Low Level All Stars -- Jan Lund Thomsen / Triangle

Posted by cory arcangel | Sun Aug 4th 2002 1 a.m.

[To coincide with the exhibition "Kingdom of Piracy" (http://kop.adac.com.tw/) RSG and BEIGE have entered into a head to head, 8-bit computing battle in search of what we call "the low level all-stars." Basically the idea is to hunt down the "true players" of low level 8-bit computer art. The following interview is of Jan Lund Thomsen of the infamous demo group "Triangle". In the following interview Jan describes the art of the cracker "intro" and other issues assiciated with this pre-internet DIY art/craft. Jan touches on fame, floppy disk distribution, and piracy. Part demo, part graffiti, intros are the animations that appear at the start-up of a cracked video game which are designed to showcase the cracker's talent.


Cory Arcangel: In a previous email you indicated that there was a cracking scene, and not an intro scene. An intro is merely an artists' tag of a much larger work. Can you explain why this process eventually grew to become so involved [music / animation]?

Jan Lund Thomsen: Intros had to be squeezed into whatever free memory space was left by the game (as both intro and game were loaded into memory in one go.) At some stage you can imagine the people coding these "tags" wanting to see what they could do if they had all the resources of the computer to themselves rather than piggy backing their work onto something else. Thus the demo-scene was born.

As demos are a legal activity the natural step was for people to form
specialized demo groups that had nothing to do with the cracking scene. From this rose the competition to do outdo each other, something that is still
evident in todays demo scene.

Cory Arcangel: Other people we have talked to described themselves as "artists", yet you view your work on the commodore more as a craft. Can you explain what makes you think of yourself as a craftsman?

Jan Lund Thomsen: Looking back I'd say I was both - probably around 60/40 in favor of the craft. While coming up with ways to enhance a game (adding high-score savers, better compression, etc.) could be considered an art-form that distinguished one cracked version from another, there was no denying that basic set of skills had to be mastered in order for a cracker to transform the contents of the original media into something that could be easily duplicated, yet preserved the functionality of the original game.

As various forms of protection schemes and fastloaders were applied to the
games a cracker needed to familiarize himself with those schemes. He also
needed the technical skills that would allow him to dig his way through new
protection schemes. One of the exiting things about cracking games was that you'd never know what you were up against next time an original tape landed in your mailbox.

Cory Arcangel: One of the reasons that I am interested in working on early 8-bit computers is that since most run on 6502 chips, due to the simplicity of 8-bit code and easy access to this code [via disassembler] one can usually modify or at least come to an understanding of any compiled code. This idea in some ways parallels today's open source movement. Would you consider the commodore64 a computer which is open source at its heart?

Jan Lund Thomsen: In one word: No.

While dissecting and tweaking other peoples code led to greater understanding of the machine and gave insight into new ways to solve old problems noone really spread their applications around to show other people *how* they accomplished something but rather that they *had* accomplished it.

Cory Arcangel: You are not in favor of pirating software. Though during your c64 years you played a part in spreading software. Did your philosophy change, or was the cracking scene seen as something different?

Jan Lund Thomsen: My philosophy changed. While I don't condone piracy these days, I'm not
completely denouncing it either. For me it has a lot to do with my belief in
the platform/developer-community in question; my Windows 98 box has programs with "extended" evaluation periods, while every little piece of shareware on my Palm IIIX is legally registered.

Cory Arcangel: You have mentioned that cracking games were an "ego thing". Can you explain?

Jan Lund Thomsen: The "ego" statement was made in a usenet discussion about peoples motivation for cracking games back in the day. While it may sound strange I never thought of it as making games freely available, or even breaking the law.

I considered cracking a display of technical prowess - a matter of me versus
the machine. As a cracker I took great pride in my work. Sure, people may have enjoyed playing the cracked versions I produced - but the important factor was that cracking made *ME* feel good.

Of course, well-aware that I was in one of the top euro quality-cracking
outfits, real competition was only offered by a select few. I also cracked the
occasional old game just for the fun of it, never bothering to add an intro or
even distribute it. The process of cracking was all-important, distribution and
recognition weren't.

Cory Arcangel: You received almost no feedback on your work during the era when you were
cracking. How was the distribution network for games organized?

Jan Lund Thomsen: Well-organised groups flourished due to people specializing in what they did best. No point in making the crackers lick stamps and mail out disks. Bear in mind that this all happened before the internet was something regular Joes had access to. Heck, most people I knew didn't even have modems (although I'm told there were lots of C= BBS'es out there) ... The cracker would wrap up his latest product, and give a copy to the group swapper(s) who in turn mailed it out to their contacts. That way everyone knew what other groups were doing.

Of course, some people created subscription services which meant that lots of games were distributed to people who weren't associated with the "scene". Add to that the obvious small-time swapping with the kid down the street who also had a C64 and you'd have a pretty good network.

Cory Arcangel: Do you still code in 6502?

Jan Lund Thomsen: No. Spending too much time on other things. =)

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