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1988: The Golden Age of Game Piracy

Erin Hoffman | 8 Sep 2011 12:00
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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.

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