The State of NextGen Mods

Posted in Moding,PS3,Wii,Xbox 360 by Michael Pica on the July 13th, 2007

The concept of hacking has been around as long as there have been things to hack. The concept of console modding has been around as long as there have been consoles to mod. Even back in the old Atari 2600 days people were tweaking their carts, writing unlicensed software and getting the console to do things above and beyond what they were designed to do. When the original Playstation became mainstream back in the late 90s, console modding experienced a significant boost in popularity. One that has only grown since, but with more complex system comes a system that is more difficult to tweak. How does the state of modding fare in the face of the new console generation?

…A Little History
Beyond the basic move to mainstream the original Playstation was one of the first popular consoles to feature CD based games. This is important because CD burners were starting to become more readily available. While the Playstation did feature disc security it was easily broken and the hardware used to break the systems security was cheap as well. The Saturn also saw a modchip appear later in it’s life but the chip was much more expensive and much more complex, the N64 had a backup device titled the 64DD but it cost almost as much as the N64 itself, and didn’t see very wide spread use. It’s debatable which console had the toughest security; though, the popularity of the Playstation saw it hacked the quickest

The combination of a CD based storage medium, and the consoles overwhelming popularity created a perfect storm to bring console modding up to a much more visible level. If you were in high school or college during this time it was rare if you didn’t know someone, or know someone who knew someone who had their Playstation modded. At this point console modding was mostly limited to playing backups and imported games, but there were a few homebrew project here and there.

Last generation Started with a bang in the modding world; the Sega Dreamcast. Despite the fact that the system didn’t use CDs an exploit was found in the way the console booted games that allowed would-be modders to simply burn boot-discs to play their games on CD-Rs. Eventually they were able to combine the boot disc code on the same disc as a game making a properly burned disc playable on any console without modification. In addition to the easy hack the Dreamcast ran on the popular Windows CE platform. With a familiar programming environment and easily backed up discs the Dreamcast saw a literal explosion of homebrew software and other projects. The amount of garage development happening on the Dreamcast was probably the largest seen since the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64 days.

While the Dreamcast was short lived in the market the release of the Xbox picked up right were the Dreamcast left off and brought the concept of a modded console to a whole new level. The Xbox was hacked inside 6 months and being that it was really nothing more than a PC in a funny case the development tools were even more familiar than that of the Dreamcast. More importantly the inclusion of a hard drive allowed homebrew and backed up games alike to not only run on a modded Xbox but stored right on the Xbox without the need for disc media. The inclusion of a built in network adapter and optional IR port made the console that much more versatile to the modding community as well. The ease of modding, and overall functionality really bright modding from a niche within certain gaming and hacking circles into the mainstream where it wasn’t uncommon to hear a store clerk talking about his modded Xbox or to even see TV programs and magazine articles featuring modded Xbox consoles with instructions on how to do it.

In addition to playing backups, imports, and homebrew the Xbox gave a boost to the popularity of console case modding. It’s unclear if this was due to it’s similarity to PCs, causing many PC case modders to move over to the Xbox, maybe because the case design lent itself well to modification, or maybe it was simply that those who like to tinker with the guts are also interested in tinkering with the looks. In any case what might have been a very rare occasion in the console modding world became nearly as commonplace as modchips.

The Playstation 2 and Gamecube were also moddable and in many ways the popularity of Xbox modding spilled over to the point where many were trying to make the PS2 and GC more like the Xbox. The PS2 was arguably the most difficult console to mod but it’s overwhelming popularity really pushed the development of modchips and other hacks. When Sony added an optional hard drive it didn’t take long for people to attempt to use it in the same ways that the hard drive was used on the Xbox. Unfortunately the difficulty of programing and the limited flexibility of the console saw it used mostly for backups with a few token homebrew attempts. Even the hard drive could only store certain compatible games. The release of the Slim PS2 put a damper on that as well since it lacked the provisions for a hard drive, and while USB hard drive support was added it was also plagued by the limited compatibility in addition to limited streaming speed which produced longer load times and choppy video playback.

The Gamecube was probably the most easily hacked of the last generation consoles but it took the longest. This is likely do to the Gamecube being the least popular of the last generation consoles as well as the fact that it was the most limited hardware wise. There were a few interesting homebrew projects but most of them were not very user friendly and without an internal storage medium and small amounts of disc space it saw some creative ways to store things including streaming from another PC on the network as well as storage built into modchips themselves. Attempts were made at USB and external hard drive storage but none of them ever reach a point at gaining a substantial foothold

Where are we now? – Xbox 360
The Xbox 360 having launched first this generation was also the first console to make progress on the hacking front. While arguably home to the most sophisticated security system ever put to use on a console some crafty hackers still found some ways through.

The first breakthrough was with the firmware on the DVD drive. The firmware essentially leads the console to believe that the disc being used is an original and not a backup. This actually hearkens back to the Sega Saturn modchips where the chip actually filtered the data coming off of the laser assembly and changed the appropriate bits to fool the console into thinking it was an original disc. Since the 360 essentially uses a PC DVD drive communicating with the console through an SATA cable they were able to hijack the chip housing the firmware and make the necessary changes to the data using the console’s own hardware against it. Perhaps most interesting about this hack is it was based on a security hole originally noticed on the Xbox 1 but ultimately ignored because a higher level security hole (the on-board BIOS) was exploited and offered more flexibility. If the drive firmware on the Xbox 1 had been widely compromised before the 360′s release this hack might not be available to us today.

