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Wings Over Sealand

Why Ben Kuchera is a dickhead

Posted on January 30, 2013 by RevStu

[This piece was originally titled "Why Piracy Is Good" when I wrote it in August of 2004. I figured I'd make it gratuitously offensive clickbait this time, just for teh funz. If you don't understand the new title, start here.]

It's weird how the simplest games can have the longest stories. Today we're going to talk (well, I'm going to, anyway) about a couple of games (well, four games, but we'll get to that) that are about as Zen-basic as it's possible for electronic entertainment to be.

They're a pair of games which could be played by the one-armed dishwasher from Robin's Nest (one for the mums and dads, there), a duo that require all the brainpower of a starving dog pondering the best course of action to take with a pound of sausages that's just fallen out of an old lady's shopping bag right under his nose.

And yet, by the time we're done we'll have covered inspiration, plagiarism, moral flexibility, flagrant copyright infringement, public-spiritedness, cultural history, corporate pragmatism, collective short-sightedness and the proudest moment in your correspondent's career to date. Which is a lot of stuff, so let's get on or we'll be here all day.

Wild West Hero is one of the most esoteric games in the history of the Spectrum. It takes Robotron – not the world's most complex videogame to start with – and distils it down to its most basic essence. All the enemies except the first level's GRUNTs are discarded. The cloned human family to be rescued? Gone. The twin-joystick moving/firing mechanism? No more. There's no fire button in WWH at all, in fact – your little guy just automatically pumps out a constant stream of fire in whichever direction he's facing.

No level in Wild West Hero lasts more than about 10 seconds. Your enemies materialise onscreen and immediately start shuffling slowly but inexorably towards you. Within moments, they'll either have got you or you'll have killed them all. No other outcomes are possible. (Unless you count killing yourself by colliding with one of the static obstacles as you bolt for one of the screen's edges, there to implement the game's core tactic of turning round and massacring the bandits as they march towards you in single file.)

Bandits? Oh yeah. While your avatar is the same teeny robot dude who appears in Robotron, and the game shares the coin-op's bright, flashing neon colours and futuristic sound effects, for some reason your enemies are all big-hatted spaghetti-western cowboys, with beady yellow eyes peeking out from under their ten-gallon hats. This inexplicable thematic clash is one of the things that gives WWH its unique and strange character, but that isn't one of the things on our list, so we'll move on.

The point is, Wild West Hero owes a clear debt to Robotron, but it's also its own game. Which makes it pretty weird when you see it gradually metamorphose back into its parent.

In the early 1980s, Atarisoft (the home-software division of the then-still-massive hardware company) had put a lot of effort and money in cracking down on unlicenced home-version clones of their arcade smash hits. Eventually, though, some bright spark realised that spending loads of cash suppressing highly-skilled copies of your intellectual property was pointlessly counter-productive, when you could turn it to your advantage instead.

Here, after all, were ready-made conversions, ripe for selling and free from development costs. All Atari had to do was say to the author, "Turn it over to us and we won't sue you", stick an official badge on it and sit back and wait for the profits to start rolling in.

Among the first beneficiaries/victims of this strategy was DJL Software's Z-Man, a direct Pac-Man clone that was by far the most authentic of the dozens of Spectrum versions cluttering game-shop shelves. It's one of the great legends of the Speccy gaming era that the author, David J. Looker, was then approached by Atarisoft with the offer he couldn't refuse – "Edit this into the official Spectrum version of Pac-Man and give us it for nothing, or our lawyers will crush you like a tiny worthless bug" – and a few tweaks later the company proudly made its debut in the Speccy market with a hastily-relabelled, essentially blackmailed version of what had previously been a pirate ripoff of its most valuable licence.

