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Black Gold: Videogame Piracy

Now let’s get something straight from the very beginning. I’m not going to spend a massive amount of time going into the huge moral minefield that is the issue of video game piracy. There are far too many issues to tackle in one article; I’m sure you could write a book on the subject. What I am going to do, though, is run over the history of piracy in console gaming and explain the current legal position here in the UK, while staying neutral. The point is, I am going to have to point out here that myself, and my other colleagues who contribute to Thunderbolt, cannot condone video game piracy in any way, if for no other reason than that it would be legally suicidal. I might point out a few arguments in both camps, with respects to how the industry argues it suffers and how the pirates claim it’s the consumers who suffer, but I shall do so only impartially. Phew, glad that’s over with.

Video gaming has always been rife with piracy in one form or another. Some of us can think back to the days when every other coin-op in every other chip shop was a space invaders clone, or another side on scrolling beat ’em up, or an R-type clone or something else equally derivative. If you can’t think of a good idea, nick someone else’s, I guess. For some reason, though, every body got away with it, mainly because the boom in the video game industry outpaced the need for copyright laws to control it. Except in Japan, ironically, where Sega managed to patent parallel-scrolling, meaning all other software houses had to pay Sega a percentage for practically every scrolling beat ’em up from the turn of the nineties. Crazy, you got to admit.

In retrospect, though, it seems a little harsh criticizing these games since at the time that’s all you really had, and I suppose it’s the equivalent of what we call genres. I mean, you couldn’t patent the idea of a racing game or fighting game, could you? No, one company reworking another’s ideas isn’t piracy, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. What is piracy though, is what happened with the introduction of the jamma cabinets at the beginning of the nineties. When coin-ops concentrated on those two joystick standup cabinets they were cartridge powered and, inevitably the UK scene was awash with cheap Indo-Chinese copies. Some of them were just copied ROMs of real titles, i.e. were literally pirate copies, others quite invent rip-offs made by hacking the original ROM.

At this stage, though, the real games were mostly in the arcades and so you still had to pay the same, copy or not. So why would you? I remember in my childhood arcade, where we’d spend and sometimes win a small fortune gambling on street fighter II. Everyone would gather around SFII turbo, lining up coins on the counter and no one would go near the inferior, unlicensed and pretty wild pirate ‘black belt’ edition in the corner. Nobody except tourists anyway.

At home, however, piracy has had a different career. The issue here’s not of plagiarism but of buying or selling copied game code. Let’s start at the beginning; does anybody else remember the Spectrum 48K and C64 days when you could fit twenty or so games onto a copied C90 tape? Well if you do then you’ve been involved in game piracy, even if you just copied your mate’s games on your folk’s bad midi hi-fi system. Looking back, it was crazy releasing games on such an easily duplicated medium, although to be fair it was a different ball game back then the video game industry wasn’t a multi-billion dollar global market, for one thing. Some software houses made a token effort to prevent this – I remember having a colour chart that came with Jet Set Willy on the Spectrum and you had a certain number of seconds to check the grid references and enter the right colour before the game crashed. Of course, we were all at school and so just borrowed the colour chart off whoever had bought the game, photocopied it and with a bit of guess work you could get past that in no time! Primitive times don’t you know.

After these weak machines, the next big thing was the ST/Amiga boom, which kicked off in the late 80s, and piracy was getting a little trickier. Now games came on floppy, sometimes more than one, and coders were wiser about protecting them. With cleverer machines, however, came cleverer bedroom hackers and before you know it games inevitably started getting cracked and all of a sudden the playground was awash with copies. The problem was, you couldn’t copy an original since they were mostly write protected, but once someone had got hold of a cracked copy that was all stripped away. If one kid at school had a cracked copy, twenty did by the end of the week, and so it went on. In fact, near the end of their ST careers, bedroom hackers were getting much cleverer. Multi discs with loading screens started to appear, where several games were squeezed onto one disc by compressing them and decompressing them onto the host machines RAM in real time. It makes you wonder how many of these hackers have gone on to legitimate industry jobs and how invaluable their hacker knowledge was to them in their new careers.

While STs and Amigas were the home computers of choice amongst avid bedroom gamers, the console manufacturers were targeting the younger market. Through the late eighties right up into the mid-nineties, console manufacturers had the pirate industry on the ropes with cartridge based console systems. By this I mean the Sega master system and Mega drive (or Genesis stateside) and the Nintendo NES and SNES systems. Cartridges are extremely expensive to make, difficult to get hold of without legitimate reason and in all truth were just too much effort for not enough profit. I mean, where do you buy blank SNES cartridges? Exactly.

Had the console manufacturers cracked it? Well, by the early nineties it was obvious that consoles were here to stay and so-called home computers (which, with the exception of the ST and possibly Amiga, were little more than glorified games machines with keyboards really) were on their way out. Out with these ‘micro’ computers and in with personal computers and with it a new age, an age where gamers chose a camp and stuck to it. Were you a PC gamer? A console gamer? Or did you uncomfortably sit in the middle somewhere? If you were a console gamer, were you a Sega boy or a member of the Nintendo collective? At the end of the day it didn’t matter, you were all part of a growing scene which, only now I think, is taken seriously as a mainstream hobby.

But be you a Sega or Nintendo boy you still had one problem, one big problem. Nearly all the games you’d play would have been made in Japan or USA and the whole issue of PAL versus NTSC came up for the first time. Let me explain the pain we Europeans had to endure

1 – European TVs run at 50Hz, 17% slower than our Japanese and American cousins; theirs ran at 60Hz. Essentially this meant that if your code wasn’t optimized for PAL performance, the image squished itself in the screen and you were stuck with super-deformed characters and bad letterboxing.

