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Half-Byte Loader creator talks homebrew and Sony’s fight against pirates on Vita

Vita owners looking to pad their handhelds with PSP games had their choices shortened by two in March. First, Sony removed racing game Motorstorm: Arctic Edge from the network. The Japan-only Everybody’s Tennis (Hot Shots Tennis in the U.S.) was next. Why pull the games? Both could be exploited to launch Half-Byte Loader, a tool that allows a “limited PSP homebrew experience” on the device.

Homebrew software, for those not familiar with the lingo, refers to unsigned applications running on the system, i.e. homemade games and apps as well as pirated games. Sony pulled the games to deny hackers and homebrewers access to its new system. Considering the problems with piracy the company had on PSP and the PlayStation Network hacking fiasco, it’s understandable why Sony’s anxious to stay ahead of the pack on Vita.

The problem is that there are plenty of basement game makers who want the ability to run homemade software on Vita for non-malicious reasons. There was a vibrant homebrew community on PSP and the more powerful Vita represents opportunities for even more advanced creations. Hence why Wololo, the creator of Half-Byte Loader, is hard at work trying to get a new version of his tool built for Vita. Digital Trends caught up with Wololo to discuss piracy, the future of homebrew on Vita and Sony’s war with pirates.

“Vita is bridging a gap between the PS3 and the PSP, not only from Sony’s point of view, but also because hackers from both the PS3 and the PSP are interested in the new device. For now there, there is no Vita homebrew, just PSP homebrew made compatible with Vita. People are excited to try and use the full power of the Vita though, but that hasn’t happened yet,” explains Wololo.

 He’s meeting resistance trying to get into the Vita. It was Wololo’s release of Vita Half-Byte Loader files that got Motorostorm: Arctic Edge pulled from PSN in the first place. “Sony is doing a strong job securing their hardware nowadays. PSP was exploited on day one because its release was rushed. The first models allowed people to run unsigned code, and hackers learned a lot about the system as a result. In hacking, most of the initial information comes from hardware hacks, so Sony increased their security on [Vita.] They concealed most of the things that could help analyze the Vita’s internals without expensive tools.”

 Sony’s cautiousness in designing the Vita will mitigate many of the problems the company had with the PSP, particularly the piracy of legitimate games. “Vita is more network oriented than the PSP. Even if it got badly hacked, Sony could simply revoke PSN access to pirates. In the days of the PSP wasn’t a big deal, but for Vita that means no trophies, multiplayer, potentially no DLC, etc.,” says Wololo. “In that way, I think the Vita will end up similarly to the PS3. There are possibilities to pirate games on the PS3, but they come with so many constraints, including the risk of losing access to PlayStation Network, that most people won’t bother.”

 So Sony is effectively combating pirates but it’s also blocking out users who simply want to tinker with the Vita for curiosity’s sake. The company is trying to have its cake and eat it too to some extent by trying to create an environment for homebrewers to build apps and games Sony-made phones and tablets as well as handhelds running Google Android. The PlayStation Suite tool would presumably make homebrew a legal pursuit without the need to hack Vita. Android provides a model that Sony could follow to open its platform to homebrewers.

“If Sony makes PlayStation Suite available for Vita, it could help mitigate [hacking] a bit. On iPhone, sharing your app means following Apple’s rules which are extremely constraining. People who want to use apps not allowed by Apple need to jailbreak their device. On Android, anybody can create their own app store (e.g. Amazon), or distribute their apps on their own website. The only thing users have to do in order to install ‘unauthorized’ apps on Android is to set an option in the settings,” says Wololo.

“If Vita offered the same type of options as Android, I would clearly spend more time with their tools, trying to port my own games, than hacking. But I’m pretty sure Sony will go the iPhone way.

Sony’s work to stop piracy will only go so far though. “I don’t think anything a company will do can stop piracy. People who pirate don’t care about homebrew games, they want to play commercial games for free. Piracy didn’t exist on the PS3 until Sony removed the possibility to run Linux on it though, so maybe officially accepting homebrew games would help.”

You can read more about the PSP homebrew community and Half-Byte Loader at Wololo.net.