Friday, May 13, 2011

The Final Answer For What To Do To Prevent Piracy

(For some reason, Blogger deleted this post. I have recreated it. Sorry for any comments that were lost.)

This article is my decisive statement on how developers should deal with pirates. It includes humorous anecdotes about how dumb I have been in the past. And, believe me, I've been pretty dumb.

I am very confident about what I have to say on the subject. I have used these guidelines for protecting our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress. So I'm not just putting my money where my mouth is, I'm putting all my money. If I'm wrong, my kids don't eat. So I hope I'm right.

One of the most common questions fledgling developers ask me is how they should protect their games from pirates. My answer is, generally, "The minimum amount you can get away with." That is because I have learned never to forget the following guideline ...

Whenever you find yourself starting a sentence with, "I don't want people to pirate my game, so I am going to ..." you are very close to making a big mistake.

I really, truly believe this rule. Here are two examples of times when I have forgotten it, and the grim consequences.

Trying To Protect My Hint Books

From the very beginning, I have sold hint books for my games. People like them, and they are easy money. When I started, in 1994, there was no convenient format like pdf for online file delivery, so I had to print and mail actual books. This cost lots of money and boxes of hint books took up tons of space in my house.

Then pdf files happened and people started to request that I send the book in electronic form instead of making them wait a week for the post office to do whatever it does. I refused  this reasonable request for two reasons. First, I was afraid people would buy the pdf version and send it to their friends. Second, I didn't know how to create a download link for the file that couldn't then be e-mailed around to everyone in the world. So I kept spending money and precious storage space for the booklets, inconveniencing my paying customers as I did so.

Finally, three years ago, I got fed up with it. I made hint books available as downloadable pdf files. (People who want a printed version can get one for an extra two bucks, but they almost never do.)

But how did I secure the download link so it couldn't be shared? Here's the brilliant part. Ready? I just put it in with all of our other files. Anyone can download it. Anyone who knows how to use ftp can find it. When people order the hint book, I send them the download link, but they could have found the file for themselves if they looked around.

But here's the thing. Anyone who wants to pirate pretty much any PC game can do so easily. That means all of my orders are from honest, nice people. So why waste our time figuring out how to hide the hint book from them? They will pay for it because they know selling things is how I stay in business and make more games for them!

Here's the punch line. Want to know how switching to undefended pdf files affected sales of hint books? It didn't. The sales rate was practically unchanged. Know what that means? All those years humping around boxes of hint books, all those thousands of dollars sent to printers, all those slaughtered trees, all wasted. All because I was scared of people pirating my lousy hint book.

But there is a more gruesome example of my foolishness.

The Worst Registration System Ever Devised By the Hand of Man

In 1994, electronic distribution of demos was very much in its infancy. My plan was to release a demo with a small fraction of the game. Then, when the correct key was entered into the game, it would unlock and everything would be playable. A sound plan. The problem was the implementation.

At first, I thought I'd just generate a key when someone ordered and send it to them. But then I thought, hey, I don't want people to pirate my  game. If I just send them a key, they can make it public or send it to all their friends. So here is my brilliant idea. I will ... will ...

God. It hurts to even think about it.

Here's what I did. When you ran the game, it generated a random code, a 4 or 5 digit number. When you ordered, you had to provide that number. I would use it to generate a key specific to your copy of the game. I'd send you that key, you'd enter it, and the whole game would be unlocked.

So what does this mean? First, when you tried to order a game, you had to have this number with you. Did you realize you needed it? Probably not. So you'd be at our online store trying to give us money, only to have to leave to dig up some stupid number. Want a tip for running an online business? When a customer is at your web page, credit card out and in hand, do not give them a reason to leave!

The system was confusing, and this wasn't helped by the fact that we were the only ones ever to use it. Oh, if only we could have back the countless hours spent explaining the system to confused parents. Countless more hours making new registration keys for people who switched computers or had to reinstall their OS. The weird system made us look unprofessional at best, deranged at worst. And, as a special bonus, it did exactly zero to stop people from pirating our game. Name a way to crack our registration system, and people did it a hundred times.

We stuck by this system for fifteen years. Might as well have just made a big pile of money and set it on fire. At least we would have gotten the warmth.

