How a small team of hackers gave birth to indie gaming in Peru.
It was 2 a.m. on a night in March 1989, and Lobsang Alvites was talking with one of his friends. He was using a 300 baud modem and comparing the state of European game development with that of his country, Peru. Alvites had returned from Italy three years earlier, and since then, he had just been doing one thing: programming
Alvites's childhood had been a tough one. He was born in Lima, moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and then to Europe. He finished high school in Italy and when he arrived in Peru he didn't know anyone and wasn't interested in pursuing a college degree. His dream had always been to become an astronaut, but in Peru that was impossible. Once he got his computer, he started to meet other youngsters like him that were learning how to program. Alvites became their leader. He was 16 years old.
While other teenagers were playing soccer on the street or starting to hit on girls, Alvites was learning to decompile programs and finding new ways to use his favorite computer: a Commodore 64 that he found at a fair after he lost his previous one at airport customs when he arrived in Lima.
That morning in 1989, Alvites was remembering how the indie development scene had risen in Europe by creating demos and intros and distributing modified software done by hackers. Why not do the same in Peru? His friend, at the other end of the line, loved the idea, and that's how they created a team called Twin Eagles Group (TEG).
TEG was originally just four programmers, and its first projects were cracking games, adding alternate intro scenes displaying the team's name, and then distributing them. Soon, it had a network of contacts all over the city and became the main source of games in Lima. The initials of Twin Eagles Group would be remembered for decades.
As would Alvites's alias. From the moment TEG was founded, he would go by the name Mr. Byte.
The early '90s was one of the most dangerous periods in Peruvian history. The terrorist group the Shining Path kept the whole country living in fear. A civil war between the Shining Path and the military forces raged every day in the heart of Lima.
On July 16, 1992 a car bomb exploded in Miraflores, one of the upscale districts of the city. Twenty-five people (all of them civilians) were dead and more than 200 were injured. At the headquarters of TEG, everybody was worried for one of their friends, Hawkings.
That night, Hawkings, who was just 13 years old, had stayed at Mr. Byte's house until late. They'd been programming for several hours. Mr. Byte's house was the headquarters for TEG. Mr. Byte was always there.
"Some people knocked on the door at 2 a.m. I opened it [let them in] and went back to sleep," says Mr. Byte.
In the worst years of the Shining Path attacks, blackouts were usual and when that happened, the team had to stop working and light candles. And wait. Sometimes, when a curfew was imposed by military forces, team members had to sleep at Mr. Byte's place and return to their homes the next day. But on the night when the car bomb exploded, Hawkings took a bus home. After Mr. Byte and his crew learned about the terrorist attack, they called Hawkings' home immediately. The kid was safe, although he recalled passing by the building that had exploded just 20 minutes earlier.
Every member of TEG has a story about how they met Mr. Byte. Osamu, one of the group's artists, met him after one of his art teachers arranged an introduction. Mr. Byte liked Osamu's work and invited him to join the group. Hawkings met Mr. Byte while waiting at a Commodore 64 repair store. They began talking about the games they liked and soon became friends. He was 12 and Mr. Byte was 18.
Hawkings convinced Mr. Byte to teach him how to program. "I called him every night, even when he was at his girlfriend's house," Hawkings remembers. Although Hawkings didn't enter TEG, he was a good friend of the group and soon created his own team, called The Tiger Force.
Most TEG members met Mr. Byte after calling the number that appeared on the intro screens TEG placed on the games it cracked. It was always the same: the phone rang, Mr. Byte answered and the next day some kids would come to the house — sometimes with their parents — get fascinated with the equipment TEG had, and return every day to find more.
What led the members of TEG to join the group was always the same: passion. Everyone remembers TEG as their first gang. They didn't hesitate to work for long periods of time to get the work done, and Mr. Byte didn't pay them. They only received some royalties if their projects sold. Age was not important within TEG. There were kids as young as 12 and adults as old as 60. There was no alcohol and no drugs.
"I remember one mother accused me of everything, like being a drug addict or a homosexual."
Mothers were always an issue at Twin Eagles Group. Having teenagers at a house for several hours can be misunderstood. At first, moms were happy that their kids were learning new things and discovering how to use technology. But then, as their children arrived home late in the night and in the middle of a civil war, they began to worry. Things began to turn bad. The mothers wanted to stop letting their kids go to the TEG headquarters. They even accused Mr. Byte of kidnapping their children.
"I remember one mother accused me of everything, like being a drug addict or a homosexual," says Mr. Byte. Because of that, several members of TEG left the group, while others got into problems with their family but stayed.
The daily routine of the group was to receive games from other countries (mostly from Europe), crack them and then send them to local stores in Lima or sell them through ads in the classified section of the newspaper. They became famous, as their initials appeared on almost every game played in Peru.
Each member of TEG had their own responsibility: Some handled the art, others cracked code, while the rest distributed the games to local retailers. They only used nicknames. "It was a way to be careful at the time. But now I try to share their real names on our website," says Mr. Byte.
