For as long as there has been stuff, people have wanted that stuff for free. And they've found ways to get it. Illegal ways called theft. In gaming, we use the jolly, Pugwash-evoking phrase 'piracy', but that doesn't make things any less illegal. And as game budgets have spiraled, stolen game sales have become a bigger issue than ever. Pirating is a quick route to free games, but it's also a quick route to starving orphaned developer kids. Fact.
But how did we get here? How did it all start? Well if you click ahead, we'll tell you. Because just one click ahead you'll find a brief history of the merry, heady world of digital robbery, starting in the innocent, sepia-tinged crimes of the '80s and covering all the main developments since, right up to and including those of this very month.
Ah, the good old days of the 1980s, when the Spectrum and C64 ruled home computer gaming. Games came on cassette tapes, movies came on giant flick-books made out of carved stone tablets, and novels were distributed by way of elaborate tribal storytelling rituals because books hadn’t been invented yet.
But despite being a quick, easy, and totally hassle-free method of loading games (all you needed was a spare half-hour and a hermetically sealed vacuum to keep all your tech in) tapes had a big disadvantage. They were bastard-easy to copy if you had a twin-deck tape recorder. The game went in one deck, a blank tape went in the other, and a quick press of Play and Record later you were shielding your ears from a horrible electronic screeching noise. It sounded like a Dalek being flayed alive, but it was actually just the birthing cry of a newly pirated game.
The industry response
The audio cassette was pretty basic tech, originally created for simple dictation recording and not intended as a professional storage medium. As such, it had bugger all in-built capability for copy protection. So publishers had to work outside of the tape itself.
A huge number didn’t bother. These were, after all, the days when most games were cheaply coded by one man in around 17 seconds, using nothing more than a typewriter. The ones who did though, used tricks like access codes that had to be found in the manual, coupled with manuals printed on brown paper that couldn’t be photocopied. Others resorted to the outright bribery of free gifts with retail copies.
Unlicensed console clones
On ‘80s consoles though, playing dubiously acquired games for free was a far trickier proposition. With consoles you see, came game cartridges, and with game cartridges came the advent of hardy, home-copy-proof, proprietary storage. With their soft vulnerable data encased in a cold, hard armour of rock-sold plastic, they were the Robocop of game storage, the veritable future of copyright law enforcement. Trying to jam one into a tape recorder would result in nothing but a broken tape recorder and a whole lot of shame. Though if you got to that point before realising that your NES didn’t take tapes anyway, you didn’t deserve any games, legal or not.
There was only one solution. If you wanted pirate cartridges you’d need a pirate console. NES hardware in particular has been cloned countless times to create a plethora of dodgy unlicensed NES-compatible consoles. Many have a bunch of ripped game ROMs pre-loaded onto internal memory, and as these machines have traditionally dropped all of Nintendo’s copy protection hardware, they’re wide-open for unlicensed cartridges. And that friends, means party time for Jimmy McROMRipper, who has been sticking multiple dumps of game code onto iffy homemade carts ever since Mario met market trader.
The industry response
Variable. As a lot of these machines and games were sold in territories that Nintendo hadn’t officially hit, many of them were left alone. In fact the Dendy, the Russian NES clone, managed to become as big in the land of Tetris as the official NES itself did in the Japan and the west. There were legal smackdowns of course, but given the widespread nature of the phenomenon and the fact that Nintendo was making more money than Scrooge McDuck’s personal money press on the real machine, plenty got away with it. And plenty still do.
When games came on tapes and floppy discs (the latter reserved for our rich, Amiga-owning friends from the shimmering high-tech future, who we all secretly hated), gross copyright theft was a warm, sharing, friends-and-family pastime. Games would often take a full tape or multiple discs to copy, and if you tried to be a clever bastard and stick several on a long-play cassette all you gained was the endless purgatory of eternally frustrating fast-forwarding and rewinding in a vain, exasperating attempt to try to find the start of each game. Many actually died as a result of this practice.
So games were generally copied one at a time. Small groups of gaming friends would just bash out copies of their recent purchases in small numbers for their mates, and every trip to the game shop became a one-for-all-and-all-for-one scenario. In fact the small-scale game piracy of the '80s and early '90s is one of the few documented historical instances of Communism actually working.
But then came digital media. And with the advent of the vastly higher capacity CD came the ability to stick a shedload of floppy-disc-based games on a single shiny digital biscuit. And thus, with floppies and CDs existing side-by-side for a while, so too existed plenty of rough arsed men in puffer jackets hawking marker-pen-titled compilation discs out of cardboard boxes on market day. These discs were often referred to as ‘blobbies’. No-one has ever known why, and no-one ever will.
The industry response
Much the same as before really. With floppy disc games so easily copyable, all the industry could really do was offer incentives to buy official and place logistical obstacles in the way of not doing. The creativity of anti-piracy methods increased, and as a result of the rise of watchdog organisations, so did the instances of rough-arsed men in puffer jackets being dragged away from cardboard boxes by fraud squad operatives. But overall, blobby trading continued regardless.