History of the Scene: The beginnings of the IBM-PC Underground
by Ippgi - 4/20/1999


Ever since there has been the ability to store data on a personal computer and commercial software for sale, there has been the existence of pirating. Pirating, cracking and even pirate scenes go all the way back to the late seventies, and maybe even earlier. By the early eighties some machines (such as the BBC Macro in Europe) were so riddled with pirates that the programming companies gave up. They discontinued producing and porting software for the affected computers because there was simply no money to be made.

This report is designed with the IBM-PC scene in mind.


Of all the many 8bit computers and scenes of the early eighties (the golden age?) most people will agree that the Commodore 64 was the biggest of them all. The Commodore 64 scene started back in 1982 (mainly by a lot of young teenagers). While the PC was released earlier to the public it would be the Commodore 64's pirate scene which would introduce many of the standards that today we take as granted. During this time on the PC there were some small groups with people releasing and cracking, but these cracked programs usually remained local. The international PC scene did not take off until 1987. This was when people started to trade software with cracks over longer distances and overseas which formed the basis of the now old school BBS scene.


Unfortunately for us the eighties PC scene is one of the lesser known and least documented. Due to the limitations of the PC at the time, cracktros were extremely rare (unlike the Commodore 64, Amiga or Atari ST) and text files to document the releases were usually never created.

In the eighties many cracks were usually created by individuals rather then groups (groups being a collection of people who work under the same name). These individuals would normally leave a signature in the release to identify themselves as the cracker. For example on a game's title screen you might see in the bottom corner "cracked by Lord Blix". By the end of the eighties it was the groups who were cracking releases rather than just individuals. And with groups being a more prestigious lot they would sometimes insert a custom title screen designed especially for that release (similar to today's installers). Bentley Sidewell Productions, a famous cracking group of the late eighties would usually use a CGA picture or animation to show that they cracked the title. While International Network of Crackers would use a less captivating ANSI graphic.

It's worth noting that Bentley Sidewell Productions animations were probably the first cracktros and intros for the PC. So technically the origins of the PC demo scene goes back to the old PC cracking scene.

It was the hacking groups of the eighties that first started to use acronyms to encrypt their names. This was often used to confuse unwanted people from differentiating the different hacking groups but it's main benefit was the addreviated typing. Typing abbreviations is a lot easier then typing the complete group name. But the standard three letter acronym was not really considered standard until the PC's emergence in the early nineties (groups on other computers had up to five or six letter acronyms). This was due to DOS's limited file naming capability of only being able to handle eleven characters (eight . three) per file.

When crackers wanted to add last minute notes or information about their cracks they would include a small text file into the release. Eventually groups started adding regular text files to their releases. Information in these files would usually state a note from the cracker, some information on how to play the game (keyboard keys etc) and maybe a member listing or some BBS numbers. It was about this time that the groups started to implement a set naming format to these text files. This format use an eight letter abbreviated form of the program title followed by .DOC (short for document). Other groups decided to replace the .DOC acronym with one based on their groups name for example SIMCITY.CIA, SIMCITY.INC or SIMCITY.PTL. Hence the standard group three letter acronym was formed.

To the best of knowledge The Humble Guys in 1990 introduced the now standard .NFO acronym. One assumes NFO was created to be the three letter abbreviation for the word information or info. The initial format was the standard eight letter game title abbreviation followed by .NFO before it eventually evolved to the now current standard of GROUP.NFO.


The earliest long distance couriers started off under a different title, Phreakers. Most phreakers were usually involved primarily in the HPAV (Hacking, Phreaking, Anarchy, Virus) type scenes with pirating being a second priority. This made the scene very defragmented and slow, it would take weeks for releases to be spread continentally. The problem was that not many pirates knew how to phreak and paying for long distance phone calls was out of the question. Thankfully in around 1988 a new phreak group was created. North American Pirate Phreak Alliance (NAP/PA) was the group and it's goal was to spread the How To's Of Phreaking to the pirates. Many of the top boards of the time quickly became affiliations of NAP/PA, which made the information available to the right people. This information literally helped the scene become closer and a little more united.

