Skip to main content

Why Console Manufacturers Aren't Going To Open Up For "Just Homebrew"

Submitted by kmeisthax on Wed, 12/18/2013 - 21:44 in Rants

Many years ago during the golden age of Wii hacking, Team Twiizers posted a rather cryptic message on their blog about trying to get in touch with Nintendo's anti-piracy division to discuss a possible exploit that would make it super-easy to disable all of the Wii's anti-DVDR security and launch Wii games from unauthorized recordable media. The goal was to establish some kind of relation with the console manufacturer stronger than angrily glaring at each other's update servers. However, after several attempts at contacting Nintendo, including that aformentioned blog post, they had finally had it (creepy calls to one of the hackers' workplaces was the final straw) and just released a homebrew app that used the exploit to play bog-standard video DVDs on the system. This was the start and end of any attempt at communication or coordination between Nintendo and homebrew developers.

Two very related sentiments tend to pop up whenever closed platforms are threatened with unlicensed development. One sentiment is often expressed by users who may be interested in homebrew, and another expressed by licensed developers who really would rather not have to deal with the higher unauthorized usage rates of hacked platforms. This is a dance that has been going on since the Internet was widespread enough that users and licensed developers on consoles could argue with each other.

The former goes a little like this:

If only the console manufacturer would work with the homebrew people to just let the homebrew out but not the piracy!

And, on the development side...

If only the homebrew people would just work with the console manufacturer and become licensed developers!

Both sentiments come from a gross misunderstanding of how the Game of Platform Power works and more specifically how much console manufacturers enjoy being gatekeepers for their platform. A quick refresher on how console manufacturers make money is in order. Like iOS they generally operate by taking 30% off the top of all profit-bearing activities, you have to be a registered developer to write software for iOS devices, and you have to pass an approval phase before your software is allowed to be distributed.

However, every one of these factors has been kicked up to 11 in some way. The approval phase on consoles is much longer and more strenuous and bureaucratic than Apple's approval phase. Revshare is roughly the same, but everything is expected to have a business model. Software is expected to either cost money up front, have microtransactions and an F2P business model, or serve as promotional material for other software that meets the above criteria, with very few exceptions. And, furthermore, developers have to be licensed, not just registered, which involves being vetted and approved to actually develop for the system; and the licensing agreement includes most of your platform-specific code becoming property of the console manufacturer, as all development APIs are treated as trade secrets.

All of this is done because the primary business model of a console manufacturer is to control third-party developers and extract rents. Sony and Microsoft are there to siphon money off EA and Activision, not to sell Uncharted or Halo. Nintendo is a bright exception to this, but only because many third-parties don't want to work with them for various reasons (mainly historical) and that their first-party efforts tend to outcompete third-party software. Even then, in all cases, the rule is plain and clear: They do not negotiate with hackers.

The reasoning for this is very clear: Console manufacturers want to control developers, homebrew enablers want to free them. There's no middle ground to negotiate with, and previous efforts to create such a middle ground haven't worked out. Take Xbox Live's "Indie Games" section, which allows anyone to spend $100 to open up a .NET, XNA-based development environment on their retail console. This is nearly useless as the vast majority of game development happens in native code typically produced by a C++ compiler. And homebrewers aren't very interested in a sandbox environment that only lets you code in C# anyway - they want an environment very similar to what licensed developers get where you can port over any code you want and use it. Console manufacturers can't give that to you, because it would be nearly impossible to keep licensed developers from jumping over to this hypothetical development environment with more developer-friendly terms.

Until console manufacturers rethink their business model (i.e. Steam Machines eat their lunch or OUYA comes back from the dead), there's no point in working with homebrew developers. Even if it would "get rid of piracy" - which is silly talk, enabling homebrew isĀ much harder than enabling piracy - console manufacturers get much more money from charging developers fees to sell on the system, or charging users fees to use online services, than developing and selling the software themselves. While they do indirectly hurt from piracy, they do not hurt as much as an active and robust homebrew development community would cause them to. And this is ignoring all of the other legal hurdles involved with discussing trade secrets with unlicensed developers that are making it harder for you to make money.

game development