Multi-ROM Gameboy cartridges
Remember how removing the copy protection systems from NES hardware opened up the market for unlicensed, multi-ROM cartridges? Well with the Game Boy, Nintendo took back control by erm, ripping out the copy protection themselves. Hang on a minute…
With none of the NES’ security protocols, the Game Boy not only allowed games from any region to be played on any machine, it didn’t really care about the legal respectability of anything that was stuck in it either. The dirty slut. Thus, as soon as illegitimate cartridge cases and circuit boards became available, it was easy to find reams of Game Boy carts containing tens of ripped ROMs at a time.
The industry response
XX-in-1 multi-carts were so widespread that it was impossible to stamp them out completely. Usually originating in the far east, they ended up in shops worldwide, and for a good while were a traditional holiday souvenir for UK gamers returning from mainland Europe. They were though, less easily available in the US, possibly due to Nintendo of America’s traditionally hardline stance on all things legal.
Here’s where piracy starts to move into the modern era. As gaming became more widespread, the profit potential for pirateering became bigger. But so did the complexity of console tech, meaning that clone machines just weren’t an option. Thus, the dark art of console modification was spawned into an unsuspecting world, probably with a lot of lightning and ominous organ music.
Console modding had its routes in the 16-bit era, when adding switches to SNES and Mega Drive consoles in order to selectively disable region lock-out was a common practice. It could take several ice ages for a game to be released from one region to another back then, and so this process was a recognised medical procedure to stop us from committing self-harm and suicide in frustration while we waited.
From the PlayStation onwards though, things evolved. The new practice was to install unofficial chips into consoles in order to bypass both the machines’ region-lock and their copy protection, allowing pirated game discs to be used without a hitch. Games on CDs + mod chips + freely available CD burners = easier piracy than ever before.
The industry response
Success varied depending on the legal system of each country, but plenty of platform holders have lobbied to have mod chips declared illegal. In the US, EU and Australia, for example, copy protection modding is illegal, but Australia has declared modding to disable region-lock fair game.
The big fun-killer for console modders though, came with the widespread internet connectivity of this generation’s consoles. If your machine is modded and online, your platform-holding overlords of choice know. And they can send kill-rays down the internet pipes to your console any time they like. So you might be able to gain a load of free games, but you’ll have to do it at the cost of any bonuses that online connectivity might bring. Which in the case of this generation’s consoles, is an absolute shitload.
Online file sharing
Lo, there was the internet. And lo, did a great many men in puffer jackets go out of rough-arsed business immediately, for the world did no longer need their discs. Game files could suddenly be distributed directly from pirate to pirate, from anywhere in the world. With the middle-man unapologetically hacked out of piracy’s chest and thrown into the stinking offal bin of history, dodgy game distribution exploded.
Above: Because it's like, a torrent of games. Oh please yourselves...
Whether via file-sharing networks, torrents or straight downloads, illicit gaming was everywhere. PC gaming took the biggest and most obvious hit, but for those rocking a mod chip, it was open season on console games too.
The industry response
Three letters. DRM. There are now a stack of different methods, but very few of them make anyone happy. Most make use of some sort of online connectivity to authenticate and register a game. And some, like EA’s infamous Spore DRM, greatly limit the number of installations possible, essentially turning legitimate purchases into long-term rentals. Ironically, that prompted many to get a pirated copy on principle, and Spore became the most ripped-off game of 2008.
Ubisoft have even taken to forcing players to be constantly connected to its servers in order to play. Which is a system that’s about as popular as Subway’s short-lived cow shit foot-long. Mercifully though, we do have Steam, which with its secure downloads, permanent product registration for users, and download anywhere philosophy, is pretty much the best of all worlds.