(As an exciting postscript to the story, the "illegal" Z-Man incarnation of Pac-Man was subsequently given away on the covertape of Speccy magazine Your Sinclair almost 10 years later. An extensive and painstaking investigation into this baffling turn of events – that is to say, emailing the renowned scientist, adventurer and gadabout, and more relevantly former YS editor, J Nash – provided the following splendid explanation:

"This was because I liked Z-Man, and knew about Atari and the Nigel Moustache accident, and thought it would be an appropriate victory for justice and a funny in-joke to buy the world's most accurate Speccy Pac-Man for the [covertape] under its original name. Dave, slightly bemused anyone remembered the game, agreed. Inexplicably, Atarisoft failed to notice. I expect they were still busy spending all the profits from the conversion of Bump and Jump."

For more information on "the Nigel Moustache accident", see a forthcoming feature, possibly on an entirely different website. But back to our story.)

After Z-Man, DJ Looker (Shout out to the massive! – Ed) moved into "respectable" development. He coded the excellent Spectrum version of fun Atari coin-op Road Blasters (which is, coincidentally, the game without which your correspondent wouldn't be in the videogames industry at all, but that's another story), then went on to fame and fortune as Your Sinclair's covertape editor, and also, ironically enough, co-invented the highly controversial "Speedlock" fastloader/anti-copying protocol.

But this poacher-turned-gamekeeper tale isn't why piracy is good (which, particularly alert viewers who are concentrating unusually hard will recall, is what this feature is supposedly about). To get to the bottom of that particular assertion, we first need to take a small tangent.

The success of Pac-Man assured Atarisoft of the wisdom of their cunning co-opt-the-copyists policy, and the strategy was soon applied to the forbidding task of bringing Williams' awesome twin-joystick coin-op Robotron 2084 to the Sinclair machine. Most of the previous attempts at reproducing the arcade's fast-moving, action-packed mayhem on the Speccy's primitive 8-bit hardware had produced woeful results, so Wild West Hero author Paul Holmes was always going to be the man getting a midnight knock on the door from burly Atarisoft associates armed with contracts and baseball bats.

(Holmes hadn't been idle since coming up with WWH – he'd subsequently produced the heroically weird Dustman, a slicker and even more surreal variant on the theme than Wild West Hero, and one in which the player has to survive assaults from all manner of cultural detritus. Levels include several cameo appearances from Pac-Man, a stage called "A Copyright With Teeth" – in which the dustman is attacked by chomping copyright symbols – and one titled "Out Come The Heavies", where swinging doors disgorge hordes of huge green robots uncannily similar to Robotron's indestructible Hulks. These facts may or may not be coincidental. Dustman, in fact, deserves a feature all of its own, but WoS can see readers beginning to visibly age already, so we'll save that for another day.)

The result, as perceptive viewers will have figured out some time ago, is that Wild West Hero's code became the basis of the official Speccy Robotron. But that's neither the end nor the point of our story. Because despite being completed , Robotron was never released.

(It was glowingly reviewed by a games magazine, though of course these days we know that doesn't necessarily mean it was finished – it's surely just a coincidence, however, that the reviewer in question went on a few months later to co-found Future Publishing)

Atarisoft never even got round to advertising it for the Speccy (something which they did do for a whole bunch of other games whose conversions were never even started, far less finished), and the code languished ignored for years, even as the Speccy carried on for nine more years as a viable gaming platform. (The company, in fact, abandoned the Spectrum shortly after the completion of Robotron in 1984, also taking with it a fairly splendid unreleased port of another fine Williams coin-op, Moon Patrol.)

Oddly, no other magazines had so much as previewed the game, so copies of the finished code were thin on the ground – so much so that soon, even Holmes himself didn't have one. It would be almost a decade before anyone ever thought of Spectrum Robotron again.

The mid-1990s, of course, brought the birth of emulation. For the first time ever, computers were so powerful that they could accurately reproduce the behaviour of their ancestors, and the still-beloved Speccy was one of the very first subjects of the phenomenon. Soon, archive websites like World Of Spectrum began to spring up to preserve the cultural heritage of the medium. But for some games, it was already too late. Atarisoft no longer existed, neither did Personal Computer Games, and Paul Holmes didn't have a copy of his own conversion.

