Ever since the dawn of time, with money becoming the main medium which we use to access goods and services, getting things for free has always been the dream. Still that straw man argument of “stealing what you need” would apply to necessary goods, like food or clothing. In the case of videogames (or, well, movies and music) one would be hard pressed to recognize them as “necessary”. Still, in the 80s and 90s, sometimes it would take years for a game to reach the world, from Japan or the US. This meant that, in different cases, piracy would end up becoming a sort of necessary evil running parallel to “import games”, which would end up being a factor that would hurt companies in the console market. In the homecomputer market, piracy was often an endemic factor: you could fight it, but even if the market behaved efficiently, you could never win.
Let’s take a look at how software and gaming piracy in Europe through the 80s and 90s and which were the major players in the scene.
From bedrooms to BBS: the pirates evolved
In the 80s the goverments’ stance against software piracy was pretty varied, there was no single European approach towards the topic. France and the United Kingdom, since the early 80s, were pretty outspoken against all kinds of illegal copying of floppies and games. But there were situations like Italy (probably the worst example, since a specific law only came in 1993), Spain and Portugal where that same approach took a while to become reality. Beyond each country’s own legal system, a topic which would definitely take several articles to analyze in detail, one important fact to note is how many of the Warez groups did hail from Europe.
The most active scene was surely the Scandinavian one, with many groups scattered around Sweden and Norway. Then, in order of importance, France and Germany and, finally, also Italy. Interestingly, the scene in Italy was not as big as others since piracy was a real legitimate industry, selling copied games in newspaper kiosks and shops. The original cracker scene was made up, mostly, of groups of young kids that were trying to build up their reputation, trying to find ways to access protected original games and distributing them to their friends. It was not about the money (as also Martin Paul Eve argues in “Warez”), but rather a sort of more sophisticated version of the good old “homecopying” methods, at least before the bulletin board systems (BBS) became a reality.
Collection of Amiga cracktros
Why did crackers and, as a result, software piracy, seemed to thrive more in Europe than in the United States? Except for the overall more slack legal approach, there is no easy answer. It probably has much to do with how consoles took a while to find an audience in the continent. But one could argue, Sweden had such a big warez scene, despite being notoriously a law-abiding country and, also Nintendo was an almost instant hit in Sweden, what’s going on?
Huge investments in broadband in the country would partially explain it, along with the notorious anti-authoritarian streak in Sweden. Surely one of the earliest known European hacker was the notorious Mr Z (TRIAD), active as early as 1983. As for console games, I would argue Nintendo and PCs had different target audiences, as older kids weren’t easy to separate from their computers. Similarly in France, United Kingdom and Italy, among others. With home computers being the preferred gaming platform of so many teenagers, overall more than in the US in the same period, it would be easy to conclude how those very same kids would end up creating an active warez scene.
With the advent of BBS, the crackers found they were able to reach a much wider audience (and thus create a business) by using them to distribute games, so they started organizing themselves with servers. Those were either run at home (which was quite risky) or, better, in public places like universities. While there wasn’t a huge business in the early Commodore 64 days, things changed fast with the Amiga, where along with games, there was also software to be cracked.
For many kids, it became a matter to prove one’s worth in being the first to defeat a game’s protection system, so naturally they would start leaving their signature by using pseudonyms, trying to build reputation while doing illegal activities. One could definitely see the problem in trying to become well known, while still trying to maintain a low profile. Later, the same kids would start working in groups as to try and crack as many different titles as possible.
This is also why no 100% effective copy protection will ever – probably – exist, as no amount of hardship will block someone looking to get reputation points among their peers (or on the internet). Also, obviously, it is much easier to disassemble a program, than to assemble it in the first place. Since teenagers had a lot of time on their hands to sit down in front of a program and tinker with it, it was rather difficult for protection systems to last beyond a few days (or even a few hours in most cases).
In the overall “flexing one’s technical muscles”, we can definitely a connection between the cracker and demo scenes. While with programming a graphical showcase you were pushing the limits of the machine, by being the first to crack a game and distribute it via BBS with your signature, that meant you were the best on the scene and people had to look up to you. Both scenes were really about clout, trying to impress people with technical skills. But while kids working as crackers were mainly about showing off, for many hackers and crackers, that activity would become a business. What began as an individual sort of hobby among friends, soon evolved into a parallel industry.
Generally, while the two scenes do have many overlapping points, they have to be discussed separately, as the two scenes had different objectives. But if we want to find some common ground, I would say it obviously lies in the “cracktros”. These were graphical introductions, usually with music, that the warez group would place at the beginning of the game, before the game would run. Sometimes they would also include cheats, especially in those early Commodore 64 days when games were quite difficult to complete.
Who was the first group to feature a cracktro? Not an easy question to answer, but that definitely happened in the 80s, probably around 1986/1987. On PC, for example, one of the first groups to feature cracktros were Bentley Sidwell Productions in 1987, with the nfo file format also beginning to take off right after (with The Humble Guys in 1990).
Going back to Europe, the first warez scenes were surely born around the Commodore computers, first on the 64 and later the Amiga. Since they were, arguably, among the home computers which sold the most on the continent. There were minor warez scenes on the ZX Spectrum and MSX (surely, in Italy), but stories about them were mostly lost to time. Around the early 90s, most pirate groups would start changing their objectives, while some of them would continue on Amiga, mostly because of an emotional attachment to the computer, others would try and find bigger challenges on PC and consoles. The scene would continue well until the early 00s, when – with the advent of P2P and broadband networks – the need to have specific warez groups would start to decline, as we will also see later.
