TL:DR, and there’s going to be a LOT of contentious stuff in here.
So I grew up with piracy. I’m fairly certain I got a mention on a scroller once... I know a friend of mine definitely was on more than one, and hacked one or two games himself. I knew odd people who were part of the scene. I even arrived at someone’s house as he was in the middle of being raided by the police, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m a child of the 70’s. Had a Binatone pong machine, then a VCS. My parents certainly weren’t wealthy, but picked us (my brother and I) a selection of games for it. Indeed we ran that puppy for a LONG time, mopping up games when the prices of them plummeted.
Next came 8-bit computers, which were huge here in the UK. Cheapest was the Spectrum, many people ended up with these (me included, we were deeply envious of those that got C64s). We might see an Atari 800 in a big department store, but I didn’t know anyone with one. Apples and PCs were business machines no one could afford. Most people didn’t have disk drives leaving your Spectrum and C64 games on tape. Which is where it all started. A cheap tape to tape ghettoblaster was all you needed to copy your mate’s games at school. So yeah, we all still bought games, but there were LOADS for the Spectrum and most were shit. So you bought games, but you also copied them for your mates and they copied theirs for you.
Later on when copy protection got smarter, interfaces started to turn up that could snapshot and save games states beyond the copy protection. I had one of these, by this point copy protection had become so convoluted I even snapshotted many of the games I had bought just to get around the complete ball-ache that were code wheels, manual look ups and the dreaded Lenslok. This was the start of the trend of hardware appearing to circumvent copy protection.
Then came the 16 bit machines and for me, the golden days of computer gaming. I used to attend the Huddersfield ICI working men’s club back in the late 80’s - early 90’s. Once a month this was a room full of people with ST’s and Amigas. 40+ machines wouldn’t be unusual (all running from maybe 4 wall outlets). Most Amigas would be running X-Copy with 3 external FDDs sat on them and a big pile of blank floppies. People there would be made up of people just copying stuff, coders, and a few members of some of the northern hacking groups. It was just a massive social event where a lot of like minded nerds got together, played games, copied games, and showed off demos and what have you. Indeed I remember it’s the only time I saw a Falcon when they came out and one of the coders had it and was just showing stuff he’d written on it.
Did piracy occur there, certainly. None of it was for money (that shit happened later and it wasn’t cool, killed it for me). It got raided a couple of times, but someone always found out it was going to happen. For those nights we still went and just had a Sensi-Soccer tournament or what have you as the whole point of the thing really was nerds being social (I have life-long friends I met at this place) however oxymoronic that may seem as a concept. Sadly as with all good things, it came to an end. I know of a few people who attended that club who went on to have notable success in the games industry ironically. For the rest of us there were smaller clubs, but none had whatever it was that the ICI had and they eventually petered out.
Actually their death knell was people coming into them with the express intent of selling stuff. People started to be wanted to be paid for downloading stuff and sticking it on a CD. One thing led to another and everyone bailed. I know it’s hypocritical that when it became about people ‘making money’ out of it that some twisted form of morality should kick in, but that’s just what happened in this case.
Personally this is when consoles started to pick up again here. We passed over the NES, it just didn’t really happen in the UK, the cost of the carts killed it. The Master System was way bigger but still really didn’t make an impact. The SNES and the Megardrive however did. With the waning interest and stalling of the 16 bit computers it was those and PCs that started to gain traction. Piracy on the PC was less interesting because of people trying to profit from it so I didn’t really do that even though I had one (to play Doom of course, which I owned along with just about all the games I ran on that machine come to think about it). However, still knowing people that hardware thing re-appeared and I got myself a Super UFO for the SNES. Again, we didn’t buy many games in the UK down to the sheer cost of the things so rentals were huge. With a UFO you only need to rent a game once to copy it’s ROM to a floppy… I remember being a member of all the video rental stores that rented SNES games for that reason. I still bought games mind you, just not many for the SNES because the UFO took care of things so effectively. Now these devices were not common at all bear in mind, and one upside you have to this is an extensive collection of ROMs for your emulators now. But of course, morally speaking, it was dubious as hell.
Beyond this we’re getting to the Playstation generation and mod-chipping. By this point I think that the culture had just become entrenched here. The PSX was easily the most modded machine I can think of. I knew of so many people who weren’t nerdy at all with chipped Playstations. By this point I was heavily into buying imports for it, so my ability to play CDRs was a byproduct of me wanting to play other region originals. Which is the way I pretty much went. I was working and earning well by this point and could afford to buy the games so I did. Amusingly meaning that by the time we got to the most pirated machine of all time (it’s likely…) I had mostly originals. Give it it’s due though, I got into electronics by modding old computers and consoles, so it wasn’t all bad.
I did still continually buy games during this entire period. Shit loads of the things because the games that were good warranted it. Not just on moral grounds, but because when you bought a game back then, you got a lot for your money in terms of packaging and manuals. This of course doesn’t justify anything, but this is what happened and this is my account of it.