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1988: The Golden Age of Game Piracy


It was 1999. The Sega Dreamcast was brand new, Tori Murden was crossing the Atlantic, and I was about to have a terrible revelation.

Napster had launched in June of that year, and would last 22 months before being shut down by a court order. The RIAA had begun its legal assault on digital music sharing a year earlier, and by 2007 would be suing individuals (infamously including a deceased grandmother) and corporations like Napster, Kazaa, and Usenet for as much as $150,000 per downloaded song.

Cracks were easy to come by, and virtually guaranteed not to include malware or horse porn.

Those years of unregulated college filesharing networks, between 1998 and 2003, would be considered by many to be the golden age of game piracy. Pirated files were everywhere, laying about indolently on open LANs or indexed by clever tools. Cracks were easy to come by, and virtually guaranteed not to include malware or horse porn.

In 2003, the RIAA descended on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I was attending college, and sued two students for hosting Flatlan and Phynd, two LAN indexing applications that helped students locate files on the campus network. Shit had gotten real.

As I crossed the campus one autumn morning, I suddenly realized that the Commodore 64 games I’d played over long summers throughout my childhood weren’t meant to come on floppy disks with handwritten labels. “CRACKED BY BOB” was not just a funny screen Commodore games started with.

My dad was a software pirate.

Age of Innocence

It turns out that an awful lot of people back in 1988 were what we would call “software pirates” in 2003. The label and indeed the notion didn’t exist then. Exchanging programs was called “fileswapping,” or “mail trading” if you popped copied disks into the U.S. mail and sent them to friends. Really sophisticated folks in the early 80s had BBSes and could connect to banks of shared software over 300 baud modems. In 1976, Bill Gates might have planted the seed of what would inevitably bloom into the monster that is DRM by claiming that more and better software would be available if filesharers didn’t copy so much, but no one paid much attention.

PCs themselves were still relatively rare in those days. The Commodore 64 shipped between 12 and 17 million units in its entire product lifetime (1982-1994). By contrast, it took the Wii less than half that time to achieve that number, and today there are over 86 million Wiis, over 53 million Xbox 360s, and over 50 million PlayStation 3s lighting up homes all over the world.

In 1980, the U.S. census reported a population of about 227 million; 2010 brought us up to 308 million. So with 193 million hardcore gaming consoles – not to mention over one billion PCs – floating around the world, you and someone you know are playing games on a machine – but in 1988, only about one in every 45 Americans had access to the fileswapping-friendly Commodore.

And because in the late 80s even the slowest imaginable DSL connections of today were exclusively available to DARPA and supercomputers, internet filesharing was but a smoky cyberpunk dream. If you wanted files, chances are you hand carried them, exchanged them at work, or knew someone who could set you up with disks copied from their BBS connection. And most of the traded files weren’t spreadsheet software or word processing programs – they were games.

By the early 90s, game developers were dropping weird file protection mechanics into their products. Pool of Radiance came with a rotating rune “code wheel” made of cardstock; before you could play the game, you had to enter the right rune sequence, supposedly proving you had the original box and manual. The Sierra adventure games were famous for their “age-testing” quizzes and deeply buried manual-requiring secrets – all of which were still as easily swapped as the disks themselves. But the late 80s were unburdened by these convoluted hoops.

The Sierra adventure games were famous for their “age-testing” quizzes and deeply buried manual-requiring secrets – all of which were still as easily swapped as the disks themselves.

Peculiarly, although we are accustomed to a familiar and conditioned assumption that more piracy equals fewer games and lower profits, the Commodore 64 market never really slowed down. Even when fileswapping reached its peak in the mid-80s, the game-making market itself never skipped a beat. Developers were still eager to create for the developer-friendly, powerful Commodore. The only thing that eventually caused the Commodore’s decline was the cheaper availability of DOS-based PCs in the early 90s.

So what was the difference between 1988 and 2003? Per title, Commodore games were certainly copied as aggressively as Windows 2000 games. Yet in 2003 we had software piracy – a dangerous subculture that has repeatedly been declared the death of the game industry – and in 1988 we had fileswapping, an innocent pastime engaged in by kids and nerds. What changed?

Magic Makers

Where the mainstream ignored fileswapping, game developers at the time were paying very close attention.

“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met (and hired) who say, ‘I loved your games as a kid … but I pirated them – is that okay?’,” Paul Reiche, designer of Archon (and more recently CEO of Toys for Bob, creator of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure) says. “Of course at this distance in time, it’s a fun way to get people to pay for my beer, but when I was a hungry 20-year-old, I took piracy pretty personally.”

Then, as now, piracy may not have had a precise and measurable impact on sales (recent studies have shown that the greatest correlate to piracy is excessive price), but it certainly had a psychological impact on game creators, which in turn shaped decisions they would make about if, or when, or how many products they would create.

“There may have been a couple of folks who left games because of piracy (due mostly to the chore of integrating protection against it), but I can personally tell you that my moving to console game development was motivated in part by the lack of piracy in that domain,” Reiche says.

Over time, different consoles have expressed different levels of resistance to piracy. Cartridge-based consoles had high innate piracy resistance, but later platforms – notably the Nintendo DS – did not. In 2006, my pirate experience poetically reversed when Konami shipped a title I’d been working on for the previous year: GoPets: Vacation Island. The same day that the game shipped – in some cases weeks before it would land in particular retail stores – my Google alerts on the product name started lighting up with torrents. Today, five years later, I still get them: tens of thousands of downloads. The impact is stirring and unique, a kind of deep sinking sensation that feels like an attack on something that took such a titanic effort to create. It’s also reached beyond videogames; in June I had a fantasy novel published by Pyr Books, first in paper, and last week in Kindle. The torrent hits are just beginning.

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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