Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
14 February 2006
Sony, Microsoft, Apple: Stop worrying and love the hackers
This is just getting silly. Sony's precious PSP can't stop getting its firmware hacked, from version 2.0 up through the latest version 2.6. Microsoft's claims of hackproofness haven't stopped at least two holes, one for memory cards and one for demo discs, in the Xbox 360. And Apple's latest version of OSX86 has reportedly been hacked.

With each hack comes another attempt to patch a hole. Then another hole. And another patch. And so on.

Obviously the companies want to protect their stuff, but it is always a losing battle. Even the DMCA hasn't helped as much as the companies had hoped, although it's certainly established a slippery slope. As my old man says, "prohibition has never worked". My advice is to try going the other way. That is, don't tell people what they can't do, and open doors to what they can.

I don't see why Sony can't allow the PSP to run in some limited mode that allows unsigned code to run from the memory card. How about special 32Mb PSP memory cards, direct from Sony, which can be used specifically for homebrew? When such a card is inserted, the UMD drive gets turned off and you only have access to the memory card. Such a card would give programmers plenty of room to play and but be far too small for pirated UMD images. If you offer an easy, official hacking option for the masses, they will follow. They might even pay extra for it. They won't settle for unstable hacks that require a specially malformed save game when they can get 90% of what they want -- emulation and Tetris clones -- cheaply and safely. They don't want to brick their $250 toy, after all.

Microsoft could offer some reduced form of its Xbox 360 development tools for homebrew authors and a run-from-memory-card option in much the same way. Disable the disc drive while it's running from the memory card, and you've got all you need for most emulation and homebrew fans.

As for Apple, I'm still waiting to see how this x86 OS X gambit pays off. Ruffin seems reservedly positive about it. For my part, I hope we'll eventually see reduced prices for OS X systems as well as a renewed game market. But why not sell people a self-install version of OS X for some low price and wish them luck? After all, this was essentially the state that RedHat Linux was in about 8 years ago. I remember getting Red Hat 5.1 and having it fail to run X Windows because my NVIDIA Viper V330 card wasn't supported. I was happy to have toyed around with it, and eventually bought other versions of RedHat once my hardware was supported.

So, let me say it again: If you offer an easy, official hacking option for the masses, they will follow. They might even pay extra for it.

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--Matt Matthews at 14:28
Comment [ 9 ]

Comments on this post:

But how do you get OS X? You pay for it. And if you want to use iSight & iLife, you're probably best off using hardware that supports it. As I appended to a post on my blog earlier today, the prices aren't insanely more for Apple hardware once you factor in these extras, no matter how badly you skew the numbers to fit your Mac bias. So if you want to do OS X things, Apple hardware is a good buy.

Breaks down to if you want to have software from the most 3rd parties or if you'd rather run the digital hub Apple's presenting.

I suppose the biggest upshot from the x86 crack would be that now Apple will be forced to deal with piracy. Before, no registration key was needed for Mac OS b/c you had to own the hardware, which is what Apple was selling anyhow. (Actually, I suppose there was that Pegasus box for a while, iirc, but it was every bit as expensive as support hardware.)

Still, if OS X runs on x86 everywhere, this could be a good thing for Apple, if you ask me. "Oh no, they're dual booting OS X!!!!" Rabbit + briar patch, imo. We do, of course, notice that you are required to have Intel's SSE2 instruction set to run OS X. Smart move. OS X still == a sell for Intel (which means it's not running on my AMD whitebox).

[Though I'm now told AMD does have SSE2. Guess I need to learn to keep up.]

In any event, it's a much different issue with PSPs, and the connection seems pretty tenuous. Perhaps I should let Matt post on the ever-popular, oft-pimped freakinname.

By Blogger rufbo, at 14 February, 2006 21:00  

Sony tried homebrew support with the PS1-based Yaroze project, which pretty much went nowhere. Though I recall it was a fairly expensive option.

The GamePark32 tried open homebrew support, but didn't sell well enough to make a mark. And then things got wonky for the sequel, with the comapny apparently being split and the initial hardware being underwhelming.

The PC-Engine had a healthy homebrew market in Asia, but it wasn't even an option in the US.

The thing about aiding though is that it may only encourage more problems. Give some people an inch and they will take a mile, the question is how many others will decide to follow themselves. People will jump through a lot of hoops to play copied games, and will do minor hardware modifications and builds themselves.

Make a PSP that takes proprietary cards, and someone will try to work out a method to change the cards, or to use other hardware methods. (For example, converting a Gamecube memory card to an SD card reader, then using an Action Replay to cause the machine to read data from the card. A method that would be much more popular if most of the game copiers hadn't already invested in the PSO/BBA exploit.)

