A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 2: The Scene

01 Jan

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The scene, the underground, whatever name you attach to it, there will never be anything like it again. There was a certain degree of innocence about it all, even though the activities were largely illegal. No one really understood that because most of us were still living at home trying to get through primary school! We had no larger world view to place the activities in context, no moral compass to tell us it was wrong. It was just fun, and that’s all we cared about!

— A scener named “Fantasy”

There is no historical instant to label as the beginning of the so-called “scene,” the loose international association of hackers, crackers, phreakers, and traders who dedicated themselves to making every computer game available for free within hours of its release, regardless of where in the world that initial release took place. The scene’s story rather begins with thousands of individual stories taking place in thousands of places, in the playgrounds and computer stores and bedrooms where young people first began to casually trade their latest software purchases among themselves. Someone who had a friend in the next town over, where the pool of games being passed around might be very different, could become a big fish in his own small pond by visiting said friend for a little inter-city trading. Gradually a larger distribution network was formed that offered immense rewards in status for the best-connected traders. It didn’t take long for some of these teenage kingpins to start editing their initials into the games, just so everyone at their school would be sure to know from whose largess they were benefiting. And so it began, driven, as it always would be, by the eternal adolescent need for acceptance and validation as much as it was by the very new technologies of home computers and the games they played.

If we insist on identifying a more concrete point of origin for the scene, we could do worse than the birth of Eagle Soft Incorporated, the oldest of the big cracking groups whose bewildering, ever-changing allegiances and wars would come to dominate life in the scene. In 1982, three Canadians named Dan, Jason, and Jim decided to band together under the Eagle Soft banner, chosen from a literal banner of an eagle that Dan happened to have hanging above his bed. With copy protection now becoming more common on games and other software, Jim, a citizen of Singapore studying in Canada, became one of the the world’s first recognized crackers through his work de-protecting early Commodore 64 games. Then another, even better cracker from the United States named Mitch joined the group. In a matter of months he took it over, as the original Canadian trio all lost interest and got on with their lives in one way or another. Unlike Mitch, who remained an almost unique exception by simply going by his first name, the new members he recruited all adopted online handles, the perfect complement to a social milieu that would come to represent for its participants an alternate, fantastic existence divorced from all the trials and tribulations of high school.

Eagle Soft

Eagle Soft dominated the Commodore 64 cracking scene in North America throughout the 64’s glory years there, thanks not only to their technical chops but also to a network of contacts inside magazines and stores that often resulted in an Eagle Soft crack of a game hitting the scene before an honest buyer could walk into a store and purchase it. The earliest Eagle Soft cracks went entirely unclaimed. Later the group started to edit in their initials (“ESI”) wherever they could find a place — for instance, as a replacement for the usual “loading…” message. Soon, however, the Eagle Soft eagle, one of the most iconic images of the cracking scene as a whole, made its first appearance. It became the centerpiece of the custom-programmed introductions that Eagle Soft took to including in the games they cracked. Such “cracktros” were soon a staple of the emerging scene, a place for the various groups to brag about their accomplishments, greet their friends and flame their enemies, and, teenage boys being teenage boys, quote their favorite rock lyrics (Eagle Soft always had a particular obsession with Rush).

Pirated games cracked by North American groups like Eagle Soft were first released almost exclusively via modem, through a fast-growing underground network of BBS systems. Telecommunications in those days was almost unbelievably primitive. Almost all of the boards were single-user systems, a single Commodore 64 or similar computer attached to a single phone line. Because only one person could be online uploading or downloading at any one time, the boards’ time was precious. A scener was expected to justify his use of a system’s time by uploading new “warez” as well as downloading; many boards had a credit system that might award two “download credits” for every block uploaded. Like everything else about the scene, the boards themselves were ranked according to a hierarchy running from “lame” to “eleet”; the better the board’s ranking, the more connected were its users and the more recent the games hosted there. Games trickled down through the hierarchy, from the “0-dayz” boards to the “3-dayz” to the “5-dayz” to all the others, to be eventually traded in gymnasiums and lunch rooms via the sneaker net by those kids so lame they didn’t even own modems. Primitive though it was, the system was surprisingly efficient. A hot new game could easily be available nationwide on the most eleet boards within 24 hours of its arrival on store shelves — if not before it was actually released, thanks to the scene’s contacts inside publishers and magazines. Within a week or two after that one could expect to find it on even the lamest boards.

In those days, there were few affordable legal ways to call between telephone area codes without incurring minute-by-minute long-distance charges, an expense very few parents of teenagers were willing to tolerate. Thus the grease that lubricated the distribution of pirated games was “phreaking,” the illegal practice of making long-distance calls for free. The PC industry had always had connections to this shady art; Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs famously first bonded over a “blue box” used to generate the whistling tones that could be used to fool the analog phone systems of the early 1970s, and one of the first pieces of third-party hardware made available for the original Apple II was a similar device. In the 1980s, the scene made phreaking more popular than ever. By now the old analog switches that were vulnerable to blue boxes were on their way out, but the new phenomenon of long-distance calling cards was on the way in. These allowed customers to take their long-distance services with them when they traveled; they needed only dial a local access number, then input the code on their card followed by the long-distance number they were actually wanting to call. In the beginning, many of the calling-card codes consisted of only five digits, meaning that for a company with just 5000 calling-card customers fully one possibility in twenty would be a valid number. Sceners developed programs to brute-force the numbers; these could be set up overnight to try combination after combination until a valid one turned up. Once they were found, the phreaker could either reserve the codes for his own use or trade them on the boards for download credits or other considerations. Most would last a few weeks, until the victim got her first bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Because they were so essential to the workings of the scene, long-distance codes (“codez”) and other means of phreaking were if anything even more sought-after than the games themselves, the fastest way for a new arrival to earn cred and rise through the class hierarchy. Unfortunately, phreaking was also by far the most common if not the only way for a scener to get himself into real legal trouble. The last legal questions surrounding the copyright eligibility of software had been settled by the time the scene came into its own, but enforcement still remained at best problematic. Very few district attorneys saw much profit in hauling teenagers into criminal court for trading computer games, and the game publishers themselves, players in a niche industry as they were, had neither the clout to influence the district attorneys nor the financial wherewithal to pursue civil cases. The case of the big phone companies, however, was another matter entirely. The few police investigations and prosecutions that resulted from the American scene’s activities virtually all revolved not around the software piracy that was the perpetrators’ real raison d’être, but rather around the offense of phone phreaking, or even more dangerous practices like credit-card fraud; desperate for more and better hardware to improve their boards and thus improve their standing, some sceners took to using stolen credit-card numbers to order equipment to convenient nearby vacant houses.