A year ago, I finally got fed up. New system. When you order our newest game, Avadon: The Black Fortress, we send you a serial code. Enter it, and you're up and running. Buy the game for the Mac and want to play it on Windows too? Enter the same key. Want to register your copy again ten years from now? Use the same key.

And the result of switching to a slightly less secure, infinitely easier to use system? Sales of Avadon are the highest of any game we've put out in years.

Just Do the Minimum

You need some way to force people to pay. Not because they are evil or dishonest, but because they procrastinate. Registration is a pain. They'd rather be spending their time playing your game! If you don't do anything at all to make them pay, they'll just forget.

But tread lightly. Once you have any barrier in place at all, you'll get your payment from all the honest people, the people who know that, if nobody pays, you won't make more awesome games for them. Anything beyond that will inconvenience your paying customers and do little to nothing to prevent piracy.

It took a long time for me to learn this. Too long. And, whenever I start to forget, I look at the monolith of boxes of old hint books gathering dust in my garage. If you're an Indie developer, be nice to people. In the end, the ability to be nice is one of the best weapons you have.


  1. Hey, Jeff, what do you think of my review of Avadon on your other post?

  2. Jeff, if I were you, I wouldn't disclose the hintbook/FTP thing... Most people don't know, I guess you should keep that way...

  3. I pretty much bought the hintbook just to prove that point;)

    It more or less works as a kind of user-friendly market segmentation for those of us who don't mind paying a bit more for the game without making expensive for them who can't. Hope this new tactic ends up paying off for you.

    Suppose I should maybe read the thing at some point, but first play-through I'm going in blind!

  4. I like the printed Hint Books, don't do away with them. I'll pay a premium.

  5. @Angelo: That's part of my point. Even if people know, I don't think it'll make much of a difference.

    @Rakden: We will continue to get small runs of printed hintbooks, so don't worry!

    @Nate H: Thank you for the review! Very kind.

    - Jeff Vogel

  6. @Jeff: Don't mention it. I am just trying to start up my blog.

  7. It seems like this is becoming a consensus of the indie developers and indie-friendly commentators I've followed. Which makes me happy, because if I manage to get a game out, I'd rather not spend time on a complicated DRM scheme and angry customers who don't like it.

  8. BTW, thanks for answering a question I had - I was contemplating buying Avadon, or at least downloading the demo to check it out, but I'm probably going to buy an ipad 2 fairly soon to play around with, so not knowing that the registration codes were cross-platform I was actually holding out, since testing the ipad as a gaming platform is one of the reasons I'm buying it. Is this on the website anywhere? I quickly looked and didn't find it.

  9. @Skip: The registration codes are cross-platform between Mac and Windows, but NOT iPad. IPad games have to be sold through Apple's own private system, and I can't affect it.

    - Jeff Vogel

  10. Hey Jeff, just a silly little thing: maybe it's just me, but I'm just installing the Avadon demo and the button in the installation program says "Finis". I think it did that in the Avernum 6 setup too.

  11. Star Ruler has no DRM and has netted us over 20,000 units at about 12 dollars a unit in profit with relatively small amounts of advertising. Lots of our customers have complimented that our game has no DRM [in fact some have outright said they were buying it to support that policy] and that we don't "follow the template" (no splash screens, a shortcut switch which launches straight into the game, an automatic patching system built into the game, etc.)

    In our opinion and experience: DRM will never be a cost-effective prevention mechanism -- only a weak deterrent. Your paying customers are the only ones to potentially lose out. I have many games I can't play because I lost the CD-keys to them; a real shame because I really enjoyed them.

    I think you took a tremendous step in the right direction, Jeff. I hope your customers are writing in to say the same thing!

    - "Firgof", Blind Mind Studios

  12. @Ryszard 'Finis' is a synonym for 'finished' - type "define: finis" in google for other uses.

    Jeff - This was really interesting to read. I didn't mind the random code generation from the older games, it was creative. Although I'm a software developer, so I can see how confusing it may be for non-gamer, non-computer-savvy parents. And it's easy to see how it cost everyone time, I reinstalled one of the games once, and had to email to request a new code.

    p.s. I cannot wait for the ipad version. I stopped playing the mac version as soon as I heard there was an ipad version coming out. I want to experience all the unexplored areas on the ipad!

