Dabe Alan

Hackers claim to have gained entry to the 3DS - developers sound off on possible homebrew and piracy

Hackers claim to have gained entry to the 3DS - developers sound off on possible homebrew and piracy

The Nintendo 3DS may have been cracked. TinyCartridge has reported users running homebrew code and tests and quoted another hacker, Neimod, who claims to have full control of the system’s kernel.

The original DS suffered from piracy rates so high that the company pushed for, and obtained, a ban on the sale R4 flash cartridges which allowed users to download and play copied games in both the UK and Japan. Nintendo blamed piracy for a 50% drop in European sales in 2010, The Asahi Shimbun reported.

The thought of another Nintendo portable piracy dark age was enough to spur one developer, Jools Watsham, into posting a blog post that details his thoughts and history with piracy. The link has been re-posted and widely circulated, and even inspired some fellow developers to argue his points. Things become much more interesting for everyone involved once a system is opened.

Renegade development

Watsham is co-founder of Renegade Kid, the development studio behind games like Mutant Mudds and Dementium: The Ward. “I have always enjoyed playing and dabbling with the creation of games. One of the earliest game-making experiences I had as a kid was with a program called SEUCK (Shoot ‘Em-Up Construction Kit) on the Commodore 64. It enabled you to develop simple shoot ‘em up games,” Watsham told the Report.

Programs like SEUCK allowed fans to create their own games, and many basement tinkerers would love the ability to play with the 3D capabilities of the 3DS. So why is one program useful, but cracking a system to allow homebrew programs and possibly pirated games bad? An open system is just a tool, you can use it for good or ill. Cracked systems don’t pirate games, people pirate games.

Watsham wants those who focus on cracking and hacking to set their sights higher. “If these hackers really want to mess with the guts of a 3DS, why not become legit developers for it and let the world enjoy their talents?” he asked on his blog. Based on his own history it seems a reasonable enough suggestion, but how feasible was it in the modern age? I asked him to explain.

“If someone is interested in developing games but feels as though there’s no way into the industry, just keep on trying and don’t give up. Sometimes getting what you want is not easy. That’s what makes the achievement feel so warm and fuzzy,” he told me. In other words, if you’re a developer who wants to play with a 3DS badly enough, you should be willing to jump through the official hoops to gain access to a dev kit and the know-how needed to use it. And for those who hack so they can pirate and illegally copy games?

“We need to make it easy to buy and own games. The availability and access players have to their games needs to be at least as easy and convenient as the ROM sites make it to illegally download a game file. Ideally, it should be better,” he explained. “If the player’s only question is to buy or not buy, and not dealing with issues such as, ‘How do I transfer ownership of this game to my new system?’ then we’ll have minimized the appeal of piracy.”


Watsham’s frustrations stem not from a philosophical standpoint, but a financial one. Watsham claims the first Dementium title sold more than 100,000 units worldwide, but the sequel, released at the height of DS piracy, sold less than half of that number. If Watsham’s company can’t make money on the 3DS market, he can’t pay the bills. If he can’t pay the bills, he needs to find somewhere else to sell his games. Watsham’s tone was one of no nonsense on his blog: “If piracy gets bad on the 3DS, we will have no choice but to stop supporting the platform with new games.”

“The reason I put it so bluntly is because the thought of piracy destroying the beloved 3DS market scares me, pisses me off, and makes me feel defensive. The bluntness of my statement was probably a subconscious attack on pirates honestly. But, I still stand by it,” he told the Report. “When I say, ‘if piracy gets bad,’ I am equating ‘bad’ to the state in which money can no longer be made in that market due piracy having crippled it. The state I believe the Nintendo DS market found itself in.”

Others aren’t so convinced piracy is to blame. Hugo Smits of Goodbye Galaxy Games wrote a blog post in response to Watsham in which he argues that piracy has become the go-to scapegoat when sales are lacking. “Every time a developer brings up piracy it feels to me they are putting their heads in the sand. It’s such an easy scapegoat to point your finger at, especially without any factual proof,” he wrote.

“...it seems only natural that many of the great programmers of the future are the hackers of today.,” the post continues. “We live in an age where bedroom coders can create the most creative and awesome products all on their own. Not only that, but they are welcomed to do so by the hardware manufactures.” Smits pointed out that the Xbox XNA and PlayStation Mobile SDK are free for anyone to utilize, and criticized Nintendo for not budging from their current stance.

“So instead of blaming piracy (which occurs on every platform) or blaming hackers for something we all did at one part of our lives, I would like to suggest that we take a hard good look at ourselves and our industry and try to improve.”

It’s clear that hacking and piracy conjures just as many philosophical arguments as it does practical ones. It’s rare for a developer to take such a no-nonsense stand – which is perhaps why Watsham’s post ruffled so many feathers. Many of the developers of today got their start with pirated games, or by experimenting with hardware in less than authorized ways. Once a system’s defenses are down there are many possibilities for things such as region-locked games to be played, or to write your own software for a system. Or it could lead to widespread piracy. Or, more likely, both things could happen.

It’s hard to tell just how close crackers have come to opening the system; all we have to go on are easily faked images and forum posts. Still, it’s rare for a system to remain closed. A cracked system isn’t good or bad, it’s just harder to control. In some ways that’s a scary thought. In others, liberating.