The only known surviving Spectrum Robotron code was an early work-in-progress alpha of Holmes', missing most of the enemy robot types (for example, there were no Brains on Wave 5, and the Spectrum's Wave 7 – where the first Tanks appear in the arcade game – simply completes itself as soon as it starts), and clearly showing the port's Wild West Hero roots. The player and the enemy robots appear onscreen in the same way they do in WWH, and destroyed robots melt away rather than exploding in a shower of particles.

At this point, in fact, apart from the title screen the game more closely resembles Wild West Hero 1.5 than it does Robotron. Which is (if you were wondering) where piracy, your reporter and his proudest moment come in. 

Your correspondent, viewers, has to make a confession at this point. In the early 1980s, this writer – like pretty much everyone else, it ought to be said – was a serious and diligent software pirate. The school playgrounds of the 80s were alive with kids swapping C90 cassette tapes packed full of the latest games, 20 and 30 at a time.

(Curiously, this hugely widespread buy-one-and-copy-100 practice somehow entirely failed to destroy the entire games industry, and the Speccy had a longer commercial life than any gaming platform before or since.)

The more dedicated copyright infringers, though, also participated in nationwide piracy networks, trading tapes with complete strangers from across the country. Your correspondent, naturally (because if a job's worth doing it's worth doing properly), had a number of such underground acquaintances, one of whom was "James" from Glasgow. (Whose name has been changed to reflect the fact that I can't remember it. For all I know it actually was James.)

"James" had a contact in Atarisoft, and towards the end of 1984 had casually included copies of Robotron and Moon Patrol on one of the regular C90s despatched to your living-on-the-edge reporter. They both swiftly graduated onto your host's special "My Favourite Games" shelf, but it wasn't until nearly 12 years later that their true rarity and worth would be fully appreciated.

Y'see, chums, this writer frequently speaks up for the importance of emulation – and even outright piracy – as a preserver of culture. No other leisure medium has ever regarded its heritage so carelessly as videogaming (not even the early BBC, which would commonly record over the only copy of priceless programmes to save on tape costs), and there are countless games which have been lost to posterity forever. Without piracy, the Spectrum ports of Robotron and Moon Patrol would be among them.

Because it was only piracy that enabled your reporter to contact Paul Holmes several years ago and return his own work to him (at which point he generously allowed it to be made freely available to everyone), and even if this writer never achieves anything more worthy than that in the rest of what passes loosely for a career, he'll leave the games business a happy man. (Actually, the act of leaving the videogames business would make anyone a happy man, but that's not strictly relevant here.)

Had it been left in the sole care of the games industry, Spectrum Robotron simply wouldn't exist any more, and our cultural history deserves better treatment, and more respect, than that. The bodies which present themselves as the guardians of gaming culture aren't just incompetent at the task, they are in fact the active enemies of it.

Where ELSPA and their ilk should be doing something worthwhile to preserve gaming's heritage while there's still time, they devote themselves instead to pointlessly persecuting the very websites that are actually doing their job for them. (And to chasing idiotically after small-fry market traders, like an elephant trying to stamp on a colony of ants.)

The industry attempts, as a matter of policy, to portray emulation – not even piracy – as a mortal danger to its very existence, and is assisted in doing so by a media that unquestioningly presents the industry's side of the argument as gospel truth, and an increasingly brainwashed public ready to believe the industry's farcical propaganda about how Al-Qaeda and the IRA and Ian Huntley and the Mafia all started out by copying Playstation games.

But let's be crystal-clear about this, viewers, for the avoidance of doubt and confusion. Take it from someone who's personally been on every single side of the equation at some point in the last 20 years. Here's the truth. Write it down somewhere.

Emulation does NOT hurt the videogames industry.

Piracy does NOT hurt the videogames industry.

