There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about microchip technology and the way it is changing our lives. Many sociologists have likened the microchip revolution to that of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time invention and development was very much in the hands of inspired people, greed not playing an unimportant role in the inspiration! The Victorians have left us a large legacy of institutions funded by that wealth. But what most characterised the period was the strength of the individual spirit. In so many respects the computer games market echoes that spirit.
It is a market in which entrepreneurs and talented people can flourish, and have done. Britain has been particularly rich in individual effort as regards games software. As in the 19th century, what started as a cottage industry has grown into a major business. Only the time scale has altered — two years ago it barely existed, the tip of the iceberg being the tiny classified ads in the new computer magazines.
Of course the development of microchips and microprocessors has been in the hands of corporations, usually American, certainly not a cottage industry. But it is the efforts of individuals which has made so much software available. And no advance has been as spectacular as that of Spectrum games.
It would be easy to dismiss the development of games software as a frivolous side issue of little importance in the general scheme of things. Yet the director of a well known software house that also does commercial software development, told me that in his opinion some of the best programmers in the world are to be found writing games for the Spectrum. The skills they have had to develop would put those of programmers in what might be called the more serious market to shame.
Marketing pressures and the increasing sophistication of the games market, have inevitably forced most of those early cottage industries into much bigger concerns. Yet the spirit remains, and it is a sign of the strength of that spirit that completely new companies like Gargoyle Games of Birmingham can emerge with a game as sophisticated and impressive as Ad Astra (which is reviewed in this issue). So as owners and user of the ZX Spectrum, we can feel proud to belong to a tradition barely out of the cradle that yet has achieved astounding things. And don’t think that because you may only be a player of games that you haven’t had a lot to do with that achievement. Nothing is worth anything until it is used as it was intended. A game cannot exist without a market to purchase it, and it dies without the feedback the market offers. The feedback isn’t only financial, it’s also an emotional spark which finds its way back to publisher and author. Because of that vital interest in good games we can now look at an astonishing range of programs of high quality.
Sadly, a lot of this is at risk. Because producing computer games is a financial business, and development, marketing and duplication costs can be very high, software houses need all the revenue they are supposed to receive from the sale of their games. The cancer rotting in the heart of the British software industry is Piracy.
According to GOSH (Guild of Software Houses), piracy of software is costing the industry £100 million a year! Some estimates have put the figure higher. Of course the percentage of that figure made up by Spectrum software is much smaller, but the scale is still staggering. Commercial piracy probably doesn’t affect the games market to a worrying degree, though there have always been the rip-off merchants and ‘Bring and Buy’ boys at the trade shows, who can offer brand new games at less than trade prices. One such notorious offender has been the bearded young gent who trades ZX Microfairs in London under the name of Chichester Discounts, and who was seen on occasion handling large quantities of an EMAP publication, Your Robot at a recent ZX fair. These people do damage, but it’s not irreparable.
The most serious damage is done by the public themselves. It has become fashionable to run computer clubs as copy clubs. We are told that schools are hotbeds of software copying, user groups actually run mini production lines at their evening meetings and can steal as many as 2000 copies of successful individual titles at one go. According to Imagine Software seven copies for each legitimate product sold can be considered as realistic. At this sort of rate it is easy to see what a ‘harmless’ little activity like getting together with a few friends to copy some games is doing. The outcome is sadly obvious. Small software houses with very in-demand games are the most susceptible to the cancer, but even the biggest can’t escape the consequences of the financial slump copying causes. The logical conclusion is that games software for the Spectrum will cease being produced.
Is this what we really want? It’s known as killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
The computer press has also to bow its head in shame, or perhaps it has only paid lip service to the software business seeing it as a good source of advertising revenue and nothing more — just put a few games reviews in to keep the punters buying! In the grapple for advertising revenue, magazine after magazine has offered space to pirates and discount clubs, which usually disappear after a couple of months of ads have resulted in the desired response to those three famous games for 99p. They have also allowed the most blatant of classified ads to go in, offering copying services, and even cheap copies made from original tapes.