By the early nineties many people had less respect for couriers compared to that of the crackers, sysops and packagers. This opinion was usually formed because couriering was not the most challenging of tasks, almost anyone could do it. It was more of a matter of how much you were willing to risk or spend rather than a person's skill. At one point The Humble Guys even named their couriers, slaves. Couriers would have to log onto The Humble Guys BBS's as slave 1, slave 2 etc. This caused an uproar in the scene but at the time The Humble Guys were the big guys and could generally do what they wanted.

These days pre'ing releases (couriering a release before it's made public) is common practice, it wasn't so back then. Due to the limitations in speed and the fact that you had to dial into each BBS individually, releases took longer to spread. This ended up coining the one most famous of BBS phrases, "0 day warez". Zero day warez is when one gets the release on the same day as it was released, be it from the software company or from a group. The saying was often used to differentiate the good BBSs from the others and by suppliers for use on the status of software.


Many BBSs at this time needed to pay a monthly fee for their group affiliation (money which usually came from the user-pay leech acccounts). This money would be used by the groups in many ways but mainly to obtain software. A broke group usually had a dry run when it came to releasing. This monthly fee plus all the extra hardware and phone lines required a major investment by the system operator. And it was investment that gave the siteop the respect they required from the BBS users. There was something about a top ranking sysop, because you were in their homes (electronically) using their equipment. They had total control over everything that happened on their system, including your personal information.

Now, running a BBS that contained illegal software was a risky business. One because the system was usually based at the system operator's home and two because there were some companies that were desperate to stop the flow of the illegal copies of their programs. These corporations including Microsoft and Novell worked with local and federal police in attempt to take down these means of distributing software.

By now you all know about the NET Act in the USA that now makes it criminal for anyone with a certain amount (dollar value) of pirated software to be convicted. But you may be wondering how people were busted before this act was created. Well, the most common reason would be that the offender was making money from illegal software (selling CDs or floppies) which would attract the attention of the police. While the other more harsh way of being busted was to get a civil case law suit against you. These were never pretty and usually involved the complete loss of anything that was computer related from one's house. Civil suits were brought on by software companies and are covered by a completely different set of laws to the criminal codes. Because of this most boards banned Novell releases due to Novell's semi-successful world wide anti-piracy campaign.

The death of the BBS one could say happened after Park Central closed down. This was at the time the number one BBS in the world and was a central link for the scene. It was often used to prove who won a release race, being the boxing ring and the referee. But some groups got smart and started avoiding the BBSs all together and instead decided to spread the release exclusively over the Internet. This left people a confusing situation of where there was one group winning the release on the BBS's and the other winning on the Internet. The final nail in the coffin for the bulletin board system was the infamous Cyberstrike campaign of February 1997 where five major BBS's were busted in a single week. It caused many BBS and some sites to close shop permanently in the fear of themselves being the next victims.


The supplying methods for groups in early years were not too different to today's methods. Store pickups and ordering directly from the company were the main means for many groups. The money would usually come from various payments such as official BBS affiliates. Another more attractive way to supply was to use insiders who are kind of like corporate saboteurs for the pirate scene. Insiders obtain the program directly from the source before it's released to the stores. It saves a lot of effort on the group's behalf as they don't have to keep tabs on the program and they avoid the rush to grab it when it goes to the stores. It also left the crackers more time to tinker around with the program.

A more creative way to obtain pre'store software was for group members to pretend they worked for a gaming magazine. The software companies were usually more than happy to send out their software if given the correct information. But when the companies smartened up this option became less viable.


There have been artists for the PC ever since there has been ASCII and ANSI. But international groups in the way that we know of today only started in around late 1990. ACID (ANSI Creators In Demand) were the first of these international groups, trend setters who originally specialised in ANSI art and ANSIMation ads. They earned their reputation of being one of the best in their field by supporting the best pirate boards of the time. Just like our demo scene the PC art scene emerged from the pirate scene. Unfortunately this link has long since been lost with the warez scene art becoming second class.

As the PC gained more acceptance in Europe (an area dominated by the Amiga and Atari) some members of the bigger Amiga groups found themselves using or buying these strange PC machines and needed software. So a long line of Commodore cracking groups made their way across to the DOStel system, including Fairlight, Razor 1911 and the merged Tri Star and Red Sector.