But there's a story that remains to be told around Mr. Byte and the programming scene of the '90s in Peru.
After Mr. Byte became famous, he was asked to do other kinds of jobs, like modify existing SNES games. "I always separated the hacking activity from the things we did in TEG; they were two distinct groups," he says.
One of the most well-known jobs performed by this unnamed group was hacking soccer games. Konami's International Superstar Soccer became Fútbol Peruano 97. Local teams and even the voice of a local commentator where inserted in the game. It became a hit, and they went on to create Brazilian and Argentinian versions of the game.
Then came other games, like a bizarre SNES port of Sonic the Hedgehog. But this side business started to get dangerous. Mr. Byte soon found himself on the wrong side of organized crime organizations that claimed control of the hacked game business and he heard rumors about police operations on other groups.
Mr. Byte decided it was time to move on. He left the hacking scene and returned to his first love: making his own games.
Mr. Byte has 32 cats on his roof. He has been rescuing cats with some kind of disability for some years now. He takes cats which have been attacked or run over to a veterinarian friend, and then he adopts them. He loves cats.
"They are more intelligent than dogs, and they are the favorite pets for programmers as they are independent," he says. He remembers Mirfusila, the cat that he got when he arrived in Peru in 1986. She was always at TEG, resting on top of a monitor.
xSound, one of the members of TEG that was there at the time, remembers Mirfusila's death in 2001 as the first and only time that he has seen Mr. Byte cry. "He was always a very rigid man, but that day he showed that he had feelings like the rest of us." The leader of a team has to show the way; he can't get distracted or emotional, otherwise, the whole team could fall apart. But that night, with Mirfusila lying dead on his arms, Mr. Byte didn't have the strength to disguise himself.
Mr. Byte hates sunlight. He works in complete darkness, simulating perpetual night to get things done.
Spunk, one of Mr. Byte's oldest friends, remembers him as a wacky genius. "He had a strange personality, but once you knew more about him he was really a great guy," he says. "I always thought that he would be a legend, I don't know, like Bill Gates." Spunk remembers that people had to take off their shoes to enter Mr. Byte's house.
After working with the Commodore 64 for some years, Mr. Byte decided to try new things with the Amiga console. He and other members of TEG ported a game published by Konami for SNES to the Amiga 1200. They named it Gunbee F-99. It was a vertical shooter where the player had to defeat five bosses to retrieve a kidnapped princess. The game was an exact replica of the original title from SNES, except for the last level, which Mr. Byte and his team transformed into a Peruvian scenario, full of references to its geography and history. The final boss was the Tuminator, a symbol from a Pre Incan culture.
Gunbee F-99 became the first Peruvian game ever published, released in 1998 for the European and American markets by German company APC & TCP. The game got excellent reviews from magazines from around the world, and still occasionally shows up on YouTube speed run channels.
Eduardo Marisca, a Peruvian Research Assistant from the Education Arcade at MIT who is studying the Peruvian game industry, believes that the time that TEG spent modifying games helped them learn how to make videogames. "It's a gray area when you analyze it. ... Piracy — although I don't think is the best word to address it — was how you gathered experience and started to work on other projects," he says.
He gives the example of the manga industry in Japan, which started copying famous works until original material began to appear. Or Nollywood, which started because of the boom of piracy as a way to show young directors how to shoot a movie. "The problem arrives when these industries pretend to maintain themselves like informal ones forever. Then you start to generate a high social cost," Marisca says.
The first copyright law in Peru was passed in 1995, after TEG had been cracking games for Commodore 64 for several years. The change led to increased police activity and raids on software pirates and Mr. Byte's return to making original games.
Mr. Byte hates sunlight. He works in complete darkness, simulating perpetual night to get things done.
The King of Peru
In 2001, Peru underwent a major political change. President Alberto Fujimori resigned via fax from Japan, and emergency elections were called. One of the candidates, Alejandro Toledo, was the leader of the opposition party and one of the men who helped bring back democracy to Peru. Toledo and Fujimori were on the cover of every magazine, journal and TV show in the country. So Mr. Byte thought that might be a great story for TEG's new game.
The game was called La Tercera Vuelta (which translates as The Third Round — Peru uses a two round system for elections), and it showed Alejandro Toledo trying to get to the Government Palace of Peru on a tank, while Fujimori was throwing him yucas, an Andean tuber. It was a simple, casual game that TEG distributed through its website. The game became a hit, and shined a light around the world on game-making in Peru. Mr. Byte decided to continue making games about politics, so he created The King of Peru.
Fighting games had always had success in Peruvian arcades. So, why not make a fighting game with Peruvian politicians? In The King of Peru, you could play with two characters: Alejandro Toledo and Alan García, the two candidates for the presidency on 2001.