By Anonymous Baines, at 14 February, 2006 21:39  

Ruffin: You're right that OS X is mostly a software issue and the PSP is pretty much just hardware, and in that regard they're quite different. I'm just surprised that Apple would even bother putting up a roadblock. Why not invite more experimentation, especially now when you want to generate interest in your new systems?

Baines: Good call on the Yaroze, but as you pointed out those were very expensive. The tools for homebrew PSP are already out there, but they rely on dodgy hacks that most people shouldn't have to deal with. Wasn't aware of the homebrew PC Engine world; I'll have to check that out.

As for causing more trouble than it's worth, I think the name of the game here is channeling the desires of your users into mutually beneficial channels. This is what iTunes does for downloadable music: it makes it so easy that you hardly notice the DRM shiv between your ribs. If Sony invited the homebrew, even touted it, it might innoculate itself from some of the nastier aspects of the hacking world, like piracy.

By Blogger jvm, at 14 February, 2006 22:24  

The problem with limiting the size is that "less than a UMD" is an unrealistic goal. Many games take less than a UMD size, the puzzle bobble game was about 50 megs or less, I can't remember exactly. However many people, myself included, would want to be able to have more space for snes roms or whatever. I very quickly filled a 1 gig memory stick pro duo with emulators and games back when I ran 1.5

By Anonymous zachary, at 14 February, 2006 23:27  

In regards to the PC Engine, did you think that games like Toilet Kids made themselves? :)

But most companies don't have a monetary reason to support homebrew.

The GamePark32 was marketed on the concept of a homebrew market, with the selling point that any coders could create and offer their games for free or for sale. The system could try for a decent library even without the support of the big game companies. It didn't work. There weren't enough good coders to give the system a competitive user base, even though a few good games did come from the experiment. (Making a good game isn't easy. Making even a game isn't easy. Note even that a lot of homebrew offerings are ports of emulators or games done by others.)

On the other hand, console companies are potentially hurting the big developers where they get a lot of their money. Homebrewers can sometimes manage competative emulators without even having full access to the system's power, and where does that leave the big developers' retro-nostalgia offerings? Nintendo made a killing on repacking NES games on the GBA, and used it as incentive to sell certain GC games. Why would they want to make it easy for people to toss out the same ability for free?

And don't forget that people are willing to settle for less when it comes to free emulation. People will play emulated SNES games at half speed with no sound and call it great, for example. By that standard, the PSP can probably do passable GBA emulation, and Nintendo still makes money on GBA games. Give them a means to store around a CD, and people might start work on PSP-based PS1 emulators. And Microsoft is probably as concerned about people finding a way to break Live games as they are people copying games.

By Anonymous Baines, at 15 February, 2006 01:10  

Baines: Toilet Kids? Oh man, what a great name for a game. The "Game Over" graphic is at the bottom of this page.

I'll try to respond to the rest (much) later today.

zakk: It's just ridiculous to need more than 32Mb of ROMs at any one time.

By Blogger jvm, at 15 February, 2006 07:02  

Baines (again): There is a monetary reason for offering homebrew on a system like PSP, especially if it drains interest from a hacky way to copy and play UMD images. Cutting off piracy's air supply has a clearly positive effect for Sony.

And, yes, I've complained that people are willing to deal with cruddy emulation. That's why emulation packages get sales (and my money). As long as Nintendo, Sega, et al offer better packages for reasonable prices, there is room for both.

By Blogger jvm, at 15 February, 2006 22:17  

...or 512k of memory, anyone who has a gig of ram in their machine is clearly using it to pirate copies of the awful tom cruise war of the world movie that much more!

By Anonymous zachary, at 15 February, 2006 23:06  

You'd want more than 32Mb if you want to run a NeoGeo emulator. The NeoGeo is a particularly weird case in that it can be emulated well enough on a fairly low spec system, but has memory issues.

Homebrew that swipes sprites and music from various fighters and other games can get pretty big in size. Look at some of the Beats of Rage mods (and Beats of Rage does have a Dreamcast version.)

On a side note, I'd like easy hacking options. I actually considered getting a Yaroze, but never did. Considered Dreamcast stuff, but never got the BBA for it. And the Gamecube is still pretty limited in what people have figured out. (Particularly when maybe half the people studying it were looking more for copying/pirating reasons. It is difficult for me to do anything much beyond Pong on it, but blindingly easy if I wanted to copy commercial discs... :/ With a system mod, I could even be playing burnt mini-DVD-Rs I think...)

By Anonymous Baines, at 16 February, 2006 01:34  

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