Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Homebrew on Xbox 360… legally!

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 15, 2006

Some interesting news came out out Microsoft’s Gamefest on Sunday. Microsoft is opening up the Xbox 360 to hobbyist developers. Here’s the Press Release, the surprisingly informative FAQ, and the Developer’s Blog. In case you don’t want to read through all that, here’s a summary:

  • Microsoft will release XNA Express, which is a no-cost development tool for creating managed-code (aka .net, aka C#) non-commercial games for Windows
  • For $99 a year, you can compile and run your managed code on a retail Xbox 360
  • Anything you create can only be run by others paying $99 a year, unless you upgrade to the pro version.

This is the most comprehensive official console homebrew system since the failed Net Yaroze for the PS1. The Net Yaroze was expensive (required a special $750 console), hampered by the a poor development environment, and limited to a maximum game size of 4mb. For these reasons, XNA is probably going to fare better:

  • Microsoft is generally good at crafting development environments. By all accounts, the professional Xbox 360 environment is easier to use than the PS3 one, and I doubt the new XNA environment will be significantly worse.
  • $99 a year is a somewhat reasonable price. Comparatively, setting up homebrew on a Nintendo DS requires about $100 of hardware and the fun of waiting for shipments from China.
  • This encourages C# development. People may start out writing emulators and media players, but these same developers will in theory be encouraged to write their important future projects in C#. Or, they may just go write more emulators
  • When people inevitably develop the pirate-enabling software that came out for the original Xbox, Microsoft will be getting $99 a year from whoever wants to run it

An interesting angle is the impact on attempts to hack the 360. Up until now, there has been no way to run unsigned code. Now there’s a clear, official way to do it. But, the only code you can run is theoretically secure managed code. One of Microsoft’s biggest selling points for C# is that buffer overruns and exploits just don’t happen, and this will be a test of that. My prediction is that there WILL be flaws in the C# libraries, and the console WILL be cracked, but it could be worse. The application that starts the unsigned code is protected using Microsoft’s DRM, so whenever a flaw is detected, they can force everyone to update their C# libraries. What this means is that there are only 2 ways to permanently crack a 360:

  1. Find a unique exploit and not report it. This seems somewhat unlikely given the structure of the console hacker community
  2. Find an exploit that is severe enough to allow access to modify the bios/code/whatever to disable signed code checks. Then, you can never connect to Xbox Live again. This is potentially doable, but very difficult

Basically, I think this is a great move for Microsoft, although not for the hardcore homebrewers and console hackers. By providing this authorized and neutered method to run homebrew programs on the 360, Microsoft gets people to pay $99 a year for something that was free on the original Xbox. As a bonus, the particularly damaging hacks, such as pirating games, are more difficult with this new system. Because Microsoft is offering this, people are less likely to put in the extra effort to truly open up the entire console for exploitation. This means less freedom and fun for hardcore hackers and poor college students, but a better chance of success.

Finally, I’m interested to see what the other console giants will do in response, if anything. Nintendo, I’m looking at you. I need to write my competitive hand-waving game, and you’d better let me. I expect no less, now.

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