to StarForce.

http://wiki.boycottstarforce.net/index.php/Game_list
A list of games which use StarForce DRM. If you have found StarForce on your PC and are wondering where it came from, this list may help.

From browsing online forums and other web sources, I found several mentions of the StarForce games list. It seems as though PC game buyers are checking the list before purchasing a game. Reassuring that I am not alone in my buying preferences!

http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20060313-6365.html
The publishers of Galactic Civilizations II had decided not to impose a DRM system on their customers, and released the game accordingly. Reports have it that the game sold very well indeed, and generated a lot of good will from customers. It seems this provoked a reaction from StarForce.

Check out the final paragraph of the ars technica article. This refers to a news story that you can read about elsewhere too.  It says that StarForce published on their own website forum a working link to download a pirated version of Galactic Civilizations II, via torrents. Thereby encouraging and facilitating piracy of the game because it did not use the StarForce DRM system. Shocking!

http://www.boingboing.net/2006/01/30/anticopying-malware-.html and
http://www.boingboing.net/2006/01/31/starforce-threatens-.html
First  the a short web article provides a screenshot showing hidden StarForce drivers installed on a PC, and information about the behaviour of StarForce. There is some encouragement for  people to join the boycott, and the blog has been given a provocative headline.

In response to this article, it says that the PR Manager from StarForce wrote back with an email that is very enlightening. The site published the email in January 2006. Would you feel intimidated to receive an email such as this? Please take a look and judge for yourself. I have no idea whether or not Cory Doctorow’s article does violate approx eleven un-named international laws as stated, but the response from StarForce is very clear: their company’s corporate lawyer is going after this guy because of what he said. Oh, and the email said that the FBI will also be involved.

If you have read some of my other articles, you may have seen my definition of bullying: the act of intimidating others, especially weaker people.  I must confess to feeling somewhat intimidated when writing online about my own honest experiences with StarForce, in the light what I read in Cory Doctorow’s article. According to http://gamepolitics.livejournal.com/193154.html  other people have received similar correspondence from StarForce.

Conclusion

Let’s wrap up part two of my investigation into affect of DRM on computer games, ‘Is DRM killing PC games?’ Well done if you made it this far!

I have recounted my own personal experiences with StarForce, and looked briefly at reports from other people. You can read these accounts online for yourself.

I had never taken issue with older copy protection schemes on computer games. From the annoying Lenslok that came with Elite on the Spectrum, the colour coded card from Jet Set Willy, the spinning Code wheels that came with Pool Of Radiance, even the occasional ‘now type in the word found on page x of the manual’ type of protection on the Amiga and PC. These were minor inconveniences, and as a paying customer I tolerated them because I understood the need to protect the company’s revenue from piracy.

On the Amiga and on the PC I was dimly aware that games were using copy protection techniques such as formatting floppy disks and CDs in unusual ways. These never noticeably interfered with my computer, and I blissfully ignored them and played the games I had purchased.

When StarForce DRM came out though, things changed. I only noticed these changes when I encountered computer problems which coincided with StarForce.

  1. I found that this DRM system was invasively making changes to the way my computer worked, by installing hidden files and drivers which affected the way Windows and other applications run.
  2. I became annoyed when a game required administrator privileges on my PC in order to secretly install a DRM system without my permission.
  3. I began to suspect that the DRM system was leaving some aspects of its software running constantly on the PC in the form of drivers. I lacked sufficient technical knowledge to be certain of this, but I could certainly see hidden device drivers visible in Windows when I looked for them.
  4. I realised that the DRM system was being left behind on the computer even when the game itself was removed, a practice I find unacceptable.
  5. I found out that DRM software was now spying on what other software was installed on a PC, and then refusing to allow a purchased game to work. Even though there was no attempt at piracy. As a paying customer I find it unacceptable that a game does not work because of this invasive DRM practice.
    I found myself wasting hours of my time delving into the workings of hidden Windows drivers, system files and new registry keys that I previously new nothing about in order to get games to work.
  6. I found myself for the first time being unable to get a game that I had paid for to even start.
  7. I found myself for the first time having to download and install software updates to the DRM system itself in the hope that it would fix the game.
  8. I found I had wasted time and money due to DRM when all I wanted to do was play games I had legally purchased.
  9. I found that I wanted to avoid buying games which used StarForce DRM because of the risks to a computer costing hundreds of pounds, for the sake of installing a DRM system protecting a game worth a tiny fraction of that amount.

Therefore I found that my game buying habits had been changed by DRM such as StarForce, and from what I have read online, I am far from alone! People are saying ‘DRM is killing PC games’.  Well, I conclude that if DRM is changing people’s game buying habits, then there might be something to this complaint.

I will continue my report on DRM in computer games in Part three of ‘Is DRM killing PC games?’ coming soon, when I shall look more closely at another widely used DRM system called Securom.

(c) Copyright Talkjack 2009

See also:

Is DRM killing PC games? (part one – The DRM Charter)

Is DRM killing PC games? (part three- Securom)

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Responses

  1. Can you tell me who did your layout? I’ve been looking for one kind of like yours. Thank you.

    Talkjack’s reply: Sure, no problem. I am currently using one of the standard WordPress design layouts, called ‘Contempt’ by Michael Heilemann. Its description is listed as ‘A more professional version of Kubrick, sporting hard lines and 2-columns.’.

    I picked this design scheme because I think it looks fairly tidy, which is especially important to me given that I tend to write overly long blogs. Shame about the scheme’s name though! I do like the colour scheme, and also the right hand column. After some trial and error on the WordPress design screen I managed to get the right hand column to show show the blog navigation controls and links in a way I liked. …Talkjack

  2. excellent post mate…

    http://www.glop.org/starforce/ is NOT updated at all.

    I bought Wings of Prey after looking on that list and that game does have starforce.

    The issue of the CD rom not appearing struck an old memory from the Win98 days when it appears i had teh same issue. I did not connect the dots until i read this. Just a few months prior to installing XP in 2001-02 i rem lots of instances where my CD rom would not appear or would be waiting to appear when you click on my computer.

    Starforce is one evil biatch. I read that if any reading errors happen it would slow down your IDE drives to a crawl. I also had this problem that would go away once i loaded the OS froms cratch. That had to be a starforce issue since the game in question, silent hunter 3, had SF on it.

    I hate any sort of DRM and have also made one too many impulse buys this weekend with Dragons age awakening ultimate pack. It supposed to come with all the DLC authorized but i could not get the damn thing to authorize at all. 18 hours i tried over three days to get this crappy piece to work. This is also another form of DRM or content protection where you are forced to authenticate legally owned software.

    I am going to seriously check out new games because Wings of Prey had starforce on it without anything on teh package to warn people. So now i will just ask the developers if they are using it. IF they use it will say thanks…but no thanks.

    I hate starforce. And the funny things is that most games that have DRM end up getting hacked into anyway since most of the serious code monkeys see thsi as nothing but a challenge. The honest buyer gets screwed with sub-standard and damaging, limiting, software with no warning or mention of what they are installing.


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