That said, even police involvement of this stripe was uncommon, and often exaggerated within the scene itself. Sceners, being almost universally at that rebel-without-a-cause phase of life, relished the idea of being daring outlaws out of all proportion to the reality of the risk. While the so-called “leet speek” that already characterized the scene by the mid-1980s — replacing “software” with “warez,” “hacker” with “haxxor,” “elite” with “eleet” — was allegedly developed to circumvent electronic law-enforcement filters that might be tracking their activities, one senses that such constructions were more important as typical adolescent markers of inclusion and exclusion.

In 1985 or so a new species of game began to trickle into the American Commodore 64 scene. These new arrivals went unmentioned in the magazines’ review sections and were never spotted on store shelves. And they had a different feel about them as well. Typical American commercial software at the time tended to be fairly high-concept stuff, with lots of earnest simulations, strategy games, and adventure games. The new games, though, unabashedly emphasized fast action and fast graphics over depth. Many already came equipped with cracktros of their own, but these also were different in character from the norm, with audiovisual production values that often smoked even those of the impressive action games to which they were attached. And, while the boasting, greeting, and warring being done by the groups behind these new cracktros wasn’t all that different from what American sceners were used to, it was all being carried on by groups no one had ever heard of before, and often in distinctly broken English that was apt to suddenly lapse into spasms of incomprehensible German or Dutch. The American scene had finally met the European.

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest...

A typical Commodore 64 cracktro. Something tells me most sceners greeted this game with particular interest…

The fast-action sensibilities of these new games were right in line with the American scene’s own, ironically much more so than the games commonly made in their own country. They quickly became great favorites, among the most sought-after warez of all. Certain groups became import/export specialists, establishing trading alliances with the groups across the pond. Particularly in the beginning, their trading was often done via the mail. Later, sceners began to practice the risky art of international phreaking. Europeans learned that they could make good use of the calling cards issued by American phone companies to their customers traveling abroad; there followed a booming codez-for-warez trade between the United States and Europe.

The European versions of machines like the Commodore 64 and Amiga were slightly different than the American, with their video signal and internal timings made to conform to the European PAL television standard rather than the American NTSC. This was enough to break certain games that really pushed the hardware, or to make them flicker or run slightly too quickly or too slowly. Some sceners therefore became specialists in PAL or NTSC “fixing,” the art of adapting games to run correctly under the alternate standard. This was far from trivial work — a marker of the fact that, much as the scene may look at times like little more than boys acting out, the best of those boys had real technical chops.

If it’s surprising that the two scenes should have developed so similarly in what was initially all but complete isolation from one another, well, one can only presume that nerdy yet rebellious teenagers really don’t vary all that fundamentally from country to country. More surprising is that the scene took root so strongly in Europe in the face of barriers that must have seemed almost unbelievably confounding to their American counterparts. One was the simple barrier of language. Very few European sceners had English as their native language; computer-mad Britain was, somewhat oddly, never all that huge in the scene, which was biggest in West Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Yet they adopted English, the language they all learned to at least some extent in school and also that of most of the pop culture they consumed, as their lingua franca. The European scene’s diction is indescribable but immediately identifiable to anyone who’s spent any time around it, a mixture of stiff, grammatically suspect schoolboy constructions, leet speek, and phrases copied and pasted out of movies and music, with a heaping dose of profanity layered on top to make it all go down easy.

Another barrier facing European sceners was the cost of telecommunications. European telephone systems, unlike their American counterparts, generally still charged even local calls by the minute in the scene’s formative years, and prior to the influx of all those American codez there were few ways to safely phreak one’s way around this situation. Thus trading by post rather than BBS dominated in Europe for some years. Just as American sceners happily cheated the phone companies, European sceners did the same to the postal systems. Stamps were covered with a thin layer of glue or hairspray, which could be peeled away when packages arrived at their destination, taking with it the postal service’s mark showing the stamps had been used. Another possibility was to attend one of the “copyparties” that started sprouting up in Europe by about 1986. At most of them, you needed only turn up, equipped with a computer, dozens of blank disks, and dozens of games of your own for trading, to get in on the action.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene's newsletters.

An issue of Illegal, one of the scene’s newsletters.

The specter of law enforcement, usually more a theoretical than an actual threat in North America, was a more serious concern in Europe. Plenty of mail swappers had uncomfortable run-ins with the local postal authorities that resulted in hefty fines and very unhappy parents, and in more extreme cases jail terms for international smuggling and/or mail fraud. One French scener by the name of Maximillian, a major trader in the codez used for international phreaking, was tracked down by Interpol and sentenced to several years in prison. The European police also generally took the crime of software piracy more seriously than their American counterparts. The West German and Norwegian police went so far as to institute special task forces to concentrate on the software-piracy problem, although games were seldom if ever their main focus. Still, for sceners in those countries and others the proverbial policeman’s knock on the front door, while not exactly commonplace, was hardly entirely unknown either. The police would arrive armed with search warrants and the full force of the law to ransack the scener’s bedroom while shocked parents looked on in horror.

