I will never understand the recalcitrance of hardware and software manufacturers to open up their platforms for individuals who want to program their own games. It just seems so counter to my way of thinking – it’s like trying to wrap your head around someone at the extreme end of whichever end of the political spectrum is opposite your worldview. I. Just. Don’t. Get. It.
In case you haven’t been following this, SONY has this little gadget called the Portable PlayStation, known everywhere as the PSP. Now the PSP is pretty darn sweet, has a great screen, an awesome design, and is generally cool. Yeah, some people like the DS better. Whatever. I like the PSP, it makes me tingly.
So there is this PSP. The PSP has on it firmware that makes it run. Apparently in version 1.0-1.5 of the firmware, you could execute unsigned code, which of course made it nirvana for hackers of all types, like those over at www.pspupdates.com or www.psp-hacks.com. They did all the usual things like putting MAME emulators on it and whatnot. I could care less, I’m generally not into the whole ‘let’s pirate things.’ But then people started making their OWN games. Their OWN! Yes! Now, I am a very, very interested party to the discussion…
So what does SONY do? They release more firmware, upgraded to rip away this ability, to be “more secure.” (They are up to version 2.6 now, with each version having some new and decidedly sinister ‘security feature’) I can think of nothing less intelligent. Instead of a system where kids can make games and show their friends, we have one where if you get the latest commercial games, it screws your firmware such that you get a web browser for the low-low price of enhanced DRM to block out the homebrew activity.
Hey, wake up! Did you know that the number of kids interested in computing careers is plummeting, and I think it’s for precisely this reason? They don’t get to play around on the kinds of systems that they actually enjoy using! Imagine, instead of some draconian DRM scheme to keep kids from MAMEing (see note below), that every high-school in the country bought PSPs for their junior level CS1 class and kids learned to program a simple arcade game.
Now wouldn’t THAT increase interest in the platform and get people excited about your latest commercial titles? Before you go and tell me how Pollyanna this idea is, look at the success of things like Lego Mindstorms and the like. Portable computing power is “in” – but apparently being able to use it is “not.” And yet the NSF and the Department of Education are funding grant after grant where things like WinCE Palms and/or high-end cell phone tech are used for the same purposes. Why not use something with a decent display and some real graphics horsepower? Oh yeah, because someone will play Donkey Kong for free.
NOTE on the MAME Hackers (and all the hackers, really): You aren’t going to stop them. Right now, the latest firmware has fallen, you can backdoor into the system through a Grand Theft Auto save-game exploit (and how hilarious that the backdoor is through GTA…). On older versions of the firmware the hackers have exploited the TIFF viewer to weasel a way in. Once a platform is released, it will be hacked. Done. Over. Instead of spending all the energy on continually trying to stay a step ahead of them, why not give the homebrew community legitimate tools to try to build their own games and focus the energy in a positive direction rather than one you perceive as negative?
This isn’t just SONY’s problem however – there is no reason that X-Box Live can’t have a ‘hobbyist channel’ full of Flash games created by end-users, that play for free. Or a thousand other possibilities. You really aren’t going to see too many that compete with the high-end triple-A titles of the big studios, but you might see a whole new set of people flocking to the platform. Not to mention giving kids in junior high their first real reason to program something more complicated than a play-list or a ‘look at me’ website.
I just don’t see the harm in it. Yeah, someone will do something dumb like write a game to try and wipe your PSP. That’s actually what makes it appealing to me – I’d rather mess up a hardware device I can just reboot than a computer that may or may not survive. Worst case, just plug in a backup of my memory stick with a firmware/flash image on it, and everything could work again.
I find the entire attitude that the only thing that can be done with end-users is to control their actions through DRM not only demoralizing, but short-sighted and harmful to the public image of the very industry that has created these amazing tools. Wouldn’t it be neat if we all took a longer view, got people excited about technology and their ability to create their own content on it, and really explored where that could take us?
PS - there is a decent little starter book out there now called “PSP Hacks, Mods, and Expansions” by Dave Prochnow (McGraw Hill) if you want to see the PSP homebrew community. But don’t get too excited because the firmware thing is still open warfare at the moment.