Routine Upgrades Are the Bane of 'Homebrew' Enthusiasts

Sony's PlayStation Portable is a favorite device for
Sony's PlayStation Portable is a favorite device for "homebrewers," video game tinkerers. (By Shizuo Kambayashi -- Associated Press)

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By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, July 6, 2006

Independent programmers are working on ways to listen to Internet radio and wirelessly check e-mail through the handheld Nintendo DS game device. Elsewhere, some jokers figured out how to get a playable version of Doom onto the iPod.

When one popular Tetris-like game, called Lumines, was not released for the Nintendo GameBoy, one programmer made his own knockoff version, which he called "LumineSweeper."

These are the things that happen inside the "homebrew" scene, the online place where hacker skills and video game culture overlap. For the enthusiasts in this community, figuring out how to make a Nintendo game work on a Sony device is as much fun as playing the games.

For the past year or so, a favorite device among homebrew tinkerers has been the slick PlayStation Portable, Sony's answer to the GameBoy. The PSP plays audio and video files and comes with built-in wireless technology. For the homebrew crowd, the device's capabilities -- and its built-in software safeguards -- are like candy.

For months, though, the PSP homebrew scene had been nearly dead, thanks to software updates from Sony designed, in part, to shut the tinkerers down. As of this past weekend, however, the game is on again.

PSP owners have to install Sony's PSP updates if they want to experience the latest off-the-shelf titles, but the updates generally offer users only a few new features or tools. Quietly, though, they close the security holes that programmers exploit to do their tricks.

So lively is the homebrew scene that some PSP fans -- it's impossible to say how many -- say they don't buy or play new games because they don't want to upgrade their gadgets and lose their homebrew software. There's even a circulating joke slogan: "Friends don't let friends upgrade their PSPs."

Unable to break through recent versions of the Sony software, PSP homebrewers have moved on to another trick: downgrading their PSPs to earlier versions.

Thanks to a new file recently posted on the Web, PSP owners with version 2.6 software are able to roll back their devices to the more hacker-friendly software version 1.5. And if any recent game title for the Sony device has generated as much excitement online as this underground developer's announcement, I missed it.

Programmers also have been working away at hacking Microsoft's Xbox 360, but it's unclear how successful they've been. From screen shots floating around the Internet, it looks as though some clever person may have figured out how to put a larger hard drive into the console than the one the machine comes with out of the box -- but the shots could also easily have been faked by somebody spending a few idle minutes with Photoshop.

Microsoft has made bold claims about how secure the Xbox 360 is -- just the sort of comments that egg hackers on. But so far, nobody appears to have cracked the 360's security open enough to allow for the installation of free software like Xbox Media Center.

That software, developed by hobbyists, made Microsoft's original game console a more functional home entertainment system than much of what is commercially available today. The program has such a stellar reputation among techies that I've known of some folks who don't care for video games much but bought an Xbox just to use it.


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