There’s obviously a conflict of opinion about piracy between some of the computer magazines and the software industry which largely supports the publications with their advertising revenue. If editors of magazines continue to turn a blind eye to the situation, then they will only have themselves to blame when the revenue dries up because games companies can’t afford to advertise any more.
The most blatant and astonishing case of editorial idiocy recently came from the March issue of COMPUTER CHOICE magazine. In his editorial Bill Bennett admits to copying programs for ‘back up’ reasons, wilfully ignoring that so many ‘back up’ copies are sold in their thousands by pirates. He sees nothing wrong with this, says it can’t be stopped, and offers this comforting crumb of wisdom: ‘Furthermore, there is no better advertisement for a company’s next game than a well-loved, constantly played copy of the previous game, even if it was pirated.’
He sets out by saying, ‘Software companies are for ever moaning about software pirates.... They complain that the activity is robbing them of profit. While there is no doubt that such activity does go on, it is not anything like the amount of harm that the moaners suggest.’
Bill Bennett, Computer Choice and Business Press International have evidently looked into the matter a great deal more thoroughly than the software houses to make such assertions. Equally, they would no doubt be happy for user groups to buy one copy of their magazine and then distribute thousands of illegal copies free of charge. At the same time, Computer Choice, like a number of other computer magazines, effectively condone the activities of pirates by allowing the advertisement of copycat programs. It must seem strange, then, that software houses continue to advertise with magazines when this is the official attitude.
Mike Fitzgerald, of A&F Software, evidently does not share Bill Bennett’s happy-go-lucky attitude to software pirates. Mr Bennett in his editorial admits to the possibility that, ‘only half the copies in circulation are “official”.’ Mike Fitzgerald considers Imagine’s claim that for every one copy sold seven illegal ones exist, is actually conservative. And he has good reason to believe his figures rather than those of (the well-informed) Mr Bennett.
As a result of information placed before A&F by a radio ham, Mike Fitzgerald has uncovered a conspiracy on the air waves of staggering proportions. Mike claims that software houses are currently losing between £5,000 and £20,000 per title, a total loss conservatively amounting to £28 million a year, through the transmissions of games software over the air waves between British radio hams.
Approximately 50 software houses whose programs are involved include A&F, Anirog Addictive, Bug-Byte, C.R.L., Melbourne House, Micromania, Ocean, Quicksilva, Silversoft, Vortex, Virgin, Imagine, DK Tronics and many others. Games readily available and free of charge include any major title you can think of. So far a total of 416 Spectrum games have been listed as being regularly transmitted between radio hams.
Dubious at first of their informant’s claim about air wave piracy of software, A&F set up a monitoring station of their local area, and within one hour recorded off-air the transmission of software data for four well-known games. Convinced of the necessity for putting a stop to this activity, A&F have now instigated the setting up of a chain of monitoring stations around the country. As a result of their local station they are pursuing injunctions against approximately 30 people within a 50-mile radius.
The Department of Industry which licences private radio hams says that there are some 50,000 licensed operators in Britain. The terms of their licence strictly forbids the transmission of copyrighted material or any entertainment material. ‘We are going to shut these people down,’ says Mike. ‘They think they are modern Robin Hoods, but they aren’t.’
Mike is also well aware that some of the worst pirates are school teachers and school children, but the scale of radio piracy has made the software business aware that their very livelihoods depend on putting a stop to it as soon as possible. The argument often offered that if the price of software was lower then piracy would die out seems spurious, Mike thinks. ‘The price per play of a game on a home computer has to be pence, compared with the 20p or more required for an arcade machine,’ he says. He also points out that if piracy was stamped out then sales of games cassettes would rise by as much as ten times, which would immediately knock £1 to £2 off the current prices anyway.
