Cracking the Xbox

Nintendo-style game consoles pose the ultimate challenge—and that's what hackers live for.

by Photo by: John B. Carnett

Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo GameCubePhoto by: John B. Carnett

The closed architecture of game consoles such as Sony's PlayStation 2 has made them almost impossible to infiltrate. Hackers hoped for a new playground, however, with Microsoft's Xbox console, which went on sale last November. That's because the Xbox is PC-based, with a standard Intel processor and a hard drive.

But as hackers dissected the Xbox, they found a maze of security devices. By early summer they had made only fitful progress in breaking through the complex signatures and boot-up routines that keep the Xbox from recognizing unlicensed software or any hard disk other than the original.

"The more we get into it," says Dan Johnson, 18, who created the Xbox Hacker Web site, "the more we find unusual stuff. The hardware is real close to a PC, but it operates a lot differently from a PC."

Hackers dream of running their own software on the console, including applications such as MP3 players and emulators that would allow games written for other systems to run on the Xbox. Projects under way include an effort to import the Linux operating system into the Xbox.

This work got a boost from the recent introduction of Xbox "mod chips"-black market add-ons that can be soldered to the Xbox main circuit board to defeat copy-protection measures and enable the unit to run unlicensed software. A Microsoft representative said the company is considering legal action to shut down the makers of mod chips, which also make it possible to run pirated copies of games. Sony has shut down several operations that were making mod chips for its PlayStation 2 console. For now, though, the chips are welcome shortcuts for hackers around the laborious task of breaking down the Xbox software bit by bit. "The mod chips have already opened the door halfway when it comes to developing homebrew software," says David Becker (no relation to this writer), an upstate New York college student and Webmaster for the Xbox Power site.

Hackers will be watching attentively when Microsoft brings the Xbox to the Internet later this year with Xbox Live. The subscription-based network will be the only official way for the Xbox to go online, but Johnson says hackers are unlikely to settle for a closed system controlled by Microsoft. "One goal, I imagine, will be to reverse-engineer the Xbox Live system to let us have more freedom in online gaming," he says. "Allowing us to create our own game servers, for instance."

The main frustration for some hackers has been that Microsoft's security thwarts all experimentation, even efforts such as creating Web browsers and MP3 players-activities that don't detract from Microsoft's game sales. "It's kind of bumming me out that it's locked up for everything," Becker says. "I don't think it would hurt Microsoft if people could do some software development."

-Dave Becker