Microsoft cracks down on Xbox modifications to ensure its online game service is a level playing field

Wednesday, November 17th 2004, 12:47 pm
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ In the days before the release of the hotly anticipated ``Halo 2'' video game for the Xbox game console, some gamers noticed a sudden spike in the number of people being kicked off Microsoft Corp.'s online game service.

That was no coincidence.

The company said it increased its crackdown on those suspected of making unauthorized modifications to their Xboxes to ensure all players could blast away on an equal footing when joining the Xbox Live online gaming community.

People usually modify Xboxes so they can either cheat on games or use pirated copies, although some also have made changes so they can use the Xbox for other functions, such as a music player.

Cameron Ferroni, general manager of the Xbox software platform, said Microsoft has no interest in actually taking legal action against individual users. But the company does want to banish scofflaws from its online service.

``We want to preserve the experience of Xbox Live,'' he said.

It's hard to know how many of Microsoft's 15.5 million Xbox users have actually modified their game consoles, although analysts and those at Microsoft both believe it's a small percentage.

Microsoft has a unique glimpse into the approximately 1 million Xbox Live users' computers because those users agree Microsoft has the right to gather certain information.

Ferroni declined to go into specifics of how the company can check Xbox Live users' machines for suspected modifications, but said Microsoft has no way of checking whether players who don't use Xbox Live have modified their machines.

Neil Smith, an intellectual property lawyer in San Francisco, said there's little legal risk in modifying a game system for relatively benign personal use, such as to give your character infinite lives or to more easily advance to another level.

But Microsoft said it wants to guard against such cheating on Xbox Live, where multiple players can take part in games together. Ferroni said the goal is to make sure there's a level playing field.

Smith, who has represented several video game companies, said users face more legal risk _ and companies have more leverage _ if a person is modifying the system to play pirated or other unauthorized games. That's especially true if the person is altering his or her system's security codes or settings.

Companies are much more eager to go after potential pirates, since stolen copies can lead to lost revenue. Microsoft said it has focused its legal efforts on those it believes are manufacturing pirated games or mass-producing Xbox modifications.

Smith said the legality of modifying other people's technology remains hazy.

Other tech firms have grappled with how much can be done to their systems without their consent.

Earlier this year, Seattle-based RealNetworks caused a stir when it said it had developed software that allows songs purchased from its online music store to transfer to Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod, by skirting internal copy protections. Apple, which has closely guarded control of its music player, responded by saying that RealNetworks ``has adopted the tactics and ethics of a hacker.''

Other video game consoles don't seem to face as much tinkering for the sake of piracy as the Xbox, said PJ McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research. Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2 doesn't have as complex antipiracy measures, he said, and Nintendo Co.'s cartridge-based games are much more difficult to pirate than the CDs that Microsoft and Sony use.

Analyst Rob Enderle with the Enderle Group said Microsoft's Xbox is also much more vulnerable to tinkering because its popular built-in hard drive more closely mimics a regular personal computer, whereas the other systems rely on less familiar technology.

``The very thing that made the Xbox a rapid success is also what made it easy to hack,'' Enderle said.

McNealy thinks Microsoft is right to go after those who are playing pirated games, but he thinks Microsoft might be flattered by some of the other homemade tweaks.

``To modify it to the umpteenth degree is simply a byproduct of the geek culture of the hardcore gamer,'' McNealy said. ``It should be good news for Microsoft that there's that much demand (for Xbox) that people want to spend so much time figuring that stuff out.''