A brief history of video game piracy

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.

Tape/disc copying

The method

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

The method

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.

Blobby discs

The method

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.


Steam Valve

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  • TheBoz - September 1, 2010 1:39 p.m.

    Reading this took me back, mates having pirated Amiga games on discs and sharing them at school, cassettes as easy to copy as any pop band is able to mimic what is already out there. I have 2 opinions on pirating, one it is wrong, it is theft, but 2, games are so damn expensive especially comparing them to movies which cost a hell of a lot more. Old DVDs, well, when about a yr old can come down to as little as £3, at worst, will be about £8. Games can still be sold at over £30. I would buy more games if they were cheaper, and then just trade them in. Prices need to come down for games.
  • Buga15 - September 1, 2010 10:57 a.m.

    @ColonelKc I agree with you, but prices shouldalso drop to desencorage piracy!!
  • Anduin1 - August 31, 2010 9:46 p.m.

    Piracy forever! Screw paying greedy devs for half finished games. I still see it as a free rental and if the game is great, I go and buy it, especially if it has good online. Mafia 2 is a good example of a game that should never of cost $60 but does and thus its right to be bought is VOIDED.
  • bnxcnvns - August 31, 2010 3:11 p.m.

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    Hi,Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, ( ) Here are the most popular, most stylish and avant-garde shoes,handbags,Tshirts, jacket,Tracksuit w ect...NIKE ,JORDAN SHOES 1-24,AF,DUNK,SB,PUMA ,R4,NZ,OZ,T1-TL3) $35HANDBGAS(COACH,L V, DG, ED HARDY) $35TSHIRTS (POLO ,ED HARDY, LACOSTE) $16 New to Hong Kong : Winter Dress --- NHL Jersey Woman $ 30 ---**** NFL Jersey $20 --- NBA Jersey $ 18 ---**** MLB Jersey $ 30 --- Jordan Six Ring_m $30 ---**** Air Yeezy_m $ 45 --- T-Shirt_m $ 15 ---**** Jacket_m $ 30 --- Hoody_m $ 30 ---**** Manicure Set $ 20 as long as the new and old customers to buy the corresponding product on this site, both a gift, so stay tuned! !
  • philipshaw - August 31, 2010 12:11 p.m.

    DRM FTW, best way to stop people downloading stuff
  • WhiteCredo - August 31, 2010 6:36 a.m.

    LoL @ the torrent of games and DS pictures. reCAPTCHA: alwatina resenting
  • QWERTYCommander - August 31, 2010 4:20 a.m.

    @awesomemaster That was seriously a dick move. I really hope he's not your friend anymore. If you did that to anything I owned, that I bought with my own money, I'd kick you so hard in the balls that they would fly out your mouth and split in half. Just because it's a flashcart, doing what you did doesn't make you any less of an asshole. Anyway, I do pirate and emulate a lot of games and movies. I'm saving up for a DSi flashcart right now actually. But I don't pirate any console games, just PC and DS. (unless you count emulation of old systems as piracy) And no, I will not listen to any hardcore anti-piracy people like awesomemaster.
  • RoxyWolf - August 31, 2010 2:48 a.m.

    Piracy is too much of a hassle |D; I just wait until a used copy pops into GameStop. ... Even if I have to wait for half a year to afford the game. >.TT;;
  • Spybreak8 - August 31, 2010 2:20 a.m.

    I have a flash card for my DS for convenience. I have my entire collection, which sits on my shelf, on one card!
  • Abe504 - August 31, 2010 1:20 a.m.

    ahh piracy, i did that for the xbox 360, it was a fun ride while it lasted but definetly wrong, i deserved to have my console bricked and stripped of online capabilities, now im clean and buy my games legit, 100%. I get games the old fashion ways, buying brand new, waiting for deals, trading games, or last resort renting.
  • DryvBy - August 31, 2010 12:59 a.m.

    I could care less.
  • EnragedTortoise1 - August 30, 2010 11:48 p.m.

    "I can't let you pirate that, Dave."
  • Onepersonwithnoopinion - August 30, 2010 10:29 p.m.

    There is nothing wrong with piracy so long as you aren't doing it for the sake of doing something illegal. If your product was shitty, no one would bother to steal it. You don't see people asking where to find a good download of Horsez 2, do you?
  • Ultimadrago - August 30, 2010 9:46 p.m. This is my reaction to piracy! It's YAARRRRRRR GREAT!
  • robovski - August 30, 2010 9:02 p.m.

    Your article failed to mention the old BBS systems we used to share games before the internet online with our 300-2400 baud modems. My friend used to run one of those sites in Chicago, and we shared C64 games through a Color 64 BBS. People would upload to earn download credits and then download what they wanted from the collection stored on the 20MB system hard drive, usually to copy onto floppies. These games were usually hacked with a sector editor to change the password/codewheel check to just be a stroke of the return carriage key. Of course, most boards only supported 1 or 2 phone lines and the phone company was still charging you for a call which made for some interesting phone bills for some folk. Ah memories...
  • HawtKakez - August 30, 2010 8:52 p.m.

    It's funny that whenever I first heard of the act of downloading video games for free I responded, "seriously? Why would you do that?". I guess it is a strange sense of morality that I have always had. Don't get me wrong, I've downloaded things in the past such as songs or a comic series. But when it came to watching movies or playing games that had just come out in the market, I just thought it was past the line of decency. Today, I try my best to stay legit with all media and I purchase my games via pre-orders. Whenever I hear about people pirating complaining about their situation, I just don't give them the dignity of replying to them. It's all a matter of doing what you can get away with.
  • wastedspace - August 30, 2010 8:37 p.m.

    What about the spin trick for PS1? Load an official PS1 game, and then quickly replace with a downloaded copy, and it mistakes it for an official title.
  • crumbdunky - August 30, 2010 7:12 p.m.

    @markshell-Yes, that IS disgraceful and evidence that the industry itwself doesn't try hard enough to give gamers, worldwide, the value they desewrve. If they passed on the savings from download only titles and priced games more fairly around the globe then pirates wouldn't have the excuse that the industry "rips us off anyway". Were the industry to ease up a little on the moaning about preowned sales(which in my mind actually serve the industry a purpose by at least keeping poorer and younger gamers, the big buyers of tomorrow, in the loop rather than moving away to other pastimes)and just be fairer themselves and then ALL gamers would be frowning harder at the greedy, shortsighted pirates..
  • markshell - August 30, 2010 5:45 p.m.

    Here in Brazil piracy is very common. The problem is that each game here costs R$250,00, that's about U$150,00 per game. Now THAT's a steal.