So far Microsoft has proven that they can detect certain hacked firmware version and certain backed up discs, they’ve followed a similar path to thwart modders by banning the offending consoles from their Xbox Live service. Though, they’ve done little to actually stop people from playing backup discs.

Another breakthrough deals with the Xbox 360′s hard drive. The hard drive in the 360 is a standard 2.5″ SATA “laptop hard drive”. Since MS put it in a fancy plastic shell and jacked the price up they also used custom firmware on the drive. Thankfully more crafty people were able to strip the firmware from the hard drive and allow the use similarly branded PC drives. This became a bit more benificial with the release of the 120GB drive since the converted PC drive gets capped at the size of the firmware being used. This unfortunately is also detectable by Microsoft and can result in your console getting banned from the Xbox Live service.

The most impressive break through on the 360 is an exploit found in a demo disc, apparently it only works in Xbox 360s with older dashboard software and is rather complex to run but, when it is run, hackers have been able to gain full access to the console to run Linux and potentially other homebrew software. Functionally this is very similarly to the exploits on the Xbox 1. Unfortunately however the console is designed to prevent downgrading of the dashboard which significantly limits the usefulness of this mod. There have been some discoveries made in the form of preventative hacks that will allow you to downgrade your 360 in the future but most of those were discovered too late and as a result this hack wont gain much footing from most hackers until a readily available method of downgrading is discovered.

Where are we now? – Playstation 3
The Playstation 3 really hasn’t had much progress on the modding front. There have been numerous rumors about a boot disc but no real proof of it’s existence. The Playstation 3, like the Playstation 2 before it, can run Linux right out of the box. Also similar to the Playstation 2 the Linux operating system is artificially limited in it’s access to the hardware, making it a less useful platform for development. The PS3′s Linux does not allow developers access to the Graphics Processor, presumably to prevent it from somehow being leveraged to run pirated games. This also hinders the development of homebrew games as well as emulators; with early emulator ports showing less than spectacular results. It does offer potential for media applications the PS3 could perhaps be used as a MythTV box or run XBMC once it has been fully ported to Linux. As of right now though, there really isn’t much going on. Most console hackers would agree that the legal Linux distributions are no substitute to full access to the PS3′s hardware.

Where are we now? – Wii
The Wii is probably the most open console so far this generation. The security on the Wii was cracked fairly quickly because it was found to be nearly identical to the Security on the Gamecube. Most of the modchips available are simple microcontrollers very similar to the modchips used in the original Playstation days. The biggest difference between the Wii and the Gamecube is there has been disc security added to the Wii to prevent modification of the disc data. This means that like the Xbox 360 only exact or near exact duplicates can be run. The security is light enough that some games can be patched for patching and playing imported games but it’s tight enough to prevent homebrew.

One interesting development with the Wii has been the built in Gamecube emulator, which works so well it actually allows all of the Gamecube’s homebrew to be played on the Wii. This has revitalized the Gamecube homebrew scene with nearly every major Gamecube homebrew app receiving updates regularly now. Most of these updates include additional features to make use of the Wii’s larger disc capacity and faster processor too. One major problem with this is that the Gamecube emulator doesn’t allow access to many of the Wii’s nice features such as Bluetooth devices, SD card slots, or internal memory, it is still very much just a fast Gamecube with a larger disc.

Another interesting front for Wii homebrew development has been the Opera Web Browser. there are a number of sites that have popped up designed specifically for web browsing with the Wii. These sites are not only formatted to fit the Wii’s browser but they offer literally hundreds of flash based games that interpret the Wii Remote’s pointing feature in the same way that they would interpret a mouse pointer, the Wii Remote’s A and B buttons are interpreted like left and right mouse clicks too. So while an on rails flash shooter might be rather boring with a mouse it can actually be quite fun with a Wii remote. Many of these simple flash based titles look and feel quite professional too. There have even been homebrew media streaming applications that run through the browser.

Hacking developments on the Wii get more advanced every day. Recently an LCD modification was released for the WiiFree modchip similar to the LCD screens many had installed in their Xbox 1 consoles, there have been rumors of modchips also being capable of adding DVD playback and other multimedia functionality; which really isn’t all that far fetched seeing as there were a few Gamecube modchips that added that kind of functionality last generation. There are also many indicators pointing towards full access to the Wii hardware becoming available very soon.

What does the future hold?
The Wii probably has the brightest future in terms of modding. Being the most popular console this generation and having quite unique hardware makes it a perfect console for yet another homebrew boom. While the internal memory is limited (512MB) it is more than enough to house a homebrew media streaming application similar to XBMC or even a small build of Linux. The USB ports and SD media slot allow expandability and the Wii Remote opens up lots of opportunities for homebrew game development.

The Xbox 360 and PS3 have loads of potential too but that potential is mostly limited to aspects of raw performance power and storage space. There’s no doubt we could see games from the hard drive as well as some kind of XBMC-HD on either platform if and when they’re fully cracked. However, that is a big “if” at this point. Also with the exception of graphics horsepower neither platform offers anything really compelling in terms of homebrew game development, and I would suspect that the Wii will get the lions share of those developers if for no other reason than the Wii remote.

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