Hackers, programmers "improve" Xbox

Microsoft's PC-derived design has encouraged an unprecedented level of tinkering for a game machine in the few weeks it has been on the market.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
6 min read
From its cutting-edge graphics processor to the video game industry's first built-in hard drive, Microsoft's Xbox has been praised as one of the most technologically sophisticated game devices ever. But that's just not good enough for hardware and software experimenters who have been tinkering with the Xbox since the day it went on sale.

From the relatively benign efforts of software coders looking to capitalize on the Xbox's latent online capacity to hardware geeks willing to risk warranties and good sense in pursuit of better performance, the PC-derived design of the Xbox has encouraged an unprecedented level of tinkering for a game machine in the few weeks it has been on the market.

"It's a very powerful piece of hardware--that's what motivates us," said Dan Johnson, a high school senior from Sugarland, Texas, and creator of XboxHacker, a Web site dedicated to disseminating the latest information on Xbox tweaks. "It has the potential to do so much else. We can write lots of programs eventually to really exploit this thing."

That's why Johnson--a computer programming buff who has previously hacked the ePod Web appliance to run Windows CE programs--has spent more time tinkering with his Xbox than playing games on it.

"I went to Wal-Mart the night before it came out and waited until they opened to get one," he said. "I played a couple of games, and then I started looking for the screws in the case to get it open."

Johnson has made limited modifications to his Xbox so far, preferring to leave the riskier work to more hard-core hackers. "I'm very curious, but I kind of draw the line at soldering," he said.

Even for hackers without such limitations, Xbox achievements have been limited so far, thanks to numerous protection measures Microsoft built into the console.

see special report: Microsoft plays for keeps Hackers have managed to use a faster ATA-100 cable to connect the console's hard disk and DVD drive. Beyond that, hardware hackers are still in research mode, working to crack password schemes and dissect the basic BIOS programming instructions built into the machine.

"I thought it would be easier than it is," Johnson said. "I think Microsoft put a lot more time into hacking and protection stuff than we anticipated.

"I think we're slowly making more and more progress. Just in the last couple of days, we've figured out some of the hard drive passwords--now we can access stuff on the Xbox hard drive with a PC."

A PC approach
PCs play a large part in most Xbox hacking activities. Other game consoles are custom-built machines that defy easy modification. Nintendo's new GameCube, for example, doesn't use standard DVD media or even standard screws to hold the case together.

The Xbox, however, mostly uses off-the-shelf PC hardware, including a Pentium III processor and standard hard drive, attracting the interest of "overclocking" enthusiasts who normally spend their time souping up PCs.

"It's basically a computer, and computer hardware is what I do," said Keith Whitsitt, owner and editor of overclocking site Icrontic, one of the first sites to explore the guts of the Xbox.

"I was kind of surprised at how not locked-down it was," Whitsitt said. "I thought it was going to be more of a challenge. Honestly, I didn't have to try that hard to crack the Xbox."

Hacker goals include discovering methods to swap out Xbox components, so original parts can be replaced with a bigger hard drive or faster processor. Whitsitt sees significant interest in modifying the Xbox so it will run standard Linux and Windows software.

Johnson envisions hackers turning the Xbox into an all-purpose home-entertainment center, capable of playing audio and video in the MPEG-4 and DivX formats and handling games for other systems through the use of emulator software.

"I have a whole big stack of old cartridge games," Johnson said. "It would be great to have an arcade system where you could play all kinds of games using emulators."

A business threat?
One of the grandest goals, however, may be to crack the various encryption and protection schemes built into Xbox hardware and software to allow Xbox games to run on PCs, a move that could undercut the market for genuine Xbox hardware.

Some hackers "will definitely want to be able to load the Xbox operating system onto a PC and run games on a computer," said Whitsitt. "I'm sure that was Microsoft's No. 1 priority when they made the thing, to make sure that doesn't happen. But anything can be reverse-engineered, and the Xbox isn't going to be an exception."

Gartner analyst P.J. McNealy said that even if hackers succeed in rigging Xbox games to play on a PC, Microsoft has little to fear from such a fringe element.

"It would be a worse problem if people could convert Xbox games into a file format they could share online and burn onto a DVD," he said. "But just given the tiny number of DVD burners on the market today, even that wouldn't be much of a threat.

"It's possible this could be a threat to the distribution channels for Microsoft in 2003 or 2004. I think it's hard to assess at this point, but I don't see any significant threat now."

Microsoft representatives were not available to comment on Xbox modifications, but the Xbox owners' manual strongly warns against such activities, and opening the console's case voids the warranty.

Online gaming the hard way
Microsoft has given grudging approval to a more modest type of Xbox tweak, however. A pair of Linux programmers and online PC gaming site GameSpy each have developed software to allow Xbox users to run multiplayer games over broadband Internet connections, a capability Microsoft plans to offer by mid-2002.

Both systems take advantage of the system's capability for connecting several Xbox units into a local network for multiplayer gaming. By hooking up the Xbox to a broadband-connected PC and running special software on the PC, the independent XboxGW software and the Xbox "tunnel" for the GameSpy Arcade online service allow Xbox owners to expand that local networking capability to online connections.

"Rooty," one of the programmers behind XboxGW, says the software is just a way to deliver a capability Microsoft is still working on.

"When we got our Xboxes, we were promised broadband technology and multiplayer games," he said. "We were pretty disappointed when it wasn't there, so we decided to see what we could do. It was pretty easy. We had it working within like three days of getting the Xbox."

GameSpy founder and CEO Mark Surfas voiced similar motivations. "We've looked forward to console multiplayer gaming ever since we started the company back in 1995," he said. "Having the Xbox come out with the Ethernet port was something we were looking forward to, and we didn't want to wait to be able to do something with that Ethernet port."

Response to both programs has been enthusiastic, with hundreds of players hosting online matches each night for games such as "Halo." Even Microsoft has been mildly approving, recognizing XboxGW and the GameSpy service as creative but technically daunting approaches to online gaming, while Microsoft puts finishing touches on its Xbox network.

"It's amazing and exciting to see the lengths that gamers will go to in order to take their Xbox games online," said Xbox product manager James Bernard. "We think (these) efforts are an interesting science experiment by and for hard-core gamers. (But) in order to engage several players, voice, content download and online support with no PC required, gamers will have to wait for the Xbox online service. And it will be worth it."

Rooty agrees, by and large. "This project was never designed to have more than a six-month life," he said. "We're not looking to replace anything Microsoft is doing."

Surfas acknowledged GameSpy's Xbox service as something of a research lab for Microsoft as the company finishes its online Xbox service.

"They're clearly very interested in what's going on with hard-core gamers and what they want from online gaming," he said.