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1988: The Golden Age of Game Piracy

Erin Hoffman | 8 Sep 2011 12:00
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By the early 90s, game developers were dropping weird file protection mechanics into their products. Pool of Radiance came with a rotating rune "code wheel" made of cardstock; before you could play the game, you had to enter the right rune sequence, supposedly proving you had the original box and manual. The Sierra adventure games were famous for their "age-testing" quizzes and deeply buried manual-requiring secrets - all of which were still as easily swapped as the disks themselves. But the late 80s were unburdened by these convoluted hoops.

The Sierra adventure games were famous for their "age-testing" quizzes and deeply buried manual-requiring secrets - all of which were still as easily swapped as the disks themselves.

Peculiarly, although we are accustomed to a familiar and conditioned assumption that more piracy equals fewer games and lower profits, the Commodore 64 market never really slowed down. Even when fileswapping reached its peak in the mid-80s, the game-making market itself never skipped a beat. Developers were still eager to create for the developer-friendly, powerful Commodore. The only thing that eventually caused the Commodore's decline was the cheaper availability of DOS-based PCs in the early 90s.

So what was the difference between 1988 and 2003? Per title, Commodore games were certainly copied as aggressively as Windows 2000 games. Yet in 2003 we had software piracy - a dangerous subculture that has repeatedly been declared the death of the game industry - and in 1988 we had fileswapping, an innocent pastime engaged in by kids and nerds. What changed?

Magic Makers

Where the mainstream ignored fileswapping, game developers at the time were paying very close attention.

"I can't tell you how many people I've met (and hired) who say, 'I loved your games as a kid ... but I pirated them - is that okay?'," Paul Reiche, designer of Archon (and more recently CEO of Toys for Bob, creator of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure) says. "Of course at this distance in time, it's a fun way to get people to pay for my beer, but when I was a hungry 20-year-old, I took piracy pretty personally."

Then, as now, piracy may not have had a precise and measurable impact on sales (recent studies have shown that the greatest correlate to piracy is excessive price), but it certainly had a psychological impact on game creators, which in turn shaped decisions they would make about if, or when, or how many products they would create.

"There may have been a couple of folks who left games because of piracy (due mostly to the chore of integrating protection against it), but I can personally tell you that my moving to console game development was motivated in part by the lack of piracy in that domain," Reiche says.

Over time, different consoles have expressed different levels of resistance to piracy. Cartridge-based consoles had high innate piracy resistance, but later platforms - notably the Nintendo DS - did not. In 2006, my pirate experience poetically reversed when Konami shipped a title I'd been working on for the previous year: GoPets: Vacation Island. The same day that the game shipped - in some cases weeks before it would land in particular retail stores - my Google alerts on the product name started lighting up with torrents. Today, five years later, I still get them: tens of thousands of downloads. The impact is stirring and unique, a kind of deep sinking sensation that feels like an attack on something that took such a titanic effort to create. It's also reached beyond videogames; in June I had a fantasy novel published by Pyr Books, first in paper, and last week in Kindle. The torrent hits are just beginning.

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