  13. Hi Jeff,

    Unfortunately, there is not much you can do against piracy :-(

    We have released our game month ago and on the very first day, there was request for crack posted on pirate forum.
    Two days ago we have received a support request from guy using cracked version.
    More details there:
    (I hope you don't mind the link)

    What can you do if mere 12 USD (we had -50% off price promotion for the first two weeks) is still too much for some people?
    (the guy mentioned above was from western EU, so it's not being-too-poor problem)


  14. Actually, it's not out of altruism or any desire to "see you keep making games". In the end it comes down to convenience, because people are lazy.

    Most people don't want to spend the time searching online to find some ftp site that might contain a copy of your hint book. Most people don't want to go to a serialz site and grab a keygen that for all they know contains a trojan. Most people, in fact, don't even know how to unzip and run a keygen!

    So what are you actually selling them? CONVENIENCE!
    That's why the apple store is so successful. You enter your credit card ONCE. Then when you want a game you click "buy" and it magically appears on your phone, ready to use.

    So yes, you are right to go for the minimum security, because in the end it comes down to what distribution path is the most convenient to the customer. Napster was incredibly popular because it was convenient. Now it has been supplanted by pay systems, and guess what? People pay because it's even MORE convenient, and they trust the quality of the brand.

    Piracy only flourishes outside the h4x0r community when you add senseless restrictions that punish the people who pay (or charge exorbitant prices like Adobe). And the h4x0r community never was, and never will be, your customer.

  15. Les, in my experience, chances are good that person wasn't going to pay for the game anyway. Any additional DRM or security or price reduction or whatever would just reduce your income rather than increase it.

  16. I bought all your games last year. All of them. And I've got to say you're right that when I got to the store page and saw that box to enter the keys that my computer was supposed to generated, it made me pause in my purchase. I knew I wanted to play the games both on my desktop and my laptop, and didn't know whether or not it would be a huge pain. So I put off my purchase until after asking on the forums and getting an answer from some of your fans there. Luckily, they answered that I'd be just fine when the CD arrived, and I went ahead with my purchase!

  17. @steeeeeeeve
    This is not money thing - we created game just for fun of creating it.
    Sales exceed our expectations already few times, but we will still get much more income doing some extra work for business (we are dev-professionals).

    > chances are good that person wasn't going to pay for the game anyway
    Well, he paid eventually :-)
    (sending mail with your name in it it's not the brightest idea if you are requesting support for pirated copy)

    It's about mindset "I have pirated your game and I am still requesting support". It's just mean!

    It this situation I am not longer blaming Ubisoft for their online-checks (but I will not implement anything like that ever!).

    I guess I am still angry :-)
    Don't worry - I will get over it sooner or later ;-)


  18. Actually paper books are quite nice. You can touch them, smell the fresh scent of the paper, skimp through them with your fingers ... things that you can't do with an eBook.

    Yes eBooks are much more convenient to produce and maintain but real books have something, a hardware value! I'd always prefer to read from a book held in my hand than reading a book from a light panel.

  19. Love this post. Trust is the foundation not just of honest business, but also of the government and the economy. Expecting theft is living your life as if it were "Beyond Thunderdome."

    There are only two exceptions I would make to default-trust:

    1. Getting involved in risky situations or hanging out with shady characters. You're only as strong as your weakest friend.

    2. When someone tries to turn the system against you in order to steal something big - e.g. the IP of the game and not just a copy.

    Both of those can leave you in ruins, and it's hard to spot since those situations are usually entangled with the thief in question promising a big payout of some kind.

  20. Easy wins over free wins over piracy wins over complex. Damned right.

  21. Countless more hours making new registration keys for people who switched computers or had to reinstall their OS.

    I resemble this remark. I lost a few SpiderWeb registrations in the switch from OS 9 to OS X.

  22. @keely
    > Easy wins over free wins over piracy wins
    > over complex. Damned right.

