For those of you who paid for your copy of Tony Hawk 4 (Aspyr, 2003) on the PC, here’s what you missed. Running INSTALLER.EXE in the pirated version brings up a window that shows a flat-monitor screen hanging painting-style on what looks to be a castle wall. A bouncy-yet-mournful synth tune plays in the background. Across the monitor, which has a circuit-board patterned background, there runs the text, “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 © Aspyr. Enjoy another nice game from your friends at Class.” And the friendly game crackers have outdone themselves with this installer: by using the arrow buttons you can move to another flat-screened monitor further along the castle wall, this one with the option to INSTALL. As you go between monitors, the perspective pulls out and then zooms back in dramatically. One of the options is to read the .NFO, a text file that is included with cracks to furnish more info.
It’s in classic style: an ASCII art rendition of the logo of the crew that cracked it at the top, a blurb about the game as it was marketed, what was ripped from the game to decrease the file size (movies and part of the music), and greets to other fancifully named groups. There’s often a “help wanted” section that lists what the crew needs: if you work at a game store you’d be a valuable supplier; if you have a high-end internet connection you could facilitate distribution; but to join Class as an actual cracker, there are specific qualifications. “You also can code your OWN tools to automatically remove commercial iso protections like the latest versions of any of the following: SafeDisc or Securom or TAGES or VOB or Laserlok or Copylok.”
.NFO files are remarkably standardized among crews. They meticulously list a variety of details: not only mentioning the copyright they’ve just ignored, but also describing the game as you’d read about it on the back of the box. Even pointing out what they’ve ripped from the original can be seen as a responsible warning to people who want to play the game as it was created.
This hits on a sore point for gamers: the Half Life 2 (Sierra, not yet released) leak. When the unfinished game was stolen via a company network, many people refused to play it on the grounds that they wanted to wait until the final version was released. Some file-sharing sites that routinely distribute cracked games wouldn’t host it — partially because they were worried about legal problems, but also because people felt that this would delay the long-delayed game ever further. And when people were arrested by the FBI for the theft, fans of the game on message boards wished cellmates named Bubba on them.
In some cases, the antagonism seemed petulant and self-interested, and sometimes it was fuelled by genuine moral outrage. Chris_D, a staff writer at halflife2.net with 4822 posts on the forum, articulated it better than most: “Put yourself in their shoes…. People are playing your work. Seeing your crude placeholders, seeing how bad the engine can be before it’s optimised, seeing 3-year-old graphics that you’re working to replace.” While most novelists have no problem with readers lending their books to their friends, or with people getting books free from libraries, most would have a problem with an unedited version of their manuscript being distributed before the final is in print.
The fact that the people who stole Half Life 2 are being denounced as irresponsible pirates is an interesting development at least for two reasons: one is that the game is being taken seriously as art, as a crafted entertainment that’s more than the sum of its source code. The other is that it makes us ask whether there is such a thing as a responsible pirate — instead of being this singular caricature of an unrepentant, sneering thief, there is a little more gradation to the types of pirate.
I mentioned before that there was very little variation in the .NFO files packaged with cracked games. One recent trend that’s a break with tradition is for there to be a statement that it’s for evaluation purposes only. A crew named Myth elaborates: “And always remember: we do this just for FUN. We are against any profit or commercialisation of piracy. In fact, we BUY all our own games with our own money, as we love game originals. And if you like this game, BUY it. We did!”
The rationale that pirates are providing a try-before-you-buy service is a little weak, but the sentiment is real. With similar skill sets and passion for games, it’s not that surprising that game crackers are defending game coders — even soldiers on opposite sides often feel more kinship with their enemy counterparts than with civilians. One gets the feeling that we’re heading in the direction of establishing some kind of rules of engagement with these discussions of what’s off-limits and what’s fair game.