Saturday, June 02, 2007

StarForce and Trackmania Nations

If you play Trackmania Nations, this may be relevant to you. If not, you probably won't care.

Trackmania Nations ESCW is a free racing game that is part of games of the yearly Electronic Sports World Cup (ESCW). It's lots of fun to play on the online servers, and it's free. If you have ever played Stunts, you will love Trackmania.

Trackmania Nations installs the very controversial StarForce copy protection system. The popular BoingBoing blog has had a lot of articles about this thing, and rightfully so. The above Wikipedia article as well as this BoingBoing article mentions that the Starforce copy protection software degraded IDE transfer speeds to the point where it physically breaks CD/DVD drives.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because today I wanted to play some Trackmania and there was an update available. Specifically, an update that upgraded Trackmania from version 1.7.8 to 1.7.9. After I installed it, when I wanted to re-benchmark my system to configure the graphics settings, I saw this pop up:

Starforce protection system

Some Googling showed that this was, in fact, the Starforce protection system. While I was aware that older versions of Trackmania Nations had the Starforce protection software bundled but only actually installed it when it was already on your system, this update makes the Starforce drivers MANDATORY. It installs them without asking or informing you, silently. Things like this REALLY tick me off.
A bit of uninstalling/reinstalling showed me that all updates for Trackmania Nations trigger or require the Starforce install. Only the original version (1.7.5) does not come with Starforce, and attempting to play online with this version will get you disconnected from the server with a message telling you to upgrade.

Recap:

  • Trackmania Nations is a free game
  • Trackmania Nations has copy protection software installed called Starforce
  • Starforce installs itself at ring 0 in the Windows architecture, the same level used by antivirus software, firewalls and several other copy-protection systems.
  • Up to Trackmania Nations 1.7.6, Starforce was bundled with the installer but not actually installed. Unless you already had it on your system.
  • Starting with Trackmania 1.7.9, Starforce is always installed.
  • Starforce is not mentioned in the Trackmania Nations EULA
  • Starforce is not mentioned in the installer
  • Starforce installation is not visible
  • Starforce cannot be uninstalled from the Add/Remove Software applet
  • Starforce can physically break CD/DVD drives
  • The people who work for Starforce are abusive assholes [1] [2]

How do you know if you have Starforce on your system? Easy. Go to Start > Settings > Control Panel > System > Hardware > Device Manager. In the Device Manager, select View > Show hidden devices from the menu. Scroll down to Non-Plug and Play devices and look for the three Starforce items.

Starforce devices

A Starforce uninstaller can be found here:
http://www.onlinesecurity-on.com/protect.phtml?c=55

Why does a free game even have copy-protection software bundled? There are a few other versions of Trackmania that are not free (the original, 'Sunrise', and 'United') so I understand if that needs some kind of copy protection. But the free version? Well, it seems this is to prevent people from cheating at the ESCW tournaments. Which obviously take place in controlled environments where candidates are immediately disqualified for cheating. Huh?
This is all very disappointing. I have had a lot of fun with Trackmania, but I have now uninstalled and deleted it because of this Starforce mess. It was fun while it lasted.




UPDATE: July 2nd - It seems the StarForce drivers were removed from Trackmania: United. This makes me very happy.

2 comments:

M said...

P.S. Run the Starforce uninstaller at least twice, rebooting between runs. It has no interface whatsoever, only a message box that says either 'No Starforce drivers to remove' or 'Reboot to complete uninstall?'.

patpanterson said...

I was in the middle of redownloading trackmania, then I found out about this crap. I'm not gonna bother with this series anymore, this is just way too shady for me.