Beating Sony At Its Own Game

The temptations and pitfalls of hacking the PlayStation Portable

5 min read
Nathan Wray [left] and Noah Vawter
Music Mod: Nathan Wray (left) and Noah Vawter hacked the PSP to make it into a drum synthesizer.
Photo: Joshua Dalsimer

Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., of Tokyo, made headlines in August by adding a Web browser to the PlayStation Portable, its US $250 handheld gaming device. The PSP’s Web-surfing add-on, available as part of a firmware update, seemed like a smart move in the right direction. But that was only half the story. The browser release, in fact, came in the wake of a war that has been waged between the company and the hacker underground since virtually the day the PSP landed in gamers’ paws.

Released early last year, the PSP is Sony’s first foray into the lucrative world of mobile fun, and a direct challenge to the reigning champ, Nintendo Co., Kyoto, Japan, maker of the Game Boy and DS handheld systems. The PSP features a stylish wide-screen display and has Wi-Fi capability, which was exploited by hackers who beat Sony to the punch by releasing an unauthorized Web browser months before. The company wasn’t breaking ground; it was playing catch-up.

A Web browser is far from the only user-made modification for the PSP. From the utilitarian (adding Internet chat) to the funky (making the PSP a drum machine), PSP hackers are exploiting the machine in ways the company has, for one reason or another, ignored. “To fully use the system,” says C.K. Sample III, the author of an upcoming book from O’Reilly Media called PSP Hacks, “people are tinkering on their own.” Sony doesn’t approve. “We strongly recommend that consumers do not mod their PSP system,” says John Koller, senior product manager in the New York City office of Sony Computer Entertainment of America Inc.

Despite Sony’s position, for hard-core geeks, video games aren’t just for playing—they’re for modifying, and the so-called mod community has an established role in pushing both software and hardware forward. The games of id Software, developers of Doom and Quake, were among the first to be hacked, when players began altering audio, visual, and game-play mechanics in the 1990s. Among other things, the changes served to exercise the software engine—the core code at the heart of the game—long after the title was released, increasing the engine’s lifetime and salability to other game developers. In Darwinian fashion, id Software sometimes incorporated the better innovations into later commercial releases.

Although some game software developers see value in how the mod community extends their products’ shelf lives, hardware manufacturers are less understanding. With its 733-megahertz Intel processor and network capabilities, Microsoft’s $150 Xbox has spawned a breed of hackers looking to tap the potential of what is, in fact, an incredibly cheap, powerful computer. Through various copyright-protection countermeasures, such as soldering a so-called mod chip to the motherboard, hackers preempted Microsoft’s recently released Xbox 360 by transforming the original Xbox into a hub for playing music and displaying photos.

“The Xbox, and all video-game consoles more or less, were originally marketed as gaming-only devices,” says Andrew (“Bunnie”) Huang, author of Hacking the Xbox (No Starch Press, 2003). “However, we are now discovering that one of the most popular applications of hacked boxes is the ‘media center.’” A media-center Xbox can display photos, act as an audio jukebox, and play movies.

Over the years, makers of consoles and portable game machines haven’t taken kindly to such activity, suing and shutting down major manufacturers of mod chips. In 2003, a 22-year-old gamer named David (“krazy8”) Rocci, from Virginia, was fined $28 500 and sentenced to five months in jail for distributing mod chips over the Web.

When the PSP was released in 2005, the device struck mod makers as ripe for the hacking, mainly because of its versatility. In addition to playing games, the PSP plays movies and music, and it displays photos. Plus, it’s portable. “The fact that someone can create code for the PSP, install and run it, then take it with them on a road trip, on the plane, or even just over to a friend’s house, makes the PSP a very desirable target” for hackers, says the webmaster of a popular PSP hacker site,, who prefers not to disclose his name.

PSP mods started surfacing online almost immediately after the gadget’s release. One of the notable early hacks came when someone discovered that the creators of the PSP’s hovercraft racing game, Wipeout Pure, had included a simple Web browser inside the game. Intended for downloading game content, the browser could be redirected to other sites by the technically savvy. Hackers began gleefully surfing the Web with the tiny handheld, and even playing rudimentary online games such as Tetris.

But the online exploits were just the beginning. Hackers soon found out that with a bit of trickery, it was possible to run code directly from the PSP’s memory stick. Sony included that feature so that it could distribute minigames or expansion packs for the PSPs. But hackers saw another application: home-brewed games. Rather than spending thousands of dollars for a PSP game-development kit, someone could simply code, say, a chess game on a PC and load it on a memory stick.

While some hackers circumvented the copyright protection scheme to run home-brewed programs off the memory stick, others busied themselves with hacking Sony’s proprietary media discs, which store PSP games and movies. Before long, intrepid gamers could watch home movies as well as use home-brewed software. “Very little of the motivation is about playing pirated games,” Sample says. “It’s about playing the cool programs that people have written.”

An example is PSPKick, a free download that converts the PSP into a drum machine. Users can create a rhythm, then change the volume and pitch of the notes, and then save the sounds they make as .wav files and incorporate them into professional sound-editing programs. Graphic designer Nathan Wray and his friend Noah Vawter, a graduate student at the MIT Media Laboratory, developed the software, which they’re distributing online [see photo at top, "Music Mod"]. Mods “are a great way for people to produce something without having to go through the painful and extremely costly process of getting rights and a development platform,” Wray says. Besides, he adds, “the more people making music, the better.”

Sony, not surprisingly, isn’t pleased. With the game industry losing an estimated $3 billion per year to piracy, Sony is eager to plug any holes on its new machine that could be used to copy or run pirated games. And Sony has a solution: firmware. The North American version of the PSP, for example, shipped with firmware Version 1.5, which was soon followed by two upgrades. To entice more gamers to update their machines, Sony packed its 2.0 upgrade with new features, including the “official” Web browser.

imgUpdate vs. Home Brew: Will the Sony PSP’s firmware solution signal “game over” to hackers like Nathan Wray (left) and Noah Vawter?Photo: Joshua Dalsimer

The 2.0 firmware also prevented gamers from playing homemade code. So, of course, the hackers fought back. A group of PSP hackers calling themselves SonyXteam disseminated a program called SXT Version Changer, which downgrades the firmware. But the cat-and-mouse game continues, with Sony’s recent release of firmware Version 2.5.

For hackers it may soon be “game over” after all. “Eventually,” says the webmaster of PSP Updates, “Sony will close enough of the loopholes in their security to prevent easy access to the system. At this point, I fear that people will have to make a choice to either cease updating their systems and keep the ability to run home brew, or to update the systems, lose the ability to run home brew, but be able to play newly released official games.” [See photo, "Update vs. Home Brew."]

And that, hackers say, is the heart of the problem. The success of hack-friendly games such as Doom and Quake shows that the PSP could benefit from being more open, they say. But Sony isn’t going there yet. “We have a rollout plan already developed and scheduled for each upcoming feature of the PSP, and outside influences haven’t affected this process,” Sony’s Koller says. “While we recognize the creativity of some of the available mods, we are diligently following our schedule for official updates to the PSP system.”

About the Author

DAVID KUSHNER, a journalist in New Jersey, is the author of Masters of Doom (Random House, 2003). His latest book is Johnny Magic and the Card Shark Kids (Random House, 2005).

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