    So you are saying we should all develop farmvilles/rewardvilles/nobrainvilles? ;-)

  23. Another point, I might offer, I admit the first time with Blades of Avernum, I cracked it. After VotDT, I didn't particularly feel it worth the amount charged. After cracking it and playing the other scenarios, on the other hand, I actually found that I liked it more and decided to pay for it. A lot of people pirate games to see what they're like before paying. Demos will never do a game justice, and people like to make sure they're getting what they pay for. A large percentage of Pirates end up buying the game, it's just that big groups like the record companies and famous public figures like Jean Simmons make us out to be the devil incarnate and thieves.

  24. Could you compile some linux bin's for your games or ensure they work under wine?

  25. These are good technique to stop pirates.Yeah i too believe that there are so many honest people to buy the games.If people don't buy the games we can't expect next version of the game and new game.But what ever we do to prevent pirates we can't successful some times.Some times people use pirated version after there might be possible to buy genuine version..

  26. @nikhil: All of our games should run under WINE.

    - Jeff Vogel

  27. @Jeff: make your paper hint book print-on-demand!

  28. Do you worry though that people paid for you hint book only to find out they could have gotten it for free? Personally that doesn't bother me because I would rather see more games from you and support that. I have done that with many indie developers. But I know some people have this sick sense of fairness.

  29. Hey Jeff,

    I'll be honest with you: I pirated all your games. Or rather, I have the whole Exile, Avernum and Geneforge series sitting somewhere on my hard drive.

    For some reason I can never bring myself to play demos (probably because pirated games or those 1-5$ *full* games on Steam are more attractive), so I guess you can actually "thank" piracy for my interest in Avernum 1. I played through one-third of the game, and even though the interface and especially the journal are a pain in the butt, I love the universe and writing.

    I do intend to send some money your way at some point (been doing that for most games I enjoyed), but right now 25$ is way too expensive for a single game. With my current means as a student, I don't buy games above 7.50$. And that's usually for exceptional, triple-A games released one or two years ago, that happen to be on a 75% sale on Steam.

    So if you'd rather get some money now from people in my situation, I suggest you either set up a "donation" or "pirate redemption" button, or sell some symbolic item like a wallpaper for 5$ on your store. Just allow us to comment that it's to thank you for a specific game, so you don't get the impression that people really want to pay 5$ for a wallpaper :P .

    Another idea would be to participate in a Humble Indie Bundle with some of your older games. The guys organizing those seem very helpful. It worked well for Frozenbyte software, and it'll help you get known.

    You could also try and sell your games through your games have a distinct classic/"good old game" feeling to them, and they might find a receptive audience there. Plus, people there are willing to spend 6-10$ on an old game they usually already owned.

    I wish you all the best, and I hope I can find a way of expressing my gratitude soon... within my limited (not for long, hopefully) financial means.

  30. @Jeff

    Blogger crashed and went down for about 24 hours. The same happened to me. I managed to review brink:

    Good thing it never got deleted. I think your post should automaticlly come back.

  31. I didn't even know your old games had this kind of "ties to your PC" stuff on them. I just got interested in your games due to Avadon hype and I decided Geneforge was the series for me, but I don't know about buying it now.

    Do the CD versions do this?

  32. I like the printed hint books, don't stop making them. I'll pay a premium.

  33. @nowinstalling The CD versions are preregistered. Prior to Avadon I've always gotten the games on disk so I can install to my hearts content as I bob from computer to computer.

  34. @nowinstalling: Jeff makes getting another key for his older games painless. A simple email to Jeff with the new code (and the name & address that you registered under) is all that it takes. The turnaround is almost always less than 24 hours. I've done this many times. New computer, crashed computer, second OS, family member wants to play: Jeff doesn't care and gives service with a smile.

  35. @Rakden: Jeff still sells the printed hint books. From above: "People who want a printed version can get one for an extra two bucks".

  36. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  37. @Jeff: I meant to send you a mail about the hint books. When I purchased Avadon, and chose to also buy the hint book, I saw that it was an FTP link. So, naturally the first thing I did, was remove the file name to explore the folder it was in, and to my great surprise I found a folder with all the hint books in them. So, the first thing I think is, obviously there's some system in place to keep my from getting the ones I didn't pay for. So I tried to get one. It worked just fine. I couldn't believe it. Especially I couldn't believe it because you could fix that entire problem by just not allowing directory listings of that particular directory. People could still download copies without paying for them, but they would have to guess the file names, which is a tad bid harder than having the server list them for you. I'd like to imagine I'm honest enough to pay for the other hint books when I get around to playing those games, but I think that level of temptation for no reason at all is wholly unnecessary.