Perhaps the only bright irony in the whole thing is that the biters are also getting bit; copycat programs which most magazines have allowed to be sold through classified ads in their pages are now also being ‘pirated’ and transmitted through the airwaves by radio hams! But then we’ve always known that there’s no honour among thieves.
In common with a lot of other very committed software specialists, Mike Fitzgerald feels strongly that one of the saddest aspects of software piracy is that it is killing off not only a vital entertainment industry in its infancy, but, more important, also killing off an industry which is able to employ a great many young people who otherwise face a life on the dole. Unfortunately it seems that too many of the computer magazines who are where they are today because of the software industry are content to sit back and let it happen they’ve made their money.
Software producer Abacus has told us that they have developed a cassette tape protection system for software. Three months ago, a similar idea developed by Jim Lamont was jumped on by the Ministry of Defence. Jim Lamont’s system operated on the bias signal placed on any tape by a recording machine, but details of its operation are now top secret after MOD acted to seize all information relating to the copyright protection device he had designed.
Cathy Shaw of Abacus tells us that their system is nothing really new, merely an adaptation of something which is already in use, but which no one had thought of using in connection with preventing illegal copying of software from tape to tape. Abacus too have been jumped on by the MOD, which appears to be worried about any form of tape protection, but unlike Jim Lamont, Abacus seem confident that they will be cleared to go into production of the unit within six weeks. Cathy said that samples had been tested by several people who had tried to copy software programs which had been mastered using the protection system. While a copy was possible, it would not load properly or run, and the general impression was that this device really would work effectively.
Cathy Shaw, in common with many producers of games software, has campaigned for some time to move the authorities into action against the pirates, and she is aware that the most serious threat to the British software industry comes from computing clubs and schools. In one instance she cites a teacher who has happily confessed to making an easy £500 a week from selling illegal tapes of games to his school children. If the British authorities in charge of schools are going to continue allowing this kind of freedom, one which often extends to the school copying educational programs for use in several classes to continue, then they deserve everything a work recession can throw at them.
In the end, only one thing really matters, and we must all ask ourselves the question very seriously. Do you want to see the home computer games market fade to nothing? If you have any interest in writing games programs you might want to market them — but what market will be left? It is time to wake up to the fact that every stolen copy of a game is damaging the very market that has given, and can continue to give, so much enjoyment for really very little cost.
Flicking through the pages of a cynically up-market publication, whose name escapes me for the moment — Personal Computer Games I think it’s called — I was fascinated to read a snippet of gossipy inconsequentiality which suggested that CRASH is a down-market magazine which cares nothing for objectivity. This because of an article on programmer Steve Turner written by Andrew Hewson (Turner’s games are published by Hewson Consultants). This point may have had some validity had we hidden the writer’s identity.
What’s surprising about the piece in Personal Computer Games (April 1984) is that another computer title should obviously feel so threatened by CRASH as to resort to cheap smear tactics like this, and it wouldn’t even rate a mention if those tactics were only confined to the scribblings of an unimportant hack. Unfortunately they have extended to advertisement executive of PCG spreading falsehoods in public, a matter I can’t go into here, unfortunately.
It’s all supposed to be jolly fun, I’m sure, with the writer jokingly forgetting the name of CRASH and substituting TRASH instead — after all, I could repeat a name I’ve heard on several lips which says that the initials PCG really stand for Pukingly Cruddy Garbage but it doesn’t really get our respective readers very far. As for down-market — at least CRASH attempts to offer readers what they want to know, whereas PCG (Your Complete Guide to Micro Entertainment) offers very little in the way of objective or detailed reviews and more resembles a cynical exercise in marketing (187 pages, 67 of editorial including program listings, compared to CRASH: 128 pages, 88 editorial).
PCG is losing its grip if it feels the need to sink to gutter press tactics like this against other magazines.
Due to some inexplicable error in typesetting, Derek Brewster was stated as the author of MC Lothlorien’s Micromouse Goes Debugging in last month’s issue. We apologise to all concerned. The author is in fact Steve Hughes.