As if the legitimate authorities weren’t scary enough, then as now the copyright wars attracted a fair number of shady dealers on the side of ostensible law and order. One German lawyer, Günter Freiherr von Gravenreuth, made the war against software piracy a dodgy sort of personal crusade, going so far as to send entrapping letters to suspected sceners in the persona of “Tanja,” a 16-year-old girl looking for new games; whatever else you can say about him, Gravenreuth certainly did know how to capture a teenage boy’s interest. If they replied, the targets could expect to be threatened with a lawsuit, along with a helpful settlement offer for many thousands of marks. (Gravenreuth was himself found in 2004 to be one of the masterminds of an international for-profit software piracy ring that dwarfed in scale and sophistication anything the scene could have imagined.)

Despite all these pressures, the scene not only survived in Europe but thrived, and for far longer than its American equivalent. Much of the reason for the European scene’s comparative longevity had to do with the rise and fall of the computing platforms that both American and European sceners favored. While virtually all viable platforms had their share of cracking groups, the core of the scene always identified most closely with Commodore’s machines, first the 64 and later the Amiga. When the former began to slowly fade and the latter to rise in the late 1980s, European sceners made a natural, gradual migration. Because the Amiga never quite took off in North America as it did in Europe, however, the American scene largely faded away with the 64. Between 1988 and 1990, most of the prominent American groups and crackers disbanded or retired, leaving the scene as a whole a largely European phenomenon, where it would continue to grow for another half-decade. Indeed, it still survives, in a shrunken and more subdued form with little continuing interest in software piracy, right to the present day. So dominant did its identity as a European phenomenon become that today the very fact that a scene ever existed at all in North America is all but forgotten by many.

But how did one get involved in the scene in the first place? In the hope that one individual’s story might take the place of a lot of dull generalities, let me tell you how it happened for “Weasel,” a German scener.

Our hero’s first computer, bought for him by his parents in 1985, was a Commodore 128 that he used in 64 mode all the time because the 128 didn’t have much in the way of games. He started out trading only with his schoolyard chums. But as his mania for collecting grew, his network of contacts grew to match: “People were coming to me now to get the latest games. I had them all!”

He found fascinating the cracktros that came attached to many of the games he was now trading, created by groups with names like the Dynamic Duo, 1001 Crew, Triad, German Cracking Service, and Federation Against Copyright. As the cracktros grew more elaborate almost by the month, he found himself spending more time admiring them and reading their “scrolltexts” than he did playing the games. “One day I want to be one of those guys as well,” he thought, “being part of a group and doing lots of cracks for all the people inside and outside of that so-called ‘scene.'” With that goal in mind, he started learning to program, first in BASIC, then in machine language, following a course in one of the magazines. He used his new knowledge to tinker with the cracktros and the games themselves, changing this and that to see what would happen. And, because every aspiring scener needed a handle, he started to call himself “Wiesel,” from a car advertisement he had stuck to his bedroom door: “Schneller als ein Wiesel!”

One day he took his skateboard to a popular local hill, at the top of which he noticed a rather incongruous stack of floppy disks amid the jumble of backpacks and bags left lying around by the boarders. When he saw the owner of the disks pick them up, he screwed up his courage to walk over and start a conversation. The owner was a fellow who called himself Havok, a music specialist with a cracking group called Frontline. Havok invited him to the next Frontline meeting, to take place in a Burger King in just a few days. Wiesel accepted in a daze, feeling “I must be dreaming.”

At the meeting, he was given an original of a game called Ikari Warriors, whose copy protection was known to be fairly strenuous. His assignment was to crack the game and bring it to the next weekly meeting, thereby to prove himself worthy — or unworthy — of membership.

So I went home and inserted the disk into my computer to have a look at the game. What I first saw looked like a never-be-able-to-crack-that game. So I almost gave up at the beginning, when I noticed the game loading with a track-sector fastloader. I had never seen anything like that before. But I never stopped thinking about a way to get into that damn program. I recalled everything I had already learned about machine language, and tried to find out as much as I could about the loading routine, the protection, the game itself, and how it worked. Finally I found a way to access the game, and after a while I had a working memory backup saved on my disk.

When Wiesel proudly returned to Frontline with crack in hand, they pronounced his work good enough and offered him official membership. There was only one condition: he needed to change his handle from the German “Wiesel” to the English “Weasel,” to “give it an international touch.” Thanks to his boldness, initiative, and technical chops, he was a real participant in the scene at last. He spent the remainder of his teenage years bouncing from group to group — Frontline, Matrix, Crazy, Crest, Enigma, Red Sector, Legend, Avantgarde, Fantastic Four Cracking Group — in the extended soap opera of shifting allegiances and relationships that was the life of a prominent scener. As with so much in life, the hardest part had proved to be just getting through the door.

Cracktros and demos often repurposed — read, stole — graphics and sound from games. The love scene from Defender of the Crown was a great favorite, for obvious reasons.

And once through the door, what was life like then as a real scener? Well, the scene was first and foremost a rough place, dominated as it was by teenage boys with angsty streaks a mile wide. Prominent sceners could be as young as age 13, and most tended to scale back their involvement or drop out entirely before entering their twenties, as jobs and university and girlfriends proved harder and harder to forgo for the all-consuming obligations of being a big wheel in the scene. Sceners mention in interviews already feeling “old” and out of step with the Lord of the Flies politics of the scene as young as age 17.

There were some exceptions to the demographic rule. Eagle Soft, for example, numbered two actual girls within their ranks (Ladyhawk and Scorpio), who served as their artists, drawing their famous eagle among other pictures. Perhaps the most amusing exception of all is that of Derbyshire Ram, an English country gentleman who retired in his fifties, took up the Commodore 64 as a hobby, and became a major trader and member of several big groups. While Derbyshire Ram was by all reports a gentle soul and an all-around good egg, others among the sprinkling of adults who chose to spend so much time hanging out with all these teenage boys may have had more disturbing motivations; one, known as Music Man, was reportedly jailed for child molestation.

