The millennium: a term that few had any use for before 1999, yet seemingly overnight it was everywhere. The turning of the millenium permeated every facet of pop culture. Unconventional popstars like Moby supplied electronica to the mainstream airwaves while audiences contemplated whether computers were the true enemy after seeing The Matrix. We were torn between anxiety — the impending Y2K bug bringing the end of civilization that Prince prophesied — and anticipation: the forthcoming release of the PlayStation 2.
Sony was poised to take control of the videogame console market once again. They had already sold more units of the original PlayStation than all of their competition combined. Their heavy cloud of influence over gamers meant that the next generation of games wasn’t going to start in until the PS2 was on store shelves. On the tail of Sony announcing the technical specs on their machine, rumors of a new competitor entering the “console wars” began to spread. That new competitor was Microsoft, an American company playing in a Japanese company’s game.
“[Microsoft] launches war against Sony for control of the living room.”
– Chris Morris, CNN Staff Writer
I Know Bunnie-Fu
Nearly two years after the world failed to end, Microsoft launched the Xbox on November 15, 2001 in North America. The console was more PC-like than any console that had come before it, featuring an eight gig hard drive, Intel Pentium III CPU, and cutting-edge DVD-ROM drive. Microsoft incorporated DirectX, their collection of Windows APIs, into their machine which is where the console derived its namesake. It was intended to introduce home theater PCs to the masses. The Xbox played games, played music, and with purchase of a proprietary IR remote dongle, it also played DVD movies.
The week after the launch, Xbox owners got an early Christmas present from MIT student Andrew “bunnie” Huang who published his exploits into tinkering with the console. He detailed how to extract the TSOP flash chip from the motherboard along with insights into the contents within. Huang had extracted the Xbox’s BIOS image and posted it for anyone on the Internet to download. He was flirting with fire, because a mere twelve hours after the post he received a cold call from a Microsoft representative. He posted that too.Voicemail from Microsoft representative regarding Huang’s student webpage
With that kind of information now public knowledge, the first Xbox modchip came up for sale in May of 2002. The Xtender modchip promised to circumvent the copy-protection, break the region lock, and open up the ability to play DVDs without the need for that silly IR dongle. The copy-protection promise was just that, a promise. At the time there was no way to backup Xbox games, the discs were unreadable when inserted into a PC. As a result, modchips became the de facto way to play legal imports from other regions.
If you’d like to get deeper into Xbox hacking, or hardware hacking at all, the man who wrote the hack also wrote the book; check out [bunnie]’s seminal work “Hacking the Xbox“.
Killing Them Softly With This Mod
The Xbox’s roots in PC architecture ran deep. Beyond the Intel x86 CPU and IDE hard drive there were flash memory cards players could use to transfer save game files from their console. What made these memory cards interesting was not their storage capacity but their pinout. The layout of the data lines was curiously similar to USB. So much so that it didn’t take a genius to figure out how to modify an Xbox controller to support using a USB thumb drive instead of a memory card.
This simple mod paved the way for files to fly between Xbox and PC. Saves could be reshaped to unlock in-game items far before game developers intended them to be available, and they could also serve as the entry point for something much more devious.
It’s true that no game is perfect, but that especially applied to the Xbox exclusive MechAssault. Ironically, the Microsoft game’s save file provided the exploit into the Xbox’s encrypted HDD that allowed an entire Linux distro to be installed on top of the Xbox OS. Microsoft sought to plug the exploit by issuing their first round of online game patches, but the majority of Xbox owners were playing offline. Similar save exploits were found in several other games and were collectively referred to as Xbox soft mods.
Your average consumer was never going to seek out a modchip solution because soldering irons are, in technical terms, “hot and pokey”. However, the more trivial nature of a Xbox soft mod lowered the bar for entry into hackerdom. Modchip resellers like Lik-Sang sold ready-made Xbox-to-USB adapters as “Developer Tools”, and the whole save-exploit-to-Linux-install process was made even more accessible when it appeared on cable as Tech TV segment.
Linux software optimization came at a fast clip because all of these machines had the exact same spec. Homebrew apps aplenty found a home on the Xbox, everything from arcade emulators to web browsers. One of the most popular homebrew creations was the Xbox Media Center (XBMC) which was dedicated to playing every media codec you could throw at a piece of silicon. XBMC made full use of the Xbox’s broadband Internet capabilities by allowing users to subscribe to audio/video RSS feeds, and it would receive updates for years after Microsoft ended production of the console. The grand irony was that Microsoft’s original plan for the Xbox to be a PC in the living room was fully realized…it just ran Linux.