2 – To match the TVs, game code was designed at 60Hz which made the games feel much slower on 50Hz TVs.

3 – Since the market for video games was predominantly Japan and the US, the European release of a title wasn’t nearly as big a deal. Titles often turned up six months after the US release, or didn’t turn up at all. And whereas in the US and Japan games would be released with the razzmatazz of a Hollywood movie, over here they’d just creep onto the shelves. No big deal.

Basically being a UK gamer stank. By then, most new TVs were coming with Scart sockets and could handle 60Hz images (after all they were all Japanese made boxes anyhow) and so why didn’t UK games come with 50/60 Hz mode selects? Also, it only took a small effort on the publisher’s behalf to optimize game code to make the 50Hz version run as fast as the 60Hz one, so why weren’t they? Well, money, obviously. The European market just wasn’t that important to any of the big software houses, and Nintendo was the biggest culprit; it just wasn’t worth spending the money for PAL optimization. Naturally, we rebelled and any UK gamer worth his salt had a Datel Universal Adapter to play import cartridges on.

Still, we were playing import games and not pirates, but when the Playstation turned up and Sony claimed that top spot, all hell broke loose. Again, the UK release schedules were dismal, months behind our US brothers. Whereas the 16 bit cartridge based consoles restricted the global reasons by literally having different shaped consoles and carts, the Playstation used CDs, which were obviously the same world over. How do you put region restriction on that? Well, you have to encode it on the disk itself, so the machine checks that the game is of the relevant region while it’s loading. Unfortunately for Sony, the importers were one step ahead and soon the Mod chip was here; solder this chip to your PSX motherboard and the machine thinks every game is the right region, no matter where it’s from. Bizarrely, this meant if you ran the US disk on a chipped UK machine, through a Scart cable to a 60 Hz TV, your game ran full screen and full speed, as the developer’s originally intended.

The Mod chip had another use though. Circumventing the region protection also meant that the machine no longer needed to authenticate anything, and so copied games worked fine. Any copied game mind, and with the introduction of home CD writers, soon every Joe Chatboard was selling copied PSX games for between £3-5 quid over the Internet. And the irony was that the games were all but exclusively the US versions and so often ran a damn site better than the UK releases (which were still coming out months later). No wonder every other household in the UK had a PSX.

Anyway, how has the scene changed now and what is the latest legal situation? Let’s tackle the legal issue first. Basically, The 1988 Data Protection and Copyright Act states that it is legal to copy data you own for your own use. It is also legal to sell copies, or ‘backups’ of data you own to other people that own the original too. End of story.

Obviously this means that with a slight exaggeration of the truth, and assuming no one is going to be checking, you can buy copied software online, although all sites which sell ‘backups’ come with warnings like this:

THE SOFTWARE ON THIS SITE IS FOR BACKUP or EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. IF YOU DO NOT OWN THE ORIGINAL YOU CAN NOT PURCHASE THE BACKUP VERSION. ANY BACKUPS PROVIDED BY ME ARE ON THE UNDERSTANDING THAT YOU DO OWN THE ORIGINAL IF YOU DO NOT YOU MUST BUY THE ORIGINAL OR DESTROY THE BACKUP WITHIN 24 HOURS

Incidentally that also means I can buy a copied game if I don’t own the original on the understanding that I destroy it within 24 hours. This is the loophole in the law that allows you to tape TV programs and not get prosecuted for it.

So, how do you play copied games on today’s consoles? Mod chips again. To my knowledge, you can’t chip a Gamecube (to run copies, you can chip them to run US and Jap games though) but both the Xbox and the PS2 are easy to chip.

The PS2 has been chipped since day one. The most popular is the Neo 2.2, Neo 4 and Messiah chip (although there are a few alternatives which work just as well). The Neo 4 and Messiah are the all singing all dancing chips which play CDR and DVDR games with ease; the Neo 2.2 is a lot cheaper however, and a lot more reliable, although you have to use a boot disk and this generally makes everything a much bigger headache. Check out these instructions for the famous Dave Mirra method of booting DVDRs on a Neo 2.2 chipped PS2 using and Action Replay Disc as boot media:

Load AR2 V2 keeping the reset button pressed
Press X on Action Replay Codes
Press start over highlighted “dave mirras pro BMX2”
Press eject button (still holding the reset button)
Insert real dvd game (larger TOC size than dvd-r recomended game GTA3)
Wait 10-15 secs and press X and X again
Message appears “too many codes”
Release reset button & tray pops out and insert dvd-r
Press X to say ok
Press Circle and Circle once again to enter main menu
Choose start game, without codes
Press X and game loads

Is it worth the effort? Well, if you’re mad for games this is often the only way to play full screen US titles way before the UK release, so if you’re playing import games then good for you. Running pirate copies is a different ball game. You may be getting games on the cheap, but it’s very illegal and putting software houses out of business. Also, since DVDRs are always of a lesser quality than mass produced DVDs, you’re going to eventually strain your laser eye and the PS2s life span is roughly halved.

Xboxers out there can play the same game with the new Enigma chip, which plays DVDR copies fine, although I think Microsoft have the last laugh with this one, since no Xbox which is fitted with a chip can be used with the Xbox live service. Sony should take note. Maybe this will prove to be the key, and perhaps measures like this will help the publishers stay in business after all.

At the end of the day, it’s up to the consumer to use and abuse his technology to his hearts content. Where there is something out there to hack, though, some bright spark is always going to hack it, and then use the Internet to tell everyone else all about it.

So, I’ll leave the ethics up to you guys. As a famous little green man once said, “always let your conscience be your guide”.

Happy gaming all the same…

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2002.

Gentle persuasion

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