fairlight

I have been interviewed a few times in public media now (Reference 1, Reference 2) about the early days of software piracy but in general I believe I didn’t fully get my point through and I hence take the opportunity to hijack my own forum to set that straight.

bacchus1“Cracking”

Back then, programs were goods. A physical thing you brought home from the store, in contrast to the service you buy today. Today the key source of revenue of many games is a subscription to a game server and access to the ecosystem surrounding the game. Back then it was the boxed copy – end of story. No t-shirts, no servers, no on-line. Just the box with the game on media.

Copy protection was then the method to tie the software to the physical piece of goods you bought, ensuring it couldn’t be digitally copied to another physical piece of goods. “Cracking” is  removing the tie and making the program digitally copyable. Let me elaborate more on that but in order to simplify, what I say is valid for utilities and games alike, but in the following I will just say “game” to make it more readable. Skip the section if you are more interested in the principles/politics than the practicalities.

Tape – predominant media in the early days. The data of the games is stored as analogue sound on the tape. There were solutions for tape to tape copy that worked ok for your average audio mix tape (like this one) and they did work also for direct copy of games, but only one “generation”. The copy typically couldn’t be copied, as the second generation would have so poor audio quality that it couldn’t be played properly in the computer. That makes tape as a media a copy protection in itself.

Cracking from tape meant finding your way through the tape loader routines and save out the payload to disk. Most experience crackers reverse engineered the dominant loaders (Cyberload  by John Twiddy as the prime example) and made “transfers”, which basically meant you only actually hacked your way through the loader once and then made a utility to automate the process for the next time. The transfer dumped the tape content to disk straight off without actually loading the game using the tape loader on that particular game. The parts of the games dumped to disk were then merged to a single unit that was packed, and an intro was added.

Multilevel games were more difficult – differentiated the good from the mediocre. There you needed also to dump the leveldata, replace the built in tape loader with your own disk routine, modified so that it took parameters from the game and loaded the correct level. As one ambition was to crack not only fast, but also short, all levels were packed and the loader that was inserted also included a real-time depacker.

Disk – The content of a disk is digital, which means that by default it can be copied, unless you actively prevent it. The method to tie the game to the physical disk was then to introduce anomalies on the disk that a copier couldn’t reproduce. Deliberate format errors. The program checks if the errors are there – if not, it’s assumed to be a copy and the program enters a mode where it has detected that it’s a copy. Some protections formatted the disk (the disk where I kept all my utilities got wiped by Bounces – beware 😉 but most only gave an error message.

The c64 disk drive (1541) was a computer in itself. It had less memory but the same CPU, running at the same speed (to be exact, and dodge nitpicking comments; faster than the European PAL version but slower than the American NTSC version). The disk loaders could then put code in the diskdrive, and this code wasn’t accessible from the computer once started, and hence couldn’t be inspected. This naturally makes the cracking quite a lot more difficult as the set of tricks available to the protection programmer was so much wider.

An interesting site for the interested parties would be this one

Manual –  Adding to this, one common protection was having a “manual protection “. The protection would ask you for a certain word in the manual – page, line and word position given and you were to enter that word. Sometimes the actual manual was also printed on red paper, which is basically impossible to copy in a black and white copier (also also quite difficult to read in the original form!). A user on Reddit remarked that I forgot to mention codewheels, which is basically an equivalent to the Manual protection. Now mentioned, even if it might be a bit too detailed where there rest of the text is kept fairly general.

Not cracking

Over time, disk copiers evolved to cope with the basic protection schemes so there was a constant battle between protection makers and copy program makers. “Nibblers” could make most of it, but parameter copiers were typically better – they were basically producing a cracked copy as they removed the protection/deliberate errors and the protection checking code with it. But this text is about cracking and not about laymen’s mean to copy originals.
Utility cartridges – a unit plugged to the back of the computer – gave access to an endless number of features. One was the freezer. Pressing the freezer button stopped the game in action and stored it on disk. Laymen cracking. Required no insight or skillset what so ever. It would only work on single file games as loading of subsequent levels couldn’t be handled by the freezer. The result was ugly and big. And ugly. And big. And ugly! Not to mention big! Icepic was the first but  there came a whole bunch of them. Utility cartridges were great, freezers allowing you to inspect memory in the frozen state most valuable but storing the game in it’s frozen state was merely a nuance and a disgrace. And the files got big and ugly. Really ugly. And big.