Because if either of them did, then it's amazingly obvious that – after more than 10 years of the former and 25 years of the latter – the videogames industry would have been long dead by now, rather being bigger and wealthier now than it's ever been at any time. The reality is that piracy and emulation are in truth phenomena whose primary influence on gaming is to save its legacy from the greedy, narrow-minded, short-sighted recklessness of those who control the worldwide videogames industry.

Chums, the fact of the matter is that the cultural heritage of videogaming is safe only in your hands. Recent changes in the law with regard to copyright have made the position of old games even more perilous than it used to be. Now, practically any measures which gamers could take to preserve the future history of gaming are, either effectively or literally, illegal, and accordingly are becoming harder and harder to actually enact.

In the meantime, it's in that same spirit of preservation that WoS is proud to offer the downloads below as an illustrative, iNTeRacTIVe accompaniment to this feature. Enjoy them while you still can.



EmuZWin, the best freeware Speccy emulator (link)

Wild West Hero

Wild West Hero (great PC remake – WoS remix)


Robotron 2084 – author's alpha version

Robotron 2084 – beta version, preserved by piracy

Robotron 2084 – final version, preserved by piracy

22 to “Why Ben Kuchera is a dickhead”

  1. Ftupid Saggot says:

    The article writer should be ashamed of his open endorsement of piracy for this product. If you don’t like it or want to pay for it, don’t. Don’t go pirating it.
    What a terrible thing to read on a professional website.
    Would you also support pirating the next Halo or GTA game or people don’t them too? How about films and music?
    Get a grip and please reconsider your awkward, illogical and ill-advised position.

  2. Brian N. says:

    Kuchera shouldn't be taken seriously by anyone.  You can catch a person's intellectual failings when they mouth off on an issue without doing proper research arguing in that state of ignorance.  I won't name the topic but needless to say he made an argument that because he was ignorant of a thing it did not exist.  He, someone who harps on other journalists for their lack of integrity, refused to do even elementary research on the topic.
    Perhaps he can write a half-baked article for the PA Report in that same smug style he already does titled "What me being a complete douchebag on twitter can teach us about professional courtesy" or maybe "My harassment of E.D. Kain ditches faux-Journalism for a harrowing look at what a self-righteous pillock I am".

  3. Plissken says:

    Why has "Dani Moore" cut and pasted exactly the same comment under this posting and the original article?  (And a quick Google shows it on Neogaf and 4chan.)

  4. John Matthews says:

    How about actually reading the article? I think the point is pretty well made there – you might have to engage your brain and do some thinking too, as the article doesn't hold your hand through every tiny objection there might be, nor go into every single in and out for you. But it definitely makes a point, one you've ignored, and makes it several times more cogently than you do.

  5. RevStu says:

    "How about actually reading the article?"

    Who are you talking to?

  6. RevStu says:

    "Why has "Dani Moore" cut and pasted exactly the same comment under this posting and the original article?  (And a quick Google shows it on Neogaf and 4chan.)"


  7. Brian N. says:

    At a guess I would say John Matthews is replying to Ftupid Saggot.  Plissken may have misposted?  Did you have multiple tabs open or something, Plissken?

  8. J Fletcher says:

    Here here, it's about time someone said this. While piracy is bad and you shouldn't do it, it's different from Piracy is bad and it will ruin the games industry.
    Piracy is like life, it has lots of shades of grey and should be treated as such. Not as it is currently treated as entirely bad. Games that are vapourware and abandonware are examples of games where piracy has kept these games alive despite the fact that they aren't made, sold or were even published.
    Games such as chettahman 2 would go to a death that would make the world a poorer place (in entertainment value from how bad it is) if it weren't for people doing stuff like this. 

  9. Plissken says:

    To clarify: the first comment here by Ftupid Saggot is an exact cut and paste of the first comment under the Kain article at Forbes left by "Dani Moore".
    Which seems a very weird thing to do.