But, exceptions aside, we can guess that at least 90 percent of active sceners during the 1980s were boys between the ages of 13 and 19. The reality that the members of this international criminal conspiracy almost all had parents hectoring them to do their homework and spend more time away from their computer could lead to some hilarious juxtapositions. Mitch of Eagle Soft, for instance, who was for years the most respected cracker in North America, worshiped by legions of disciples within the scene, tells of hiding in bed under the covers with his brother and a portable Commodore 64 playing Maniac Mansion into the night. Really, how many international criminal masterminds have a bed time?

It seems safe to say that many of these kids were the sort who don’t have the easiest time of it in high school. Sadly, instead of creating a gentler teenage society, most embraced the “shit rolls downhill” theory of social policy with relish, choosing victims below them in the scene’s pecking order to harass mercilessly. Most of their flames and diatribes will sound very familiar to anyone who’s ever been unwise enough to read YouTube comments. We’ve already encountered one or two of the scene’s cruder productions in passing in earlier articles, like the text adventure Mad Party Fucker, with its tagline “The object of this game is to fuck as many women as you can without getting bufu’ed by fags (contracting AIDS).” Tolerance wasn’t any higher than grammar on the scene’s list of virtues.

Things could get particularly vicious when one of the periodic “warz” broke out between rival groups. If the groups were of sufficient stature, the conflict could quickly become a global one, with every other group forced to align themselves with one side or the other. The largest, most sustained, and most brutal of all the wars was probably the one sparked off in 1987 between Eagle Soft and their only real rival for dominance of the North American scene, a group called Untouchable Cracking Force. Again, some of the techniques used by the combatants will ring sadly familiar to anyone aware of some of the Internet harassment that goes on today. Sceners set up war dialers to call their enemies’ homes, endlessly, with a screeching modem on the other end for anyone who picked up; taped their enemies’ conversations, then sent out edited snippets to place them in a bad light (anything that could somehow be construed to imply that they were gay was particular gold); ordered massive quantities of pizza to their houses; sent them mail-order packages full of useless computer equipment, ordered cash-on-delivery.

Scene from a "war" between Eagle Soft and a rival group. Make no mistake: the scene could be an ugly, ugly place.

A scene from a war between Eagle Soft and Untouchable Cracking Force. Believe it or not, this is actually one of the less offensive images of its type.

A journalist who infiltrated the scene and published a newspaper article about the goings-on — one of its few appearances in the overground media — allegedly suffered even worse indignities at their hands. According to By-Tor, a former member of Eagle Soft:

I remember it caused GREAT disruption in the scene and many major groups got together and we harassed him for 2 weeks straight, (I wish I would remember the groups names involved) his credit cards were given out, were charged up for computer equipment that went to a lot of people in the scene. His MCI cards were phreaked and loaded up with charges. He had to change his phone number 3 times during this time and cancel credit cards as there were people in groups that were great hackers and had inside info to finding out his new phone numbers and credit card numbers. Taught him a lesson he never forgot, that he was forced to write a 2nd story apologizing to all of us for lying to us and writing his story explaining the workings of the ELITE SCENE. We put him through HELL. :)

This doesn’t truly convey in written words what truly went on but that is the main story. It was GREAT!

The worst transgression, considered beyond the pale by even most warring sceners but occasionally practiced nevertheless, was to make an anonymous call to the police (the “pigs”) to out a fellow scener as a phreaker and/or pirate. There were also scattered reports of physical confrontations, particularly at the copyparties in Europe, involving fists, baseball bats, pepper spray, or in one alarming case an allegedly live hand grenade.

Lest we judge all of this too harshly, we should remember that, driven by hormones, frustrations, and most of all peer pressure, almost all of us did and said things as adolescents that we aren’t particularly proud of. Betwixt and between the orgasms of ugliness real friendships were formed. The old sceners have for the most part long since gone on to productive lives and careers, often using the skills they learned cracking games and writing cracktros in those formative years. With the exception of only a few like our friend By-Tor who still remembers the scene’s worst antics as so “great,” most remember the scene fondly when thinking back, but naturally prefer to focus on its more positive aspects if they haven’t managed to forget the worst ugliness entirely. The collision between nostalgia and reality can be a little off-putting when they are, say, confronted with an actual newsletter to which they contributed, as happened with the fellow who once went by the handle of “Punk Executioner.”

The thing that struck me when re-reading this 20 year old text was the level of aggression and gorilla chest thumping. Clearly I owe a lot of apologies. This was more apparent after I penetrated deep into my garage and dug out the old C64. Re-reading some of the scroll texts and Reason 4 Treason articles made me cringe. It appears I took aim at any dork, nerd, drop-out, non-music listener, anti-graffiti, pro-establishment, unfashionable person out there. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was because I occasionally copped a bit of flak myself for being a ‘computer head’ at school. Being a Dungeons & Dragons geek and using a brief-case as a school bag didn’t do me any favours either.

The scene’s saving grace, assuming we’re willing to grant it one, must be that its was an ethos not just of nihilism but also, almost paradoxically, of creation and even artistic excellence. Cracking games wasn’t easy, particularly as time went on and the publishers’ protection schemes grew more and more sophisticated. The best crackers brought a real flair to the job, not just finding a way to copy the disk but also adding cheat modes, conveniences, and new features. See for instance the crack by a group called Nostalgia of Access Software’s Leader Board golf simulation, which combined the core game with the course add-on pack and a simple menu to switch between them, simplifying a rather laborious process of rebooting and switching disks that annoyed many a legitimate purchaser.