But let us get back to Europe, as in the 80s and 90s, as mentioned, several of the biggest groups of crackers on the scene all came from the continent. Among them were groups still active today, the likes of Paradox, Razor 1911 and Fairlight.
The main European pirate groups
Paradox was formed in late 80s by members of a Danish and French group, they would soon get busy cracking Amiga software and games. That first version of Paradox did not last long, as in 1991 the group disbanded, only to reform two years later under another leader (formerly from another French group), Maximilien. The group would then jump ship and start working on Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive games. Later, they would also work on PsX games, most notably being the first to crack the notorious difficult to get to run on a modded PlayStation, Spyro the Dragon. Their (former) leader was arrested several times in the 90s and beyond, both for copying Nintendo games and for calling card fraud.
Fairlight is surely one of the oldest warez group still around, at least in name. They were founded in 1987 in Sweden (from the West Coast of the country, apparently), involved in both the demo and warez scenes. They began to be successful because the two founding members, Tony “Strider” Krvaric and Fredrik ”Gollum” Kahl, managed to bribe a train conductor (with two chocolate bars!) in order to pass games around quickly in the country and crack them successfully. Soon, the group became international with members from Denmark and Belgium. They would, later, become the target of the US Government in Operation Fastlink (one of the biggest crackdowns of warez groups), even though they did not succeed in shutting down the group for good. Tony Krvaric today is president of the financial committee of the Republican party in California, while Frederik Kahl is a professor at Lund university.
Razor 1911 is also one of the oldest warez group still around, originally founded as Razor 2992, in 1985. Hailing from Norway, they started cracking Commodore 64 games. They would break up soon and reform, two years later, moving on to the Amiga pretty soon after that. The group operated out of Trondheim and Ålesund. At the beginning of the 90s, they also started working on PC, while also running the magazine Propaganda, until 1995. The international anti-piracy operation “Bucaneer” would put a stop to the group’s activities, in 2001. They would disband and reform, resuming their cracking and releasing games activities five years after, in 2006, and still continue to this day.
The Netherlands and the endless Twilight
Surely no discussion about gaming piracy in Europe would be complete without mentioning one of the most famous pirate product to come out of the continent: Twilight. They were compilations of pirated software, produced in the Netherlands, from the late 90s well unto the early naughts. On a single cd, users could found a curated compilation of software and games, along with some patches and mods. Users were also guaranteed that all games would work fine and were virus free but, in order to fit more games on a single 650 MB cd, those games were stripped of all extra non-necessary files. Gone were the CD audio tracks or any cutscenes, the players only got the bare minimum of the game itself.
The Twilight compilations were surely among the biggest and longest running operation of warez software in Europe, if not, perhaps, in the whole world. They were originally created by a bunch of young adults, who mentioned being tired of finding pirated games and software on the internet and BBS ridden with viruses. They started creating Twilight mainly for themselves, while also offering their friends a better product, something that was both easy to use and safe for everyone.
Over the course of a few releases, their business quickly grew well outside their home country. Thinking back to 1996/1997, the Twilight CDs were definitely a needed product, as most European countries were still stuck on dial-up modems (or slow ADSL) and there was no easy way they could even download a 50MB “ripped” game like Blood or Duke Nukem 3D. Even if they managed to do it, there were no guarantees that the game would work anyway. The Twilight compilations bypassed the problem and offered an efficient product at a low price.
The crew created the CDs with caution as to make sure they could not be tracked down, and, overall, it is fair to say they did a pretty good job covering their tracks. Every release soon started having a sort of familiar nickname, which went from “Unreally real”, to “shall we play a game”. Overall, they released 75 editions of the CD releases (which soon started becoming a double CD release as games were growing in size) and 41 editions of the Twilight DVD.
It is reported that they printed something like 65k copies per month, which they would sell for around the modern equivalent of 30/40 euros each. This is, clearly, just the original business, as there is no way to count the copies that other people were making and selling around. It is definitely true that most people who got the Twilights also duplicated and sold them to other people. It is basically impossible to calculate the global economy of the Twilight compilations.
Considering how the business boomed in a relatively short amount of time, the Twilight enterprise went from being a small “group of friends” to a serious criminal empire which had hands also in movies and music with similarly targeted releases like the Crazy Byte CDs (which appeared to be even more profitable, reading later police reports). They also started getting attention from competitors, as there is at least one fake copy of Twilight (number 25) floating around.
The way the business grew in a relatively small time would, pretty soon, lead to a decline in the releases’ quality, as the creators seemed to be more interested in money than the quality of the releases they were putting out. From 1999 onwards, Twilight started to become little more than a compilation of stuff, with no menu nor descriptions of any sorts. They would later disappear for good, when broadband internet became widely available and most people got easy access to scene releases and were able to download pirated content directly. Twilight 89 in 2007 would end up being the final physical release and, by then, probably the original creators were long gone.
In 2007 a series of police arrests would signal the end of the Twilight enterprise for good, along with unearthing a series of strange behind the scenes facts. What has been confirmed to have taken place is that one of the crew was beaten up by the others, perhaps because he was thought to be the police informant. There is also other gossip floating around, like how the crew retaliated by intoxicating the house of the one who was collaborating with the police, making his daughter sick. But that’s only hearsay, it is difficult to confirm how many of these events actually took place.
What is sure is that the crew was found responsible for several music/software pirate releases and got fined for several million Euros. The end of the Twilight empire also signalled the end of the physical distribution of pirate CD/DVDs and the possibility for people to get rich by distributing pirate software.