The Humans: Key Disk

Playing The Humans requires keeping the CD-ROM in the drive. Which, okay, is normal for CD-based games. It just stands out for me at this moment because it’s the first game I’ve played this year that has such a requirement.

Although I played the prior games from CD-ROM packages, these were after-the-fact compilations of games originally released on floppy disks. For the earlier ones, there was even a reasonable expectation that they would be played from floppies — in 1986, hard drives were optional. Wizardry and Might and Magic were entirely built around the floppy paradigm, prompting the player to insert the character disk and whatnot; their anthologizers had to rework them somewhat to make them playable from hard drives.

Now, if I’m not mistaken, The Humans was released on both floppies and CD-ROM. Certainly there’s nothing on the CD that couldn’t have been put on floppies — no voice acting or FMV or other enhancements. (Remember “CD-ROM Enhanced”?) And since its installer copies the game files fully to the hard drive (which was no longer optional by 1992), there’s no technical reason why it needs the CD in the drive. It’s purely a matter of copy protection. And it’s copy protection that basically doesn’t work any more. The emulator that I’m using to play the game at all is quite willing to mount an ISO image and treat it as a CD-ROM, and even if it weren’t, copying a CD is child’s play. But back then? What, you have a CD burner in your house? What are you, Bertelsmann Music Group or something?

Copy protection has sort of gone in waves. Early games were effectively “key disk” games simply because they tended to be self-booting floppies that didn’t use a conventional filesystem, but this more or less ended with the rise of hard drives and subsequent player demands that games be playable from them. So instead you got “key word” systems, as we saw in the Gold Box games with their code wheels, but this is an inconvenience for the player, and relatively easy to hack out. (In any key word system, there’s got to be a point in the code where it compares your input to what it’s expecting and decides whether to bail or not. Find and remove that conditional jump and you’re golden.) Then came the CD-ROM, and key disk was suddenly practical again. But now, games tend to come without any disk at all. In the age of digital distribution, copy protection — or DRM, as the kids call it these days — becomes networked as well. I imagine the pendulum will swing back to key disk at some point, but it’s far too early to say how.

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