fairlightDistribution

Distribution was like a pyramid, where the real top is the newly cracked game, and the longer down in the pyramid you came, the longer it took to access the game. The cracker’s group had the likes of swappers, spreader and megaspreaders where I guess a swapper was a person who cared what was sent back, but where the dedicated spreaders sent out but cared less what came back. Mesgaspreaders had hundred of contacts, so a spreader on steroids as I guess you could put it.
Mind that this was done for putting the game on the scene, available for those who would vote for the best cracker and best group. Acquiring appreciation from one’s peers.
In the lower layers of the pyramid, people spread the game between themselves on school yards, found swapping friends in ads of magazines and so on but even the spreading of the first  generation of the game was originally done via mail.
Back when the 2400 baud/bps modems came about, spreading via modem was getting common between the top level groups. Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) became the place to upload games and make them accessible to others. They were still quite restricted – almost all had only one phone line which means that they could only have one concurrent user, so a user that took 20 minutes to download the game (which it could easily take) locked up the BBS for other users for the period he was on-line. Most of the distribution was still based on disk per post.

flt2Effects on the the game industry – short term

There are arguments on the effects of piracy;
  • one is the industry opinion that the loss is the number of copied games times the sales cost
  • one that is the anti-copyright movement, argumenting that a digital copy is not reducing the value of the original holder as he still has exactly what he had before.
The industry view is naturally very theoretical – no one can buy games for more money than they have. If I a young kid has 1000 games, where each original costs €50, then the industry view would be that the industry lost €50 000 of revenue. That’s naturally absurd. If the kid didn’t get the copies, there is no way he could have bought the 1000 games as he wouldn’t have had the money to do so.
The anti-copyright movement is also missing a point. We must assume that out of the 1000 games in the example, the kid would have bought at least a few, if he didn’t have any access to copies. So the real industry loss is the lost opportunities, where there is willingness to pay but it’s fulfilled  by the free copy. Now that IS lost money for the industry.
Which is right? Well, we can rest assure that the real figure is closer to zero than the billions accounted by the industry, but it likely still significant – even back then.
Back in the old days, distribution through the pyramid took so long that, at the bottom of the chain, you had weeks where you could buy the original in the shops and where you were yet to get access to the copy. That means that if you really wanted a game (after reading about it in the magazines) and you wanted it now, you would buy it as that was a valid option. The number of lost opportunities were fewer. The negative impact on the industry was MUCH less than today’s torrent networks, where access to the copy most often comes before the original is available. Today there is no period of time where the original is available but where the copy is not.

Effects on the the game industry – mid and long term

So the game industry, admittingly, lost some sales opportunities and hence a bit of money due to the cracking of the 80s and 90s (the period following that it’s not my responsibility and it’s not for me to justify).

But there are so great positive effects;

Growning market

– Key one is that so many computers were sold, where access to cracked games was the driving force for the purchase. The argument “I can do my homework on it” (did that ever happen – what subject?) and “We can record recepies on it” (did that ever happen?) where good one, but never really valid. The lure was the free games, in the variety provided by friends and school mates who already had the computer. Commodore (and accessories sellers, magazine producers, computer shops and others in the hardware value chain) were the short term real winners.

– The software houses lost short term, but given the increased number of computers, the next few games that they put to the market suddenly had a much greater audience of who were potential buyers. A short term minus compensated by a mid term benefit and a long term massive benefit. This is naturally only true as long as long as there is a growth in computer penetration, but this was true well into at least the first decade of the new millennium.

So complain that we did harm a few early companies, where early games sold a bit less than that could have and a few which didn’t survive to release more games (I don’t know of any), but do not complain without considering the positive effects it had on even the game industry even today. Not to mention the impact on the current GNP.

Computer maturity

– The computers sold generated an early generation of computer savvy users. Of course, some stayed just playing games, but unlike the consoles, computers provides a path to explore programming and many took that. The computer scene (people cracking games and coding demos) was the best school, proving a context where people developed their skills. It was a competitive environment, giving incentives to grow and be raise above.

It’s here easy to just see the value these people had for the game industry, but that’s narrowing the view to just one small aspect. The school that the scene provided included coding, painting and composing but also organising project, managing international groups, entertaining PR for the group as well as HR work, recruiting the talents and making them flourish in the group. Efficient, international teams of youngsters that did most of the things companies do (apart from bookkeeping 😉

FairLights role in this and today?

The next time you use computer based therapy, use software that rely on analysis of visual data, use SMS ticket on the Swedish rail road, use your mobile phone abroad, reach customers with SMS based services (or take advantage of them as receiver) enjoy the beauty of the intros of several nordic TV shows – know that these are areas where the old FairLighters now contribute, based on skillsets built during the FairLight years. Now ranging from professors to highly regarded professionals in their fields – much based on the scene developed skillset. We were material in paving the way for computerisation of many homes, and we also learned a lot that we use even today. We’re always been rowdys for good!

Edits:

# I will keep editing this as long as I get relevant comments. The “80ies” obviously bothered one Reddit user. You can’t win them all but that was an easy trade to adjust the title. I really can’t change the permalink though …

# The game I sought was Bounces

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