"People said it was a clone of The King of Fighters with new sprites, but everything was made up from scratch," says Mr. Byte. Again, the game was a hit and attracted even more attention. The game's sequel, The King of Peru 2: The Final Mecha (The Final Fight), was begun and scheduled to be TEG's first commercial release in Peru.The King of Peru development team
The King of Peru 2 took six months to develop, and added a story for each fighter as well as two additional characters, Fujimori and his secretary of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos. TEG partnered with a local computer company to distribute the game, but the relationship turned sour.
"That company was also part of the piracy emporium at that time, so they were more interested [in] having the game pirated until our commercial contract ended, so then they [would] sell the remaining copies for a higher price," says Mr. Byte.
It was a hard hit for TEG. After months of work, with the entire TEG team working for deferred pay, they instead got nothing. Mr. Byte filed a lawsuit against the company.
The experience highlighted the paradox of TEG's development. In the '80s and '90s, TEG had been sidestepping the law by cracking original games and distributing them for free in local stores. Now it was seeking justice for a company that had done the same to one of its games. After 12 years of trials, there is still no verdict from the Peruvian courts.
TEG released its final game on 2003, as a way to say goodbye to the Peruvian game scene. It was called Samba de Oruga, and according to Mr. Byte, it was the first erotic game made in Peru.
The mechanics of Samba de Origa closely resemble those of Tetris, with blocks coming down as the player creates lines in order to destroy them. As blocks are destroyed, a picture is revealed on the background: a photograph of a girl in lingerie; Mr Byte's girlfriend at that time. The game shipped with a condom inside the box.
The company needed money in order to continue making games, but it would not raise enough.
Samba de Oruga was not called shareware, but rather "pollada-ware" ("chicken party"-ware), making a reference to a modern Peruvian tradition where family and friends gather to eat chicken while paying a small fee to help the organizers fund or buy something they need. It was a none-too-subtle reference to TEG's financial situation. The damage of being hacked by its business partner had been done.
Mr. Byte tried unsuccessfully to revive the company as TEGMO (TEG Mobile), but again, he entered the Peruvian market too early.
"I remember a meeting with Spunk, one of the former members of TEG and an entrepreneur, to ask for some money for investing in TEGMO, but he refused," says Mr. Byte. "He said 'people would never play games on their phones.'"
Mr. Byte got some contracts but he didn't have the manpower to make the games. So in 2007 he quit the game development scene for good and started working on other things. A year later, Apple would open its App Store and start a mobile gaming revolution.
It's a summer night at the end of 2013, in the district of Miraflores, in Lima. There's a party happening at a local bar: the annual meeting of the IGDA Peru, the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association, created in 2012. The place is crammed: There are game development students trying to find their first employer, people with some experience in the industry that just want to hang out and network and game journalists that want to know more about local game development. Sitting on a couch, Mr. Byte sees all the action.
From TEGMO's end in 2007 until 2012, the game development scene in Peru was almost dead. Apart from a game studio that had been developing titles for the web and mobile devices, there wasn't a single game company in the country. But that changed after the Lima Game Jam, in January, 2012. People got involved in game development and soon the industry that Mr. Byte helped create with TEG started booming again. New studios were born and titles were launched. The new developers were as passionate as the guys who started everything in the eighties, and they haven't forgotten their elders.
At one point during the night, one journalist approaches Mr. Byte. Someone has told the journalist that Mr. Byte was responsible for most of the Commodore 64 games he played when he was younger, and also for The King of Peru. They begin talking about old games and even start humming the intro song of Commando, an old-school arcade game for the Commodore 64.
Then some indie devs tell Mr. Byte he has been an inspiration for them and they want him to try their new game and pose for a picture. Mr. Byte starts talking about how games were made in the '80s and how it's difficult for him to understand what's happening now, and how it was always a hard task for him to find a good pixel artist. "Do you know someone who is available right now?" he asks constantly.
The night is almost over and Mr. Byte is still talking with the local indies. He invites them to his house — the former TEG headquarters — to talk more about new ways to make games. This is the first time that Mr. Byte has been in touch with so many game developers since 2006.
Some days before, when asked about his future plans, he said that he was thinking about starting to make games again. But with his time, it was a tougher decision. He wasn't a young boy anymore; he was 41 years old. This could be his last chance, but also, he noted, there were lots of new opportunities to make games: more accessible tools, self-publishing, skilled people to hire, an economic boom in Peru. "I would be a fool not to take this opportunity."
The game development scene in the '80s in Peru had a proper name: Twin Eagles Group. And its leader was Mr. Byte. For them, game development didn't have a happy ending. Yet most of what has had happened in recent years has its roots in those restless nights of modifying Commodore 64 games while dealing with blackouts, civil war and angry mothers. The current resurgence in game making in Peru can be traced all the way back to TEG. And TEG might be getting back in the game.
All of the former members, when told of the next local game jam event and the hundreds of contestants who would be making games for 48 hours, said the same thing, sharing the same passion that ignited the Peruvian game scene at TEG: "Count me in."
The game development scene in the '80s in Peru had a proper name: Twin Eagles Group. And its leader was Mr. Byte.