  10. Brian N. says:

    That is very weird.  Even assuming the same person did it…never mind that even if Kain was guilty of what Kuchera accused him of Kain wasn't even wrong.

  11. grumpysmurf says:

    The stuff about Atarisoft hijacking pirated games is fascinating. Are their any contemporary sources that prove Atari blackmailed bedroom coders into handing over their creations for free? Or is it basically just hearsay?

  12. grumpysmurf says:

    *there (this forum needs an edit function. Just sayin)

  13. Jim says:

    Copyright infringement is not theft, it's duplication, people are only potentially losing out.  It is for the sake of avoiding this potential loss that people rabidly defend copyright laws.
    Piracy, without copyright laws and some kind of power of deterrent for creators would eventually destroy the economic model by which the creative industries operate.
    So we have 2 sides battling it out, both trying to win but perhaps without realising that if any side actually won, the game would finish, and perhaps so would the games.
    Wow I read about the Tao but there it is in reality, haha! I didn't even plan to write this. Lolz0r.
    Anyway my position on this reality is that the economic model on which the creative industries are based is bullshit and is at odds with the realities of general economics and  the world that we live in. 2 facts support this. 1 you can universally copy digital data. 2. The world cannot sustain the amount of salaried creators we have.
    I will add my opinion to this – nobody, but nobody deserves to have a guaranteed income for creativity. It is against the nature of creativity itself for it to reward by guaranteed income, and while the laws that perpetuate this might have been responsible for a lot of scientific progress, the benefits of that scientific progress are debatable if not certainly varied, and it's not sustainable anyway. If it happens that's great. if it's forced by the state and it's laws, its bordering on exploitation because by creating you're always standing on the shoulders of others.
    So screw you hippies, if you can't create for free or get a real job, you suck anyway.

  14. @jim, i wouldn't say most of the gaming industry has something to do with creativity…

  15. Jim says:

    Haha! :-D
    Spare a thought for those naive and good hearted people who enter the industry only to discover the reality. Oh the reality OHH!!!

  16. Lenny says:

    Speaking of evil corporate bullying tactics, does anyone know what happened to the excellent Tempest remake Typhoon 2001?

  17. jay says:

    There's a decent piece from the goons on this whole Kuchera mess:
    Just for those who missed the worst of the dickness on twitter.

  18. John Matthews says:

    Sorry, way late but yes, I was originally replying to ftupid. Not sure what happened, sure it was just that one comment on there when I posted,but seems he disappeared as quickly as I did, in any case. So it was just an invitation to fs to read your article, rev stu.

  19. Long before finally put some money where millions of mouths outside the games industry were, there was Home of the Underdogs (it's since split into two sites, for somewhat complicated but slightly dull reasons).  It deserves to be an honoured guest at just about any PC game table, but of course, it won't because waaaaah abandonware isn't real and waaah it's stealing and waaaah.

    If not for piracy, and to an even greater extent, abandonware (which absolutely is a thing, and if you're going to start claiming that things don't exist unless the law says they do, please let me know so I can buy shares in a company that manufactures rubber wallpaper), there are well over one hundred games I'd never have even heard of, let alone played and later bought.
    But waaah piracy waaah.  God, if only the world were really as simple as they make it out to be.

