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The PSP Homebrew Battle: A Report From the Front
game: PSP
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Sony
view related website
date posted: 11:06 PM Tue Jan 17th, 2006
last revision: 11:05 PM Tue Jan 17th, 2006

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Click to read.In the ongoing battle against the hacking and homebrew community, Sony has released several new versions of their PSP firmware this year. The latest release is version 2.60, and came out on November 29, 2005. Original Japanese PSPs came with firmware 1.0 and could run programs directly from the memory stick. Sony didn\'t want PSP owners to run user-created programs, so the first American PSPs came with firmware 1.5, which disabled the ability to run unsigned software from the memory stick.

Firmware 1.5 was hacked in June 2005 with a memory stick swap exploit, then with an easier exploit that opened the flood doors for homebrew apps and games. Users created packages of software, ported open source programs like Quake and Beats of Rage, began development on a web browser, created media players, and even started work on an alternative operating system. The scripting language LUA was ported to PSP, allowing for much easier development of PSP games and applications, and the development has continued relatively unabated.

Sony quickly responded with firmware version 1.6, then jumped to version 2.0, then 2.01 in early Fall 2005. This new firmware enabled the PSP\'s built-in web browser, opening up a new front of Sony-sanctioned web development targeted at the handheld gaming platform. Version 2.5 of the firmware was released shortly after, and in November version 2.60 came out. These latest versions have added the ability to view document files, set custom background images, play WMA format audio files, support some video DRM technologies for playback of protected video files, and RSS support for listening to podcasts on-the-go.

All of these features are enticing to users, but many PSP owners have resisted upgrading their firmware. To encourage users to upgrade, and to assist PSP owners without a WiFi Internet connection, Sony has made recently released games require at least version 2.0 firmware. When users try to play these games on their PSPs, the games remind them to upgrade. This is a feature on more popular games such as X-Men Legends 2: Rise of Apocalypse, which released in the Fall of 2005.

However, just as games of the caliber required to get gamers to give up their beloved homebrew began to hit stores, clever programmers created several ways around the Sony-created blocks, making a firmware version spoofer and a downgrader utility, which at least allows PSP owners to upgrade and downgrade their firmware at will. Eventually, a Version 2.0 Homebrew Loader was released, which allowed users to run applications using an exploit based on a hole in the image-viewing portion of the firmware. Currently, there are more elegant systems of managing which firmware your PSP runs, such as the MPH Firmware Loader. This tool allows users to swap between version 1.5 and version 2.0 firmware.

Downgrading firmware acquired a bad name when a PSP Trojan Horse was released on P2P networks masquerading as the firmware downgrader utility. This malicious program renders a PSP useless and presents a risk many users are unwilling to take with their $250 handheld gaming system. It would be easier to not worry about malicious programs, swap or fool the PSP or PSP games into working. Towards these ends, news comes recently of working homebrew apps coded for firmware versions over 2.0. This is a major leap forward for homebrew development. The current games playable on firmware over version 2.0 include user-created versions of Tetris, Pong, and something called \"Snakman\" (guess what game that one is a lot like).

The latest coup against Sony\'s PSP firmware lockdown exploits the Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories save files in order to run unsigned code. Users must save data into the saved games folder on a PSP memory stick and then load a particular save game slot in Liberty City Stories. This technique requires, obviously, that users have a copy of the Liberty City Stories UMD, which is likely given the current popularity of that title.

This back-and-forth between Sony and \"the hackers\" illustrates one of the most unfortunate situations we\'ve seen in post-Networked consumer relations: The homebrew development community, especially the community for the PSP, has proven itself dedicated to the PSP and the advancement of the PSP by writing original programs for it. In other \"hacker\" communities, such as the Xbox or PS2 modification scenes, these efforts are much more blended with the goals of software piracy. While one might indeed run Xbox Media Center on a modified Xbox, it is also likely that gamers with modified Xboxes have some number of pirated games stored on disc or on an oversized hard drive installed into the console. The allure of pirating games for Xbox or PS2 is great; however, the PSP has seen far fewer desirable titles. (Although it should be granted that a quick search reveals plenty of PSP piracy taking place, but far from the best PSP homebrew outlets.)

A justification for Xbox and PS2 mod chips is that those consoles bar users from playing games released outside their native region. That is, an American PS2 will only play games released in North America-- a mod chip is required to play Japanese imports. However, PSP games are not region restricted, so users can play imported titles on their system with no hassle. Sony sees this as a great favor they\'ve performed for their users, thus there is no need for them to give any concessions to the homebrew community.

Given such a powerful piece of hardware, many users cannot help themselves: They must tinker. This has led to bizarre experimental on-screen keyboards, networked radio receivers, performative beatmaking software, and all kinds of software unlikely to find a home with licensed publishers. Many of the homebrew programs for PSP come with source code included, so other users can tweak and enhance the software.

The PSP is an incredible device, and as it approaches its first birthday this spring it looks like its greatest asset may be its early adopters. PSP homebrew is the killer app; nothing that any game publisher has been able to release can touch the creativity or variety of user-created applications and games. Sony would do well to work with this user community to bolster their fanbase, and at a time when Sony is losing face at every turn the best move they could make would be to release a new firmware update that opens the system to homemade applications. It would be the best advertising they\'d never have to buy.

This article links extensively to http://pspupdates.qj.net/ . There are many good PSP-oriented websites, but we recommend PSP Updates to keep up with the ever-evolving PSP homebrew scene. -- Eds.

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