And, increasingly over time, cracking was just one of the things that sceners did, and eventually not even the most important. In addition to horrid pornographic text adventures like Mad Party Fucker, sceners produced newsletters on paper and disks, in the case of the latter often with astonishingly good production values if not prose; home-grown utilities to produce graphics and, especially, music (the best of the scene’s so-called “sound trackers” on the Amiga were as good as any commercial music package); reams of art and countless hours of music, some of which wouldn’t sound particularly out of place on a modern dance floor, created with the aid of said utilities; and of course cracktros, which by the end of the 1980s had begun to morph into standalone demos, little showcases of multimedia art of sometimes stunning sophistication and ambition. In an odd but satisfying turnaround, software piracy became the afterthought of a vibrant and creative, if still very much underground, association of digital artists. Latter-day Amiga crackers even took to adding messages to their scrolltexts saying, hey, if you like this game you really ought to buy it — perhaps because by this point many current and former sceners were working in the games industry, snapped up for their audiovisual-programming chops by the very publishers who had once tried so hard to stamp them out. As copyparties turned into “demoparties” and the cracking scene turned into the “demoscene” in Europe in the early 1990s, it also became, relatively speaking, a gentler place, with an idealistic artistic ethos all its own. We’ll drop in on the scene again in a future article, to give you a chance to appreciate with me that unique community and some of its creations and to marvel with me how far it came in such a short time.

To be sure, the crackers and pirates who came before the demo coders were a less idealistic lot, motivated as they were by their teenage lusts for acceptance and for free games, but all their feverish cracking and trading all those years ago has had one supreme benefit. In cracking the games, they made it possible to archive and preserve them, something the companies that published them never spared a moment’s thought for. The sceners didn’t either, of course; they were hardly working for posterity when spreading their “0-day warez” around the world. Nevertheless, I’m hugely in their debt, as is everyone who cares about the history of gaming. The vast majority of the games you’ll find on the various disk-image archives today are the cracked versions, complete with their cracktros chronicling all the most recent wars and alliances, an ephemeral tempest in a teapot preserved forever. That, too, is another marker of our new digital way of living, toward which the scene, the first international digital subculture, pointed the way.

Next time we’ll wrap up this little series with a practical look at the mechanisms of copy protection itself: how it worked and how the scene’s crackers learned to defeat it.

(Sceners have done a very good job of archiving most of the artifacts of the 1980s and 1990s, although most of their own attempts at writing about their history quickly devolve into breathless but bewildering accounts of scene politics — “And then this group was formed, and went to war with this group, but this other group switched sides…,” etc. There’s a lot of that in Freax by Tamás Polgár, the only book I know of about the scene, but it’s nevertheless an essential resource for anyone hoping to really understand it. Otherwise this article is largely drawn from online scene sites. See CSDB, Scenery, Heikki Orsila’s archive of scener interviews, Hall of Fame, the Illegal newsletter archives, and Recollection. Also see the chapter “The Scene” in my own The Future Was Here.)


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39 Responses to A Pirate’s Life for Me, Part 2: The Scene

  1. A

    January 1, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    You might be interested in a book called “Copyright does not exist” from 1994 by Linus Walleij, who was involved in the Swedish scene. It’s been a long time since I read it, and I suspect it has a lot of stuff you already know but its materials about the Swedish scene might be new to you.

    English translation:

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 2, 2016 at 9:26 am

      Thanks! I feel like I’ve seen or even read some of that before at some point, but it somehow dropped off my radar.

  2. S. John Ross

    January 1, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Ah, memories. I wandered in at the end of all that, and was once a “Security Sysop” on a piratey BBS in the early-to-mid-90s. It was my job to maintain the “civilian front” to make it look like an active, family-friendly board (post polls, prod discussions on the publicly-visible topics, and to ration time for the pirates to up-and-download software my machine couldn’t even dream of handling, since I was riding and 8088 with 512k of RAM and no hard drive …) Well. Most of the actual rationing was automated … but I had to go in and check that people weren’t uploading junk to get their time-credits.

  3. Bernie

    January 1, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Well, there it goes again but I think deserved praise never gets old : great research, elegant writing, perfect length, …. keep it up Jimmy !

    Eaglesoft ! , ’nuff said for us C64 old-timers among your readerrship. Back in ’85 – ’87 , it was quite a rush when I popped the latest “warez” in my 1541 disk drive, typed the loading command and up came the famous Eagle always to the tune of an awesome track that compelled me to crank the volumen knob of my 1702 monitor as far as it would go. I even recorded them on tape once so I could play them in my walkman for schoolmates who owned PC’s and show them how great the 64’s sound was.

    Your mention of “Derbyshire Ram” brought memories of a local scene member here in my country back in the late 80’s : A lady who fronted a repair outfit for IBM-compatibles, working mainly for local business offices. She also owned a C128 to play with on her spare time. She was well known among commodre owners, one the few that could repair C64 and C128’s locally and also an active trader of the latest “warez”, of which she used to make typed “catalogs”. This was one of the few sources of Commodore software in my city and maybe my country. I remember her as being very polite and professional.

    I also remember that back in ’85 – ’87 my dad was amazed by some of the ‘cracktros’ and how he wondered if there was something similar available for his beloved B&W Macintosh.

    Was there ever a Macintosh scene ? (I know there was a IIGS scene)

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 2, 2016 at 9:35 am

      I don’t think there was much of a scene on the Mac. It was quite an expensive machine, and thus out of the reach of most teenagers. And there weren’t a lot of games available for it, and those that were weren’t really in line with the scene’s sensibilities. Sceners didn’t usually get too excited about things like The Fool’s Errand, Balance of Power, or the latest Infocom…

      There’s a whole separate story to be told about the way that the scene spread software into countries like your own that had few or no avenues for buying it legitimately. Hungarians, for instance, were not quite so isolated as most Eastern Bloc citizens. Having a relatively gentle government by Soviet standards, Hungarians were able to receive international mail and could even visit Vienna semi-regularly without too many problems. Thus software spread from Hungary onward throughout the Eastern Bloc in surprising quantities and with surprising efficiency. I do want to cover some of these neglected corners of the PC revolution at some point, although I’m not yet sure where to slot it in.

      • Timid Incantation

        January 9, 2016 at 2:21 pm

        Please consider doing a piece on the Soviet-side incarnations of the Speccy,
        or the Zilog’s processor worming its way through the embargo and Iron Curtain.

