Nobody surprised that Xbox not hacker proof

Xbox News

Xbox hackers claim to have a firmware patch for the Xbox DVD drive that allows them to play copied games on standard Xbox hardware. Has this changed anything? Should you even care? Find out in this article.

The hack

'TheSpecialist' on XboxHacker.Net announced that he had managed to play a copied game on an Xbox 1: without any modchip/softmod, just a hacked firmware. I presume that what he means is that he has hacked the DVD drive firmware - which can easily be achieved by removing the drive, putting it in a PC and flashing the drive's BIOS. This tactic has been used to remove region restrictions from DVD drives for years, but I have not heard of it being used for circumventing copy protection before.

It's always possible that the article was a hoax, a PR attack on Microsoft, or simply just the result of a genuine mistake. However, let's just assume it's genuine; it is after all somewhat plausible.

Because of the nature of the hack, it's clearly not targeted at the legitimate purpose of using the console to run open source software, it's for running pirated copies of genuine protected software. Anyone who tells you otherwise is missing the point - deliberately or otherwise. It also clearly requires you to open up your console and mess about with the hardware: something most users will never want to do.

The hacker goes on to say The drive I modded was a 8050L. The good news is that the firmware in this drive is very similar to the firmware in the GDR3120, used in the XBOX 360. So, possibly the same technique can be used to hack the 360 as well. This would be bad news for Microsoft, and probably bad news for gamers in general. In fact it only sounds like good news if you are Sony. See below...

No copy protection has ever been 100% effective

It's true that a new way to break Xbox copy protection doesn't change much. It's likely that almost everyone who wanted to play pirated games already has a chipped Xbox. No copy protection system has ever been resistant against determined efforts. This has been true of music DRM systems, PC application software, printed books and even money. The question that both publishers and gamers should ask about these protection systems is: "are they worth the bother?"

The people who sell copy protection systems claim that they exist to 'keep people honest'. They know their systems don't really work, so they promote a rationale where the vast majority of honest people somehow need to be kept honest by broken technology that does not work. Magically, the honesty of these people stops them breaking the protection, but in the confused mind of the protection vendor, this honesty is not enough to stop them ripping off a game, or a tune, or a movie.

The purchasers of copy protection systems seem to believe that almost everyone is a criminal who wants to steal their product. They use copy protection to discourage widespread piracy, which they imagine would destroy their business. They fail to recognise that people will always spend as much as they can on entertainment. It's doubtful that piracy has ever had the serious negative impact claimed on the entertainment business. It's also doubtful that most people would pirate entertainment wholesale, even if it were even easier than it already is to achieve.

The people who circumvent copy protection range from hard-core commercial pirates, interested in making money from IP theft, to young children who cannot afford to buy many expensive games, to people making legitimate backups of their own property. None of them see copy protection as a serious obstacle, and many of them are not technical experts but ordinary 'joe uesrs'.

So what has changed?

A tiny handful of extra people can now play copied Xbox games. The Xbox is an old supersceded product, so that reduces the impact of the 'change' to begin with. Futhermore, most people who wanted to pirate Xbox games probably already could: the vast majority of owners neither need nor care to pirate Xbox games. In practice, as far as the Xbox 1 is concerned, almost nothing has changed. Even if this hack allows people to play copied games on Live, the impact on publisher profits will be negligable.

However, if you're a paranoid entertainment executive, convinced that every one of your customers is a thief out to rob your company, you might believe that this is the equivalent of a terrible and unnatural disaster. You might believe that the Xbox, and by association all Microsoft platforms are now a hotbed of piracy and that your profits for products on that platform will be eroded to nothing by a vast horde of imaginary pirates. That there's a hint that the 360 may also be vulnerable only confirms your worst fears.

The bad news

Because publishers are very fearful of piracy, regardless of the real threat, it can do great harm to a platform if they believe that it is vulnerable. The PC has suffered considerably over the last few years because publishers feel that they lose too many sales to pirates. I'm sure that many people are playing pirated games on PCs, but the number of these pirate copies that would have translated into real sales in a world of infallible copy protection is a mystery. My suspicions are that the number is much lower than the industry likes to claim. A fall in PC game sales is more likely due to a rise in spending on console titles than on piracy.

When publishers get afraid, bad things happen: they abandon platforms wholesale and they never go back. The Dreamcast died a premature death mainly because the rumour started spreading that publishers didn't see a future for it, and weren't going to release on it. Such rumours quickly become self fulfilling prophecies.

A rumour that the 360 is being abandoned due to fears about its security as a platform could do great harm to the fledgling console and benefit Sony enormously. As a result gamer choice would be undermined and we would face a single company monopoly on console gaming. This would be a very bad thing for everyone. In many ways it would have been better if the Xbox had proved to be more secure than it was.