A central focus of my research is the supposed illegality of videogame hacking: particularly, the ways it comes into conflict with copyright, intellectual property, and technical protection measures. This is not a unique set of challenges – there are certainly parallels in music remix, video mashups, and other sorts of fan production – but game hacks face some unusual issues due to the nature of their medium. Sourced from antiquated game cartridges, they often require the use of emulation software to play. Additionally, ROMs are generally harder for users to get a hold of. Whereas videos and images with copyrighted content can be snuck onto websites or even major social media platforms, ROMs are blacklisted and quickly removed from most web pages. Fan forums even go as far as to ban links to ROMs, effectively leaving users on their own to acquire them.
The hackers themselves are, of course, well aware that their projects occupy a legal gray area. In fact, many have devised custom software and distribution tactics that allow them to share their hacked ROMs while mitigating the risk of legal persecution. Although the actual protection these measures provide is hotly debated, they do present some interesting models in which hacks (and perhaps other fan created media) can be shared across the web.
To steal a definition from Wikipedia: “A ROM image, or ROM file, is a computer file which contains a copy of the data from a read-only memory chip, often from a video game cartridge, a computer’s firmware, or from an arcade game’s main board.” In essence, it is a copy of a game that has been extracted from a cartridge which is then made playable, on a computer, through an emulator.
Within the current context of my research, hacking involves editing a ROM in order to change its mechanics, aesthetic, or narrative. On the simplest level, this can involve swapping values in a ROM in order to change some aspect of gameplay. By altering values in Super Mario Bros, for example, hackers can make Mario jump higher, cause Goombas to inflict more damage, or have coins grant twice as many points to the player. More complex ROM hacking involves disassembling and reassembling a game – essentially tearing apart all of the elements, editing them, then packing them back together into a playable ROM.
However, once all this editing is completed, the stigma surrounding ROM-distribution makes hacks tricky to share. To counter this, ROM hackers have popularized the use of IPS patches. IPS stands for “International Patching System” and IPS patches are small files that can enact a list of changes to a ROM. Instead of distributing the hacked ROM itself, and taking on all the risks of hosting copyrighted content, hackers instead create a patch file that allows users to acquire their own copy of the base ROM and apply the changes by themselves. For example, an independent hacke/translator may make an IPS patch that transforms an English copy of EarthBound to one that has been translated into Portugese. In order to apply the patch, a user would download an EarthBound ROM, download the patch, and merge them together using a simple software patching tool. Since the original ROM is never hosted by the hacker – and the patch file carries no copyrighted content – the overall risk is somewhat lessened.
Online ROM Patching is a more streamlined version of an IPS patch, that accomplishes the same task but completely within a web browser. Instead of downloading an IPS file and manually applying it to a ROM, users can use an online patching system to alter a ROM that is stored on their computer. The whole process is automated and contained within a single web page, making it quite and easy for users to affect changes to a ROM. It also enables a hacker to embed a host of different options into the patching process – allowing users to customize a hack, in predetermined ways, to better satisfy their preferences.
This type of system is most commonly used for Randomizer hacks, where certain elements of the game are changed based on user preference and a complex randomization algorithm. As an example, the A Link to the Past Randomizer features options for game mode (difficulty, item distribution, etc) and the ability to export multiple copies of the ROM at once. By clicking a few options in a browser window, players can make multiple versions of the same hack and export them simultaneously.
An Effective Tactic?
However novel these tactics may seem, do they truly circumvent copyright issues? A number popular videogame hacks (Pokemon Prism and Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes) have been sent cease-and-desist orders, despite employing similar patching strategies. It seems that if Nintendo or another large publisher wants to push their weight around, sending a legal threat is enough to stop most videogame hackers in their tracks.
However, the idea of a patch file is interesting as it demonstrates how decentralization can be used to fight back against broad copyright policies. Similar to BitTorrent technology – where pirated files are shared among thousands of users – patches allow hacks to be distributed without having a single place where a ROM “lives.” Without a central location that houses explicitly illegal content, it becomes much more difficult for publishers and developers to push back against hackers.