A brief history of video game piracy

Multi-ROM Gameboy cartridges

The method

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.

Console modification

The method

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

The method

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.


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.

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