The power of homebrew
Over the past few years, the hacking scene has been questioning the usefulness of homebrews on modern consoles. Somewhat recent examples include Fail0verflow’s statement about the end of homebrews, Or Yifanlu’s description of the difficulties hacking the PS Vita. (Both articles were written in 2013. It’s recent from my perspective, it might feel old for most of you 🙂 )
Playing homebrew games on our Sony PSP or Nintendo DS was loads of fun. In the mid 2000’s, these were the only affordable portable devices one could get, with enough power and flexibility to play emulators, games, movies, and music.
Nowadays, everyone on Earth has access to cheap smartphones that have more power than the PS Vita. All these smartphones can run emulators and games pretty decently. Meanwhile, our gaming consoles are locked way more tightly than they used to. Breaking the security on these devices has become a difficult and sometimes costly task. In hindsight, hacking the PSP was child’s play. What is the point then, people ask, of trying so hard to hack the PS Vita, the 3DS, or the PS4, in order to run homebrew? Surely, the only goal at this point is to pirate games, right?
The Good ol’ days
I have fond memories of playing ScummVM and gPSP on my PSP. And Doom. And, for some reason, I spent more time than I should admit on this spider Solitaire game. The PSP was also big on plugins. It’s the homebrew scene that gave us the music plugin, a system that let us listen to our mp3 library while playing games. Similarly, my wife was using Moonshell on her Nintendo DS to listen to her music. I don’t think Nintendo ever bothered to include a MP3 player on the NDS.
At some point, I developed my own homebrew game for the device, Wagic. A game heavily inspired by a popular trading card game, which became a pretty good success on the device.
I believe the true power of Wagic is that it was not available on any other device, for quite some time (later on, we ported it to most major platforms). There did not exist “proper” freeware that let you play “that” card game against an AI at the time. (MTG Forge was the exception, but for a very long time it lagged behind Wagic in terms of number of supported cards, engine flexibility, and eye candy. I haven’t followed the MTG scene in a while so it’s possible there exists much better things than Wagic nowadays).
I think the homebrews that people really remember, years after playing them, are the ones that are the result of love and passion. There were a few homebrews one could tell were not a quick and dirty port of some existing game. Some might have started like that, but their developers would regularly update and improve on the existing codebase. Open sourcing and making sure one’s game could be modded from the start was the “name of the game” in my opinion. CSPSP comes to mind as a great example of that.
The needs you can’t fulfill officially
Emulators, plugins, utilities, original games; the homebrews I remember have a lot in common: they fulfilled a need that the official right owners could not address. There’s not way you’re ever going to get a Gameboy advance emulator for your Vita, or a PS1 emulator on the Wii U. Utilities come one drop after the other in official firmware updates. Sony are so afraid of opening potential vulnerabilities at this point that they’re treading very carefully. I stopped waiting for a decent media player on the PS4 (see my review of the movie player here). Plugins such as the PSP music plugin, in the “official” world, would be plagued by contractual and legal requirements. This is or that catalog of music would refuse to give the rights to listen to the music while playing games, or vice-versa. There is no freaking way a game like Wagic could ever see the light of day without costing the players hundreds of dollars. It does not make any economical sense for the companies owning these franchises to give away so much content for free.
Sony have tried several times to give limited access to their devices, for development purposes, to homebrew enthusiasts. The result has historically been pretty bad. The PS3 was hacked despite the “OtherOS” functionality. The “PSM” program for the PS Vita was such a failure that Sony canceled it after testing it for only a few years on a few select locales. Things have evolved, and it is easier for Indie developers today to put their stuff on the PSN. But you’ll never see a borderline legal entry such as a Nintendo 64 emulator, a game like Wagic, or utilities such as XBMC (Kodi), VLC player, or a music plugin that lets you play your mp3 catalog while playing games. Those would represent too much legal or technical security risk for Sony.
This, to me, is the reason Homebrews will still exist for a long time. Hackers and enthusiast devs do not only want the “right” to develop their games “within contractual boundaries”and sell them on the PSN. They want to extend the functionality of the device they purchased, make it do cool stuff nobody else thought about, have a “all in one” piece of equipment to do everything they need to do in the living room.
Hacking modern consoles is insanely tough. Developing homebrews for them is utterly pointless because you could do it much more easily on any other device. And yet, it seems nobody can stop hackers and enthusiasts from improving the devices they own. Because that’s what we like to do. We fill the gaps to turn a “pretty good gaming console” into an incredible and versatile piece of technology.