The Internet has often been used by the scene for various reasons but it never became a serious tool until the early nineties. Little did people know at this time how much this tool would change the scene, to basically create a new generation of pirate scene. Bulletin board systems had always kept the scene secret and underground. A newbie often found it extremely difficult to gain access to even a mediocre local board. Most of these people faced the daunting task of hunting down a system password just to get the logon prompt and then new user password to even apply for membership. But the Internet changed all this, the Internet made everything that was once so hard to obtain so easy. IRC, email, ftp and webpages all open to Joe public. And in 1994 they flooded in, drove after drove causing great despair among the many old schoolers. Many of these people didn't appreciate their turf being overrun by these so-called lamers, so they closed their doors. While the old doors closed new doors opened, newsgroups, top100 web pages, anonymous ftp and the most infamous of all IRC offer channels.

IRC offer channels where originally started by groups to offer releases to their friends but when Fate (the leading Internet courier group in 1995) opened their channel (#fatefiles) to the public, Joe Lamer couldn't resist. Many people copied #fatefile's format (+mnst) and many of these channels failed, especially since most groups totally disapproved of IRC trading.


While the Internet changed the way the scene communicated and traded it was the gaming industry's move to the CD Rom that also helped create the second scene revolution. While CD Rom titles for the PC have been around since 1989 (Sierra/Dynamix) the scene did not take onto this new medium until the mid-nineties. And even at this time no one took it too seriously with many groups creating separate groups for the CD Rom releases. These seperate groups where usually created just to release crapware under a different label. And that is was CD titles where originally considered, crapware. These crapware groups where kind of like the IND releases today, though less anonymous.

Originally these crapware/cd-rom groups would release the whole CD, but it wasn't in ISO format, rather the files were just copied off the CD. But people were not used to these large releases and so Hybrid invented the first cd-rip, where the group would leave out unnecessary parts of the game. But the rippers still had the mentality of the floppy disk: the smaller the better was the goal. So many games where raped to their bare minimum making them pretty boring to play. Playing some of these raped games was like trying to watch a special effects Hollywood blockbuster on a black and white TV with no sound. To add to this many ripped games were poorly cracked with a great number requiring third party utilities such has CD emulators (fakecd.exe).

When software publishers started taking advantage of the space available on a CD Rom most of the main game groups agreed on a standard disk limit. On July the 6th 1996 five of these groups formed a pact agreement under the name of Software Pirates Association (SPA). The SPA's goal was to see the enforcement of their "rules of engagement". Any release that broke the SPA rules would be nuked on the affiliated sites. Eventually the SPA fell prey to internal fights created by group politics.

In 1998 the SPA was laid to rest because the groups involved were simply not following the rules. But soon enough the big three groups (Class, Razor 1911, and Paradigm)formed a new organization called The Faction. The faction created a detailed listing of its rules and they released those rules to the public. The biggest change was the upping of the disk limit to 50*2.88 disks (it had been 75*1.44 disks). While other groups changed to the 2.88 disk format some did ignore the 50 disk limit and to many people, it just didn't matter anymore.


In 1997 the prices of CD writing material became cheaper, this combined with easier access to high speed internet created a new niche market. Full versions of games were wanted and so the ISO scene was created. ISO's are CD images and because they contain the complete CD image they are extremely big. Just like the CD scene three years earlier some of the bigger groups created new sub-groups for this ISO scene.

By 1998 the ISO scene had grown. Gone were the days groups would dupe each others titles on different sites and not even realise it. Also gone where multistandards in releases. The scene may have been called ISO because that was the original format people used to store the information with but by 1998 everyone had switched to the bin/cue format. Also strangely we discovered in 1998 that some big name rip groups couldn't hack it in this ISO scene. While some others who fared terrible in the rip scene flourished in with ISOs. Probably the biggest controversy in the ISO scene for this year was whether groups should rip out Direct X etc to fit the image onto a standard 74min CD or weather to leave it as a full 80+minutes (which required special CDs to burn properly).


Bruce Sterling. The Hacker Crackdown, 1992. ISBN 0-553-56370-X
Insane Creator Enterprises. Insanity, 1991.
Reality. Reality Check Network, 1996.
Steve 'Toast'. NFO Archive, 1995-98. http://www.uoguelph.ca/~shost/mail/mail.html

Revision IV (200499)
Scene History Composition, © Copyright 1998-9 by Ipggi of Defacto2, All Rights Reserved.

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