      • flowmotion

        January 25, 2016 at 12:00 pm

        A friend of mine involved in the Apple II scene moved on to the IIGS and later the Mac scene. It was small, but it existed.

        There was a fair number of bootable floppy games produced in the early days for Mac 128K/512K/Plus systems, but few of them would work at all on later Mac systems, and thus were quickly forgotten. So, when my friend brought over a collection of 50 or so cracked Mac games, I found that only a few were usable on my Mac SE. Later Mac software seemed to always use the OS disk routines, and the copy protection was implemented by code sheets, etc.

        Interesting series for someone like myself who was really only on the outside edge of the “scene”.

      • Carl Read

        June 21, 2016 at 7:29 am

        This isn’t Scene related, but China today is continuing the proud tradition of a state trying to control computer games…

  4. Nate

    January 1, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Pretty good article. There are some other scene books like Generation 64 you should look up (it’s being translated from Swedish). I have Freax and it’s good but has some grammar issues that make it harder to read.

    Also Anders Carlsson’s contribution to this paper:

    “Shits roles down hill” — did you mean “shit rolls downhill”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 2, 2016 at 9:50 am

      Thanks! Will have to think about getting Generation 64 before the scene turns up again.

      I don’t think I would ever call Freax “good” as a book to *read*, but there’s a lot of great information in there to be dug out. Honestly, terrible writing is so typical of these sorts of productions that I never expect more…

      Anders Carlsson’s work I am familiar with.

  5. Michael Davis

    January 2, 2016 at 3:32 am

    “shits roles downhill”

    Shit rolls downhill :)

    • Michael Davis

      January 2, 2016 at 3:33 am

      Ah, when I opened the article there weren’t any comments yet, now I see in the time I’ve had the tab open Nate already covered that one :P

  6. Ricardo Quesada

    January 2, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Great article, very well-written. Thanks!

  7. Veronica Connor

    January 2, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    Great summary of the scene, Jimmy. While the C64 scene was certainly the largest by volume, it deserves mentioning that the Apple II scene was arguably the most technically sophisticated as far as the cracks themselves. The reason is that, unlike all other microcomputers, the Apple II’s disk drive head and motor are 100% CPU controlled. No serial interfaces or smarts exists within the drive to parse commands. This meant copy-protection developers had Carte Blanche to create entirely new ways to encode data on spinning magnetic media- and invent they did. Everything from quarter tracks to variable sector sizes to spiral layouts were tried. Every combination of timing and speed variation on the bitstream was tried. Physical damage to the disks was tried. This is before getting into all the encryption, obfuscation, and other higher-level techniques used. Apple II copy protection systems and their associated cracks are true works of technical beauty. For a tiny window into this world, follow @a2_4am on Twitter. This person is micro-blogging cracks of educational and other obscure software (ignored by the scene at the time) for the purposes of preservation. By the way- that’s another angle not mentioned in your story. The long-term benefit of all that cracking is that we now have preserved all this software before the floppies went bad. Otherwise we would have lost most of it by now.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 3, 2016 at 9:19 am

      Thanks, Veronica. I’ve been going through some old issues of Hardcore Computist lately, and realizing a bit for myself just what you state here.

      I actually did acknowledge the immense if inadvertent service the crackers did for posterity at the end of this article. ;)

    • MagerValp

      January 7, 2016 at 2:32 pm

      I couldn’t agree more about @a2_4am’s crack write-ups, they’re a great read and there are some real gems in there.

      I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree that copy protection on the A2 is any more advanced than on the C64 though. Just like the A2 the 1541 disk drive gives developers full CPU control over media access, including head stepping, bit density, motor control, etc. They used the whole arsenal too, like custom/bad GCR encoding, track lengths, bit density, fat/half/synced tracks, and we even got SpiraDisc. You can find a good overview here:

      • Peter Ferrie

        February 17, 2016 at 2:17 am

        Maybe my articles in POC||GTFO #10 and the upcoming #11 might change your mind… :)

  8. Odkin

    January 3, 2016 at 1:10 am

    Hmmm…. no forced “her” and “she”‘s in this posting. Forcing gender equality into the essentially all-male mileu of 80’s computing was always a weird idea.

    • Peter Piers

      March 8, 2016 at 5:30 pm

      Yes, that’s because Jimmy is a conscientious writer with a specific and justifiable stylistic choice. Forcing the articles where they don’t belong is the sort of thing that people do when they have an agenda.

      By the way, there is no point is insisting on this any further. It gets really tiresome. All of you, please stop. If you don’t like Jimmy’s stylistic writing choices, don’t read the articles.

  9. patryk wasiak

    January 3, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Hi Jimmy,

    This is an excellent outline of the nature of the scene of the 1980s. Sure, Freax is the only book about the scene, but we (that is a bunch of people from the Demoscene Research network) wrote several journal articles and book chapters about the scene. Most of those papers can be accessed online. Here are some links:

  10. Brendan

    January 5, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Jimmy,

    Excellent research and writing, as usual! You may be interested in some sections of my research into tracked music in the Demoscene, a lot of which concentrates on the subcultural mechanics of its creative disciplines as it evolved from/within the warez scene.

    You can read it here:

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 5, 2016 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks, Patryk and Brendan. These are some great new resources for future articles about the scene.

  11. Brendan

    January 5, 2016 at 1:31 pm

    Also, this is an excellent archive project that gathers printed/written artefacts of the demoscene and copy-party era. Disk labels, postal correspondence, even search warrants served on (mostly German) warez traders and crackers!

    Here’s a fascinating account of somebody’s brush with the law, including the police docs, warrants, etc.:

  12. Ben

    January 6, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Hi Jimmy, I’ve been really enjoying your writing for the past couple of years so thank you.

