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A few months ago, Ubisoft, embarked on a quest to develop a new proprietary digital rights management system designed to protect their intellectual property from the rampant piracy activities that traditionally plague the PC gaming market. The new system will be unlike anything ever tested before and they claim it will bring about a new era in DRM.

Piracy has always been the bane of computer software. Ever since the early days when software is distributed in the form of diskettes, there have been many schemes devised to try and defeat the pirates. It started off with cards that you have to consult in order to get the correct password to input into the game/software when you start it and evolved into CD-checking mechanisms that will only allow a game to run if the proper legitimate disc is detected in the CD-ROM drive.

Every step of the way, pirates have cracked all these schemes, sometimes with embarrassing speed. It seems that nothing could really work.

That’s when Ubisoft decided that based on the proliferation of high speed Internet, a new DRM should be developed to take advantage of this fact. They released the first ever game, Assassin’s Creed II, to feature their new overhauled DRM protection scheme which requires players to stay connected on the Internet in order to play the game.

The system is little more than a challenge-response protection, albeit with an online component which makes it harder for pirates to crack. The way this works is, at key points of the game, it will send out a challenge to a Ubisoft server which then replies with a key. If this key passes the game’s check, you are allowed to continue. Otherwise, the screen will blank out and you can’t play the game.

When pirates discovered how the system worked, they quickly got around to creating a Server Emulator designed to intercept requests made by the game and redirect it to a ‘dummy’ server installed on the computer. However, without the proper challenge-response keys, the game remains uncracked.

The next stage was to get the keys. The pirates enlisted help from people who bought original copies of the game to run a little app that monitors the challenge-response requests to and from the game and capture the matching keys. Eventually, legitimate users of Assassin’s Creed II users managed to capture some 1700 keys necessary for the game to be completed in a few weeks.

Even more damning, a month after the debut of this new ‘persistent online DRM’, SKIDROW, a popular cracking group, has finally cracked the game and disabled the entire copy protection mechanism allowing you to play the game without having to mess around with a server emulator and getting the proper keys to unlock the game.

The ball is back into Ubisoft’s court as to how they will proceed with this now neutered system. However the victims are still legitimate owners of theĀ  game who are forced to jump through hoops in order to play their games while pirates continue to enjoy their games without having obtrusive and obnoxious DRM forced down their throats. Admittedly, intellectual property owners reserve a right to protect their properties, but it seems that there is no easy way to do it without inconveniencing legitimate owners of the game. The game of cat and mouse continues…