  38. If you have that many old hintbooks, mark them down, half price or something.

  39. @ Rakden: Thanks for the info, I guess I will save up and get Geneforge 4 and 5 on disc.

    @ Anthony: Sure, but the problem is what happens when Jeff Vogel is no longer answering those emails for whatever reason.

  40. @Anthony He did experiment with only doing a digital version of the hintbooks once (I think it might have been Geneforge 5?) Well he had a slim selection of print books but I had to email him to get one.

  41. Does that mean that after the mentioned Avernum rewrite is over you will be switching the to a new DRM system as well? That'd mean an insta-buy from me (a long time lurker) at the very least and, most probably, I won't be the only one finally going that route.

    Also, I didn't know that Avadon is a game unchained, would have bought it earlier - perhaps you should stick a new DRM explanation somewhere in the game description?

  42. A really excellent post, I completely agree.

  43. I actually agree with Anders here. Although making the hintbooks easily accessible is noble and much easier for paying customers, there really isn't any reason to simply leave the ftp folder freely accessible. IMO, it's just like dangling candy in front of a baby.

  44. @Oliver, Anders: The percentage of users who even know what ftp is, let alone how to go to the site and get file listings, is so small that figuring out how to restrict our site (we don't know how) frankly isn't worth the effort. Not to mention the change we'll screw it up and mess up peoples' ability to download things.

    Remember, whenever you find yourself starting a sentence with, "I don't want people to pirate my whatever, so I am going to ..." you are very close to making a big mistake.

    - Jeff Vogel

  45. Actually Jeff, it might be pretty easy. I haven't had access to it to see, but you may be able to just put a blank "index.html" file in any folders with files you don't want others to see. I use this trick on my own websites. If it is just normal http or equivalent, that should work. You could leave it blank, add a message, or actually make it auto-redirect back to the main site. That's what I do.

  46. @ Jeff

    "The percentage of users who even know what ftp is, let alone how to go to the site and get file listings, is so small that figuring out how to restrict our site (we don't know how) frankly isn't worth the effort."

    The simplest method to do this is to serve files via a PHP script, allowing them access only if they use a link with a pregenerated hash (resulting in links such as Doing stuff like this is like 15 minutes of PHP coding, so not too much fuss. Alternately, you could just serve all your hintbook files via HTTP - then nobody without the exact link could download them unless they guessed the filename.

    There's no way of doing this with FTP short of making a separate FTP user for each downloadable file and restricting permissions.

  47. Actually, I think you could just remove the LIST permission from anonymous.

    Not that there's any real point in running a public FTP server in 2011.

  48. This comment has been removed by the author.

  49. Hi Jeff,

    you might make a backend check for serial key and send file from server (if they match) - simple and effective.

    Take a look how we solved this issue:

    I can send you example script (in php) if you want.


  50. It's amusing how the comments are about trying to "help" Jeff to "easily" implement better/more checks, when he says he doesn't want/need them. :-)

  51. I love reading your posts! They always directly relate to exactly what I am doing all of the time.

    I had actually planned on creating a random number system which would generate a webpage from within the game that, when paid and completed, would e-mail the customer their unique registration code.

    Glad I didn't...

  52. On payday, I'll be shelling out for the hintbook that I downloaded fromn the ftp site while I was getting my trial version of Avadon (which I have registered, btw, my 5th or 6th Spiderweb license)

  53. I have no specific comments on this post, but I'd just like to say thanks for this and all your other posts on the Indie Life. Even for a hobby developer such as myself, your blog (along with that of cliffski) are a huge inspiration; it is incredibly valuable to read the experiences of someone who has been in the breach for many years when one has to take decisions on similar issues with little own experiences to go on.

  54. The best system is the one I'm using right now, and Caspian as well. It's plain simple: one-time online activation using customer email.
    No support, custom coded so enough to prevent a bit of piracy, so easy (everyone remembers his OWN EMAIL). Epic win.

  55. sorry, not everyone know who I was talking about :D

  56. @jack norton

    We have something similar - the player's email in encoded in license key (generated online).