    “Between 1988 and 1990, most of the prominent American groups and crackers disbanded or retired, leaving the scene as a whole a largely European phenomenon, where it would continue to grow for another half-decade. Indeed, it still survives, in a shrunken and more subdued form with little continuing interest in software piracy, right to the present day. So dominant did its identity as a European phenomenon become that today the very fact that a scene ever existed at all in North America is all but forgotten by many.”

    I thought I might expand on this statement as I am not sure if this is entirely accurate, I’d think there was more of a schism of Europeans and Americans which had to do with their platforms of choice. While the 8-bit scenes in North America died the DOS PC scene eventually rose to prominence and took their place.

    There were fragmented DOS pirate communities back in the mid-1980s but they seemed localised to US/Canadian cities and were certainly less active than the C64. Like other scenes they had their share of embedded cracker credits and even occasional loader screens. But it was rather backwards compared to what went on with the Apple II or C64.

    Archon embed 1984
    Frogger 2 loader 1987
    Future Brain scroller 1989

    But in the 1990s the US dominated the pirate scene on both DOS and Windows. Not surprisingly really as most publishers and developers of PC titles were based there. The distribution logistics of retail big boxed PC games was problematic and pirates naturally veered towards the quickest source of the software supply chain.

    It seemed in the 80s and early 1990s many European publishers and consumers completely ignored the PC, as did much of the European scene. I’d imagine many holdouts eventually saw the writing on the wall for their proprietary systems and reluctantly made the move. Because by the mid-1990s you had a very different situation due to ready broadband access at institutions and the proliferation of residential ISDN lines. The US became the source of software supplies and the base for release groups while Europe became a hotbed of fast exchange sites and speed trading.

    This is all anecdotal but I’d say in 1987/88 there were attempts to create a national community in the US on the PC with BBS communities such as the North American Pirate-Phreak Association.

    There were small local groups and independent crackers such as CIA and Canadian Pirates Inc.

    1989 saw a rise and competition between large multi-city groups such as The Firm, INC.

    1990 PC groups became competitive and professional with the likes of THG, INC battling it out. It also saw the emergence of the block ascii/ansi art scene from the US pirate BBS community.

    Candyman (INC) interview from 1999
    History of block ascii by roy

    1990-91 had a number of European C64/Amiga groups try to penetrate the US PC scene. Sometimes they went it alone other times they teamed up with existing US based groups.

    A few Euro C64 groups on the PC in 91.
    Razor 1911 C64 on the PC
    TRSi & TDT

    1991/2 The block art scene seems to break from the US pirate scene. ACiD, iCE and others create a competitive art community with monthly art packs releases, art focused BBS sites and forums.

    1992/4 AAA computer game development was mostly PC. By then the PC scene must have been larger than the previous generation on the C64? And certainly bigger than any of the pirate communities in Europe at the time. There were a number of ex-C64 sceners active on the PC.

    1995/96 Saw the death of the pirate BBS and the transition from floppy disk releases onto CD-ROM ripping. A process where they extracted the core game from a CD-ROM for distribution but minified it by removing large video and audio files that were not required for gameplay.

    • Jimmy Maher

      January 6, 2016 at 10:18 am

      Thanks for the plethora of new links! It may take me a little time to digest it all. :)

      I certainly didn’t mean to say that pirating and cracking died in North America after 1990. Anything but. But, as you say, the American “scene,” such as it was, evolved along very different lines from the European after that point. There wasn’t the same developing ethos of creation, and nothing like the same sense of community. Warez trading in North America became “just” an underground criminal network — which the cracking/demoscene also was in Europe, of course, but at its best it was something a bit more interesting than that as well. To my knowledge, very few of the old crackers and traders remained active in the PC-based piracy game.

      Whether you consider these developments a “schism” or the birth of something entirely new in North America is perhaps in the eye of the beholder.

      Another big “problem,” if you consider it that, for North America was the exploding popularity of CD-ROM in the early 1990s. These packed so much data that they were effectively impossible to trade via modem, unless one opted for, as you noted, stripped-down releases without much of the multimedia content. I would say that CD-ROM may be the closest publishers have ever actually come to stopping piracy in its tracks. After all, who wants to play something like a Wing Commander game without the movies and the story? But in time broadband appeared and even entire CDs — and, later, DVDs — were tradeable again on the Internet, and that was that.

      • Tank

        January 7, 2016 at 7:29 am

        I’ll have to respectfully disagree with your perception of the late ’80s and ’90s PC cracking scene in NA. There was a huge sense of community and the stakes were large in the pirate scene. There was plenty of ethos, not only in the crack itself but the supply, distribution, cheats and loaders involved. there were insanely large groups, even women (The Humble Babe, heh), small groups jockeying for position and tons of wanna-be’s. It became more than the C64 scene ever was with it’s own art scene to support it, it’s own music scene and its own courier scene, it’s own e-zine scene, and not to mention all the BBS software, door packages, message networks, and other software that was developed to support the underground ‘piracy game’.

        The C64 had died and PC was king in the Americas. No one from the C64 scene transitioned because it was a completely different beast. More games than ever before were being released on a monthly basis. Intricate communication networks were utilized to transfer these wares back and forth to Europe. In fact, some of the best crackers were European.

        Also, the CD-ROM didn’t become widely utilized until the mid ’90s, and even then the games were still traded like disk games, with the transition to internet couriering alleviating any issues with file size. The modem was still used once the game was sucked down from the Internet to get it to all the boards that didn’t have an ISDN connection all the way until the mid-late ’90s.

        • Jimmy Maher

          January 7, 2016 at 7:57 am

          Fair enough. I obviously have much to learn on 1990s piracy. (I’m afraid my own direct experience with that world ends about the same time as the North American 8-bit scene.) While I could quibble with some of your points, particularly in regard to CD-ROM, it would be just that, quibbling. I think the germane points are that there was a lack of continuity between the 8-bit scene and what followed in the United States that didn’t exist in Europe, and that the American scene you describe didn’t have a lot of connection to the emerging Amiga demoscene in Europe. Their incompatible platform choices alone would serve to ensure that. That’s probably as far as we need to go right now.

