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1988: The Golden Age of Game Piracy

Erin Hoffman | 8 Sep 2011 16:00
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Reiche says that, in this regard, not much has changed. "The first time I'd see one of my games up on a BBS, it felt like a punch in the gut. The actual economic impact of piracy was so intangible, so impossible to calculate accurately, that my emotional response was untempered by anything practical."

"The first time I'd see one of my games up on a BBS, it felt like a punch in the gut."

He's putting it nicely. The truth is that that same intangibility amplifies the existential anxiety that piracy produces. Sure, your rational mind says, "this is demand; this is good." But most of us aren't purely rational creatures. The business of making videogames -- and of writing books -- being ultimately a creative pursuit, is an industry fraught with battle and heartache. The direct experience of piracy for the creator, especially, it would seem, for young developers, is in that category. It's a war weariness, a thing kind of like despair mixed with a swirl of strange satisfaction, garnished with uncertainty. I wish I could bottle that feeling, and attach it to all of those green "download now" buttons.

In the Wake of the Empire

Given the realization of my pirate ancestry, what was I to do? I'm still not really sure. I've experienced software piracy from both sides of the aisle. But I can't bring myself to feel guilty about those summers spent poring through disks and loading up programs with mysterious names like Toy Bizarre, Waterline, and Zork. There was too much adventure, too much wonder, which certainly would never have existed without those handwritten floppies. Without fileswapping, I wouldn't have been able to buy those games. I never would have played them.

And for its own sake, the Cambrian explosion that was Commodore 64 game development went on to influence some of the greatest games and game-makers of all time, giving birth to franchises such as Ultima, Pitfall!, and Wizardry.

We don't know what the cost of a determined filesharing crackdown on that wild and wonderful period would have been. Had I not played those games, I would certainly be a different kind of game designer - and there is no question that the easy availability of all of those games for so many people had a deep and profound impact on that early audience's love of computer gaming itself. It seems entirely likely that the pervasive grassroots fileswapping movement was the catalyst for the PC game industry, the force that catapulted it into a phenomenon that would last, and grow, and eventually give us World of Warcraft and Deus Ex. We can't change history, thank goodness.

Erin Hoffman is the author of Sword of Fire and Sea, a fantasy novel from Pyr Books. She is also a professional game designer and disturber of shit.

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