    We also enabled downloading various OS versions via our page (Downloads section):

    I don't know better solution, but it's far from perfect - people are changing mails and losing the license codes, right?

    I think Steam made something close-to-perfect - but you need huge scale for that, indie will not be able to replicate that.


  57. This comment has been removed by the author.

  58. Interesting column! I must admit I have pirated something one time, it wasn't a game but an audio product, and it was only because it is out of print and impossible to get a hold of except for exorbitant prices. If it was available through normal commercial channels then I would have gladly paid for it.

    I wanted to say that, believe it or not, some people do have integrity when it comes to these things, and even if they know they can steal, they would never do it out of principle. Yes, indeed, not all of us are born thieves. (Had to comment on this absurd argument that people only don't pirate because of being lazy or ignorant of how to do it)

    Anyway, this column was a great read and informative on how indie developers think and do their business in these times, thanks!

  59. Great post, Jeff. This earns you so much good will from the community. As someone mentioned, I often buy GOG games I already own (either bought or pirated in ages past) because I feel so good about their mission and DRM free ideals. It makes me feel good to support people I like and want to propser.
    Haven't played any of your games yet, stumbled across your stuff via Basilisk games (HUGE fan of eschalon) but I'm just waiting for some free time to buy and play Avadon. Figure I'll start there and work my way back through the others.

    Totally agree with @Karl and others about convenience/quality being a great weapon against piracy.

    But also agree with others about the hint books being too easily available, or rather that you mentioned how easy it was to get. On a restricted budget I was just tempted to go look for it, though I'll be strong and not do it. I wasn't going to buy it anyway, but you tempted me to go steal it. I think the system's fine (except for being able to access all the books from one link), just don't announce it publicly.

    Can't wait to finish my thesis and get stuck into this.

  60. Jeff,

    Trust me to find a dead topic to actually have something to contribute to. As someone who religiously bought hintbooks starting with E2 (I remember those early xerox stapled together jobs :-) ) all the way through A3, I noticed you didn't mention one big reason for the need for them going away, the internet. When I got stuck before, I was truly stuck. After discovering discussion forums about your games in particular (& 'everything' under & over the sun in general), when I got stuck I could jump online & read what others did to get through the same area (read what others did because as a Windows user I know that I'd never be one of the first ones through a game no matter how quickly I bought after release....). Usually in great detail & with an amusing story or two thrown in for good measure. As useful as they were, the hintbooks just couldn't hold a candle to that kind of resource.

    I must admit though that with your FTP confession I did go to the site to check that out & did grab the ones for A4-6. Not because after all of these years I'm still stuck but rather because I enjoy your writing style & even something as droll as a hintbook will have some gems somewhere in there. Who knows, rereading those may give me a nudge to go chase shades around again (I did grab Avadon's as well but then deleted it unopened as it is a brand new game that you are still actively making money on. I realized that it wouldn't be fair to you to do so).

    Thanks for the days & days worth of time off spelunking in your world, it is one of my favorite places to visit.

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  63. I been buying games for twenty years plus now. Any new games coming out that have drm, speedbump, after speed bump on them I am going to pirate with my t1 connection and help seed to the world!

  64. that's very good info
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  65. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift... how to write a resume

  66. Hi Jeff,

    Just ran across this. Great post.

    As for purchasing Avadon, I just had a tough time figuring out your page. I feel stupid after running into the problem, but I thought I would share it in case I am not alone.

    I didn't know what to do at the select game options page. None of the options said "Buy the game without a CD or hint book." I thought that I had to buy it with one of three options, which I did not want to do.

    So I searched on how to do that. Which brought me to this post.

    Eventually, I figured I needed to just press continue.

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  69. I think you should try if supporting paysafecard would make it easier to sell, I personally think I would like to continue the new Avernum Escaping the Pit Demo, but alas I have no access to a credit card.

  70. Sorry for double posting, but I remembered that Geneforge is on Steam, which supports paysafecard. Just hope you end up having all your games there.

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  72. Ha! I remember years ago, upon seeing that the registration code was only 4 or 5 digits thinking "Couldn't I write a program to just try all the codes sequentially?"

    Yes, the program did end up working.

    And, yes, I did end up paying for the game eventually.

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