      • Ben

        January 7, 2016 at 10:49 am

        I am usually not surprised by how much quality loss people are willing to tolerate when it comes to their entertaiment. Absolutely Wing Commander 3+ is pretty useless without its cinematics. But there were many games of the era which simply used the CD-ROM to store flavour videos and added little to the overall experience.

        For example you can now buy Quake from GOG and Steam but it’s not the original retail edition as it is missing its famous Nine Inch Nails soundtrack presumably due to licensing issues. But judging from the overwhelmingly positive reviews on those services, people are happy to pay $10 for a technically ripped edition of the game. A version that is probably very similar to the pirate release put out by Razor 1911 20 years ago.

        Back onto the scene I think was trying to convey that the 1990s scene offered more than just programmed demos and intros. Though I guess one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and not everyone holds art with the same values.

        I’d say after that schism mentioned previously artists focused on their platform’s strengths. In Europe with the c64 and Amiga it was tracker music and programmed demonstrations. While in the US with the PC the art focused on ascii/ansi block art intended for BBSs and pirate release text files. But some of those artists also moved into VGA imagery, which I imagine itself was inspired from the Amiga. And as the PC’s resolutions increased the VGA scene morphed into ‘hi-rez’ art and even split into software skinning/themes and early amateur design communities.

        Some of this is most likely lost to history as unfortunately doesn’t go that far back. But surprisingly the pirate and the US art scenes were early adopters of the graphical web. While the demoscene took its time to wean itself off the more traditional Internet protocols such as public FTP sites.

        Quite a number of pirate and PC art groups had their own well developed websites and even domain names back when they were ridiculously expensive to own and operate. The websites for pirate groups didn’t offer wares as they embodied that elitism ethos created during the 8-bit era. Instead their web sites were often used as tools for ego and promotional propaganda.

        I’d generalise but suggest the demo community in the 1990s put more of a focus on developing art from compiled code while the PC art and pirate scenes were more platform agnostic in embracing text and static imagery as their artistic platforms of choice.

        Btw do you think this was Mitch using the EagleSoft alias and the Eagle Soft Inc. brand in 1998 on the PC?

        • Jimmy Maher

          January 7, 2016 at 11:31 am

          Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s him. He mentioned in his interview on Recollection that he tried to get the old band back together, so to speak, around that time. But it fizzled out pretty quickly. Very few of the new sceners had any idea who Mitch or Eagle Soft were or what they’d once represented.

        • Michael

          January 14, 2016 at 9:19 am

          Nine Inch Nails sound track from Quake.. memories…

        • flowmotion

          January 25, 2016 at 12:08 pm

          About the Quake Soundtrack — it was included as standard CD audio (“red book”) tracks that were played like any other audio CD. So it wasn’t ripped out of the game files. Although, there may well be legal issues with distributing the soundtrack as MP3s.

  13. The Wizard

    February 15, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Great article, what a blast from the past. I used to live down the street from JJ the Breaker!

  14. Peter Piers

    March 8, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    “Orgasms of ugliness”? I love that turn of phrase. :) Really expressive.

  15. mr ESI

    April 13, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    Nice article.
    Brought back many fond memories of the time.
    It seems you have quite a lot of knowledge from the scene back then.
    Having a bit of knowledge of ESI from ’82-’86, I can correct you on the following:
    – The third ESI founder was not from Singapore but from Europe
    – His name was certainly not Jim
    – All 3 were active in ESI until the summer of ’86


    January 3, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    In the early 90’s we were able to make free phone calls rather easy, I never had a problem finding ways to call us and overseas. This is one of the reasons you see so many FBR imports. Astral Warrior, Ronski, Bit Bandit, and a few others uploaded multiple times a day to my board.
    Jason, sometime I will tell you about how the Slaves really came into play and correct some of the history. I have my BBS disks with all fourm messages.
    Here is my login Seq screen

    FBR, The HUMBLE Guys, Napalm & Worship. 0 day, 2400 baud only, no locals.

  17. The person who snitched on him.

    May 8, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    Music Man (Chuck) was a Pedophile who worked for a paging company in Orlando and ran a Color 64 BBS out of an RV that was parked next to the Parliament House Resort that is still in operation.

    He was a member of “The Alliance”. He found his 13 year old male victim through his board as he allowed some locals on and screened them as potential victims with the sysop chat system.

    He made the mistake of not locking his RV door and was walked in on by another teen coder/cracker that would come over and work on his BBS and drink underage.

    He and his victim were caught naked with a tripod and a video recorder running as he was filming the abuse to trade with like minded pedophiles. He was then anonymously snitched to the Orlando Police Dept. and they took the detailed report very seriously.

    They investigated him and followed him picking up his victim in his white company van. They interviewed the victim who admitted everything. They then got a warrant and tossed his RV and found the hidden compartment where he kept his VCR tapes.

    He did go to jail and did not get a long enough sentence. I was shocked that his existence in the scene would be found on the web. I won’t state any real names or what my handle was.

  18. Ben

    April 12, 2023 at 10:31 pm

    get in one the action -> get in on the action

    Günther Freiherr von Gravenreuth -> Günter Freiherr von Gravenreuth

    force to align -> forced to align

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 13, 2023 at 1:12 pm


  19. Speed /

    September 8, 2023 at 4:02 am

    Jimmy, thank you for writing this. It blows my mind how similar many of my C64 experiences back in the 80s were to what you’ve written—and what so many others all around the US and Europe experienced. I too started at copyparties, traded with friends at school, got a modem, traded with local BBS’s, learned to phreak and finally one day took a chance and dialed into a number from a big name crack-intro, got a huge break from the sysop and wound up running fairly new warez between the BBS’s of a prominent cracking group. One day in my late-ish teens, after day-after-day of downloading & uploading with no sleep, the power supply of my 1541 went up in smoke…a sign I should stop before I got caught. Thanks for documenting and reminding me of the great memories of my little slice in the scene…


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