  20. Chic McGregor says:

    Afraid to report I go back to the very beginnings of home computing.  The first computer I built back in the 70's used a 6502 processor, 2114 Ram chips and mainly TTL and CMOS standard components. 
    When we first started it was a very esoteric hobby, people would ask: " Why would you want a computer in your home?", not least our wives.  Initially we said things like "You can use it to do your home accounts or to switch the lights on and off, operate home security systems, do word processing, and stuff like that." Anything we could think of to justify the relatively huge cost (e.g. 4k of RAM cost £40 in 70's money) involved in indulging in our hobby.
    Of course, what we really did, for the large part, was to write games.  Initially everyone was only too happy to share the games they wrote.  The new home computing magazines would print listings of the games in BASIC or Assembler and computer nerds would eagerly spend a few hours typing one into their machine (and often hours more finding and debugging the inevitable typos).
    It was common for people to computerize existing board games and because there were so few people doing home computing (a few thousand at best in the UK by the end of the 70s) nobody bothered.  For example, a friend and I did, I think, the first version of 'Black Box' and had it published in PCW circa 1979.
    There were countless versions of Startrek and Lunar Lander and Colossal Cave clones (games from the mainframe days).  Nobody thought twice about it.
    Then some people would offer to send a tape to anyone who wanted a copy if they sent a P.O. to the value of the tape and postage if they were too lazy to type it in from a listing.
    Pretty soon, some folk were being accused of charging more than the costs.  Eventually the games were no longer published in listings, so if you wanted it you had to buy it.
    Pro game writing I guess started that way.
    However, there was, for quite a long time a very strong feeling amongst many that games and other software should remain free.  There still is in the Open Source community.  It was kind of viewed in the same 'for the greater good' way as scientific freedom is (or used to be).
    I am just trying to show how the ethical balance has swung.
    As time went on, and games became ever more elaborate, it became unreasonable to expect people to put in the man hours in writing and developing  them at possibly the expense of their own earning capacity.  Where that point was, is moot. 

    Probably a reasonable guess would be about the time they required teams and specialists to make them.  This, of course, lead directly to a situation where if one member of the team didn't deliver his contribution in a reasonable time, all the others would get pissed off with him.  There may well be very understandable reasons why someone might let the others down, family issues, personal problems, the roof needs fixing, whatever.  But the only way to guarantee that everyone has the productive time to meet their  team obligations is to purloin it from that time resource we all set aside for such activity, i.e. the working day.  To make that available requires income replacement and that income has to come from the product produced.

    Now, for me, that is fair enough.  Those who put the time and effort in to produce a final product it would be next to impossible to do on one's own (and even if it were would take you so long that it would be 'dated' long before you were finished) are providing a service which is of value and therefore worth paying for (or should be).
    Not all software development needs to be deadline team oriented, in fact I think some kinds are best done by a single person or small team of experts (e.g. tailored analytical software) and other types benefit from multiple contributions but those need not be tightly scheduled or deadlined but grow 'organically'  (things like operating systems, languages, art packages, word smithing, 3D animation utilities, video editing etc.) but games are.

    So I don't have a problem with paying for pro software but still have a great admiration for those countless, largely nameless folk who have put in untold hours of their time to produce stuff free of charge for the common good. 
    But then we come to ethics phase 3.  Those of us computer nerds who have lived long enough cannot fail to have gasped when many applications which were developed by many contributors over many years suddenly appear to be 'owned' by someone and you have to start paying for that which was once free.  Where is the ethics in this?
    This raises the wider issue of copyright generally.  I am all in favour of the writers/inventors/artists receiving reward for their contribution to society. 

    However when it gets to the point where whole swathes of arseholes in suits are driving company mercs to the bank to lift their fat salaries because the company they belong to own copyright on some nice little earner when they have played no part in its creation, there is something far wrong.
    Copyright should be there to protect the income of creators.  It should not IMO be transferable so that some company owns it.  Where something requires company-like capitalisation to manufacture and distribute it, this should be on a lease basis where the creator retains copyright for life.  

  21. Jay says:

    I'm only one tenth of the way through this article, and I feel compelled to say, it's already one of the best gaming articles I have ever read! Your sense of humour and writing style has had me laughing out loud several times already, and is an absolute joy to read :) You've earned a new reader – anyway, back to the article for me (Christ it's long, I'm gonna be here a while aren't I lol)

  22. Jay says:

    Great article :) Didn't expect it to turn out the way it did but I REALLY enjoyed it :)

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    Hello. I am the Rev. Stuart Campbell,
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