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Tech Focus: The Fight Against Console Piracy

Digital Foundry on Sony and Microsoft's technological battle to secure their systems

As we move into Q4 and the games industry prepares for what is traditionally the busiest - and most lucrative - time of the year, security specialists at the major platform holders are preparing themselves for the latest battle in the never-ending war against piracy. It's a story of mixed fortunes for Microsoft and Sony, while Nintendo looks on in worry as Far East reverse-engineers probe the security systems of the floundering 3DS.

Comparisons between console and PC anti-piracy countermeasures are intriguing: owing to the open nature of the PC platform, copy protection measures can be a very real, intrusive issue for players, but in theory, on a fixed console platform, anti-piracy technologies should be no more inconvenient for gamers than an occasional firmware update: the engineers have control of the complete ecostructure of the system, including the all-important OS itself.

That said, the situation doesn't look so fantastic right now for Microsoft, the most pro-active of all of the console manufacturers in its attempts to secure its system: recent efforts to lock out pirates from Xbox LIVE have resulted in innocent victims of a perhaps over-zealous ban wave - and hackers always seem to be one step ahead of Microsoft's attempts to block copied games.

The Xbox 360's security architecture is known to be very tight, but Microsoft made a critical error: its off-the-shelf DVD drives had unencrypted firmware, opening the door to piracy

Historically, the Xbox 360 format has suffered from the blight of copied games owing to a major oversight in the design of the console itself. From a security standpoint, the design of the hardware is very elegant, and hardware exploits such as the notorious "JTAG" hack were able to be patched with dashboard updates. But the unencrypted nature of the DVD-ROM firmwares in earlier 360s enabled games to be copied and played on the hardware, and that "in" to the way the system works has allowed hackers to overcome later revisions to the DVD-ROM architecture.

Many moves have been made to lock out hacked DVD drives. Most notably, 11 months ago, Microsoft introduced its so-called AP2.5 update, which sought to lock out pirates using two approaches: firstly a new boot check was carried out that stopped existing pirates from loading new games. Secondly, new security checks for the most popular Xbox Live titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops were semi-regularly downloaded to consoles - each update coming up with new ways to check whether the disc in the drive was an original or a burned copy.

They thought it couldn't be done, but on August 18, 2010, news first broke that the PlayStation 3's security had finally been compromised by the USB stick dubbed 'PSJailbreak'. It took Sony around nine months to fully resecure its system.

Microsoft's advantage here is that burned copies can never be exact 1:1 replicas of the originals and the hackers need to come up with the ways and means to mimic security checks via the hacked firmwares they flash onto the Xbox 360 DVD drive. If new challenges are not meant by the appropriate response from the disc, typically the console is flagged for a ban on Xbox Live.

In the event though, AP2.5 turned out to be a damp squib for Microsoft. The boot checks were easily circumvented with a new piracy-enabling DVD drive firmware, so copied games still ran easily enough, while the updated security checks from Xbox Live were merely built into new burned copies of the games.

Worse still, it's believed that the new anti-piracy technology didn't actually work properly in 100 per cent of cases, and within the last fortnight Microsoft's head of the Policy and Enforcement team, Stephen Toulose acknowledged that consoles were banned from Xbox Live by the company because they were wrongly flagged as having modified DVD drives. Worryingly, it took a concerted campaign from those affected, including the involvement of BBC Watchdog to get past intransigent support centre staff and for the issue to be correctly resolved, the bans lifted and relatively paltry compensation doled out.

In the meantime, Microsoft has continued its crusade against piracy with a number of interesting new technologies. Developers will be aware that the oppressive 6.8GB limitation on Xbox 360 games has now been lifted, and it's believed that around 1GB more space is available for game-makers to utilise - finally bringing the Microsoft console into line with the PlayStation 2 and Wii (!). Previously, Xbox 360 game discs featured a video partition in the standard DVD-Video format that told people who had mistakenly put their game discs into DVD players to try an Xbox 360 instead. This partition occupied a massive amount of space on the disc for no reason other than to also house the security sectors on the disc.

Bearing in mind that the hacked DVD firmwares made a mockery of the whole security sectors concept, Microsoft removed the video partition in its latest XGD3 disc format, introduced during the summer dashboard update. Games like Gears of War 3 and apparently RAGE bust through the 6.8GB upper limit for the first time, but XGD3 also saw a brand new approach to Microsoft's anti-piracy technology.

Firstly, the new dash rewrote the DVD-ROM firmware - meaning that hacked drives were restored to factory settings, killing off any modifications, meaning that determined pirates would need to dismantle their consoles again and reflash the drives. Secondly, the new, pressed XGD3 discs actually compress the tracks on the discs themselves, allowing for more data to be added over a traditional DVD (Dreamcast fans may remember the GD-ROM which did much the same thing with normal CDs). In Microsoft's approach, the increase in available data in miniscule, but it makes it virtually impossible for downloaded disc images to be burned in their entirety onto blank discs.

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Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.