I tried, you know. I tried to go legit.
I sent two emails and left one voice message with Jeff Castaneda, Media Relations at Rockstar Games, explaining that I was starting a videogame column and that I’d be interested in considering the material for review. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, was coming out for the PC after six months burning up the charts as a PlayStation exclusive. I’d played the previous episode in the criminal adventure series and enjoyed the black humour and its attention to gritty detail.
A week passed. Nothing from Jeff. I was complaining about it to my friend Paul, and he told me that his brother had already downloaded it. A week before the official May 13 release date and it was already in circulation — the people who had pre-ordered the game were waiting longer than the pirate scum.
I went back to the screenshots of the lavish Floridian world that was denied me. I watched the trailer, which features an exciting speedboat chase set to ’80s music. I went and looked at the email I had sent to Jeff. Was it not professional enough? Cool enough? I guess if you sell 10 million copies of something, you don’t have to return reviewers’ calls. Fucking rockstar.
So I slipped back into old habits.
When cocaine was big, I was a small-time crook. Tools of the trade back then were a Commodore 64 and a 1200 baud modem — I had just upgraded my operation with a new 1541 disk drive and put the tape drive out to pasture. Late at night, I would start it autodialing the pirate board numbers I had and eventually the busy signal — boards rarely had more than one line — was replaced by a hiss and a sweet squeal. I was in.
I logged in with my alias, Montag, the suitably futuristic protagonist of Farenheit 451. I would quickly spacebar past the intro screen — which usually had a sample of someone’s ASCII or ANSI art as well as greetz to people named -=Iceman=- or TERMINATOR — and check my stats. It depended on the board, but the download/upload ratio was usually 5:1, which meant you had to give the board 10K of game data for every 50K you took. This regulated the leeches, of which there was much talk but who were rarely seen. Talk happened on the message section, where I only occasionally went — some boards required that you posted a message before you went to the files section. At the time it was just an annoyance, but now I wonder if the BBS sysops were trying to foster a sense of community or just trying to avoid feeling used. Kind of like a pot dealer who likes to have a chat and a toke before getting down to it.
‘Cause it was all about the warez. The illegally cracked and distributed software was why we were there, being game mules for our cut. The crackers were on the high end of the hierarchy, and we only knew of them through their signatures on the software that they had removed the copy protection on. When my pirated version of Paperclip word processor loaded, for instance, the Underground Cracker Crew introscreen would remind me of their beneficence and supremacy. Lower down the hierarchy were the people who mailed them the new games to crack — while not good enough coders to remove the protection themselves, this ensured them a place in the crew. Artists who were talented enough at drawing with keyboard characters to do a crew’s logo so that it looked like it was dripping blood or something equally cool were also admitted. Then there were the sysops that ran the boards that served as distribution house, and beneath that were us, the thousands of teenaged boys hoping to get a bunch of free games without crossing the line into leechhood.
Fast forward 20 years. A little older, but no wiser, I realized that not a lot has changed. Oh, the modem I use is about 3600 times faster, but the games are also much larger. Dire warnings against leeching still abound. Releasing 0-day warez still makes you elite, or as a warez d00d would spell it, l337, though the challenge of cracking, packaging and distributing a game on the day of its official release is easier in today’s world of internet leaks, making -5-day-warez possible. But all in all, the culture is pretty unchanged, despite the influx of lamers on the internet wave — some have taken evasive measures and changed their spelling of warez to juarez, seeing as misspelling is as good as a false moustache where search engines are concerned. Most of the serious deal-making for trading now takes place on IRC chat channels, and the downloading goes down off of borrowed FTP sites. But as I have nothing new to trade, I choose the path of least resistance.
I fired up Kazaa. It’s a popular and easy file-sharing program for the PC, and the hacked Kazaa Lite does the same job without the ads. The first search found Grand Theft Auto: Vice City right away — I was a little suspicious, seeing how the file size was 140 megs and the game is two CDs (about 10 times that). Sure enough, when decompressed it turned out to be Grand Theft Auto III.
“Lamer,” I sighed. I was starting to get into character.
I went on Kazaa Lite’s chat channel and signed on with the alias ViceCitySeeker. I watched disjointed conversation between aliases like Hurrikanez and BlondBombshell until a person named Bagger said: “Who wants to play a game of multitheftauto?”
I got into a private chat. I asked him if he knew anything about Vice City, that I’d heard it was out on the newsgroups. He said that it’d still be a few days before it got to Kazaa. I’d seen this before: since it requires very few skills to use, Kazaa is lowest on the food chain. I thanked him for the tip and decided to check out the newsgroups.
On my way to starting up my newsreader, I followed a hunch and searched for Multi Theft Auto. I had assumed Bagger had been talking shit — everyone knew GTA3 didn’t allow a multiplayer online mode like games like Counter-Strike did — but it turned out that someone had done more than whine. According to multitheftauto.com, the code for the multiplayer was never removed. The international team, mostly from Holland, may not spell accurately in English when they’re excited, but they’re certainly ambitious. More than 45,000 people have downloaded the .3 version of the mod.
The mod (modification) community is fascinating. They run the gamut from people who alter what the characters and the environment look like, making their own skins and maps, to people who come up with new kinds of games to play within the world, to those that give you the ability to fly or be indestructible. Game designers have begun to realize the value of this intense, participatory fandom, and some games even include modding tools. The companies watch the forums and new releases and often offer modders jobs. The modders’ relationships with the games go from a reverent “I just want to lend my skills to the best game ever” attitude to a cocky “Good, but I can make it better” stance.
I spent a while trying to decide if the Multi Theft Auto mod was more like a neat riff on a favourite song or like rewriting the end of someone’s movie, and figured that that was one for the eggheads. I was on a mission.
By the time I got to the newsgroups, I was too late. Someone had posted the full two CDs on alt.boneless on May 9th but by May 13th it had been pushed off by the everflowing flood of new warez and movies. There was, however, an alluring message. I checked it out without much faith, and went to the website that it listed. What usually happens in these situations is that there’s a barrage of pop-up ads, mostly for porn, and links that claim to be cracked software but actually just spawn more porn. The people who run these leech-bait sites get paid by the ad, and people who google “warez” usually find their way into their clutches, sometime even tricked into foolishly installing programs that deliver even more intrusive ads.
But I followed the URL anyway, bracing myself. No Lolita or anal popups, just a suspiciously easy link to CD1 of Vice City. Weird. I took a look around the site and discovered that it was something called a Bit Torrent site.
More research showed that Bit Torrent was a new file-sharing method that was a big hit with the Linux geeks, so I installed the helper app and clicked again on the CD1 link. It used the data in that file to connect me to the other users currently downloading the file. The progress bar appeared and I went about my other business.
Six hours later, I had Vice City burned to two CDs. I installed it, applied the provided crack, and it worked. Sometimes I feel a qualm about not paying for software. But as I ran amok through the narrow streets of Vice City, robbing people and taking their cars, I felt that stealing this game was the only appropriate thing to do.