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Copy Protection in Jet Set Willy: developing methodology for retrogame archaeology

John Aycock1 and Andrew Reinhard2

1. Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary, Canada, aycock@ucalgary.ca
2. Archaeogaming, areinhard@numismatics.org

Cite this as: Aycock, J. and Reinhard, A. 2017 Copy Protection in Jet Set Willy: developing methodology for retrogame archaeology, Internet Archaeology 45. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.45.2

Summary

Video games, and more generally computer games, are unquestionably technological artefacts that have cultural significance. Old computer games in particular had to function under technical constraints that would be alien to many modern programmers, while at the same time providing something novel and at first foreign to consumers. How did their creators accomplish their technical feats, and what impact did that have for the player-consumer? The study of 'retro' computer games' implementation is one topic within the nascent area of archaeogaming.

Jet Set Willy physical artefacts for the MSX platform. The copy protection card (bottom) folds out to 315x99 (WxH, in mm) and is printed on both sides, but again folds up to fit inside a cassette tape case

Digital rights management (DRM) continues to be a major issue in the protection and distribution of content in electronic form. In this article, we study an early example of the implementation of copy protection in the 1984 game Jet Set Willy, something that comprises both physical and digital artefacts. It acts as a vehicle to illustrate a number of methods that we used to understand game implementation, culminating in a full reconstruction of the technique. The methods we cover include: 'traditional' research, along with its limitations in this context; code and data analysis; hypothesis testing; reconstruction. Through this positivist experimental approach, our results are both independently verifiable and repeatable. We also approach the complex context of early DRM, its hacks and workarounds by the player community, and what precipitated the design choices made for this particular game.

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