Exclusive: Interview with PS3 hacker KaKaRoTo

As you may have read on our previous report, a hacker and homebrew developer known as KaKaRoTo is petitioning Sony by releasing a bunch of homebrew titles for the PS3 (as well as other platforms) for free. He calls this the Humble Homebrew Collection and it’s certainly a unique way to petition a company. So unique, in fact, that we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with him and have a chat.

What exactly makes such a person “tick”? Read on and you might just find out.

Neowin: So KaKaRoTo, tell us a little bit about yourself.

KaKaRoTo: "I'm Youness Alaoui, I'm a Moroccan and I'm living in Canada. I've been working on open source software for the past 10 years, first with aMSN, then professionally for Collabora where I've touched on many open source projects."

Neowin: How did you end up getting involved in the PS3 “Hacking” scene?

KaKaRoTo: "Well, I never planned/wanted to...but I was browsing some forum and I saw a usb dump of the PS Jailbreak dongle. My curiosity got the best of me and I wondered 'what does all that stuff mean?', so I researched the usb protocol specification and then I saw my N900 phone on my desk and thought 'I bet it would be easy to reproduce that with my phone', so I started tinkering. One thing led to another and PSFreedom was born. It got a lot of attention, more than I imagined (I was just expecting a "cool, the N900 is awesome" kind of response), Android porting started (by other developers) and eventually, I extracted the payload into PL3. I've always been pro-open source and open development, and seeing how the scene is or was, I thought I could help by trying to create a good foundation for future devs. I was thinking of how Dark Alex left the PSP scene and M33 was never heard of again (correct me if I'm wrong). and I thought if only the PSP scene was 100% open, then anyone could have picked it up where he left it."

For those who haven’t been following the PS3 or PSP hacking scene, the “PS Jailbreak” was the first real “hack” released for the PS3. It was a USB dongle that allowed the PS3 to run homebrew, as well as play back up games. However, the dongle came from an unknown source and people weren’t really sure how it worked or what it actually did to the PS3.

It wasn’t long before it was reverse engineered (if you can believe that a “hack” had to be “hacked") into two components - the exploit and the payload. The exploit was a clever way of taking advantage of how the PS3 handles multiple USB devices, which allowed you to overwrite certain parts of the PS3’s RAM. But what to overwrite? That’s where the payload comes into it. As it turns out, by adding more features to the payload, more and more interesting things could be done with the PS3. PSFreedom was an open source version of the exploit (originally for certain Nokia phones, but later ported to other devices) and PL3 was an open source version of the payload, all documented to easily allow other developers to tinker with the PS3. This is in contrast to the PSP scene, where not a lot was documented so when a developer “left” the scene, a lot of their work would remain unfinished with nobody able to continue it.

KaKaRoTo: "My goal is to make open source and open knowledge the de facto standard for the PS3 scene. I hated to see all those .PUP releases and BSDIFF stuff from people who modified the firmware on their own, so I decided to start PS3MFW where every modification to the firmware is open and visible to the user."

When the details of the PS3 encryption being broken first hit the Internet, quite a few people released their own "custom firmware", however many didn’t specify what exactly they had changed and more seriously, some even caused people to brick their console. PS3MFW is a tool that lets anyone easily create their own custom firmware from official PS3 update files. The included patches are optional and well documented, so people know exactly what they’re getting. This way people could enjoy the benefits of a custom firmware without worrying about what else had been done to it.

Neowin: When Sony started filing lawsuits against other hackers, were you not concerned that you might be targeted yourself?

KaKaRoTo: "I was initially concerned, of course. I even thought of disappearing - as much as I love this, I don't want to be dragged into a lawsuit for the rest of my life just for the sake of a hobby, especially when I was named in the lawsuit against geohot. I kept a cool head, I was in contact with a lawyer that was provided to me by the EFF and I've read so many court documents that I've become almost an expert in law :p 

First, I realized that Sony was abusing the law and wasn't trying to win anything but merely to scare everyone off, sending a clear message to developers that they will get sued if they don't comply, and that really irritated me. I felt oppressed and I felt my rights being violated by this giant corporation - so I refused to let them win.

Secondly, I made sure that I haven't done anything illegal - and I haven't! I never published anything that was copyrighted by them, even the very first modified firmware that I released was a simple script that took the original firmware as input (a predecessor to PS3MFW).

Also, I live in Canada and here it is perfectly legal. There is no such thing as the DMCA and modchips are legal in Canada (it's even a registered trademark)."

Neowin: Do you think Sony has succeeded in scaring off developers?

KaKaRoTo: "I don't know, I think it's two fold. First, many got scared by Sony, secondly, many were just there for their backup managers, once that was working they decided to say goodbye."

Neowin: But you're obviously still around, so presumably you're not interested in piracy?

KaKaRoTo: "No, I'm not, I own almost 150 PS3 games. I don't need to pirate anything since everything that I like, I buy. I'm interested in knowledge, and the entertainment of hacking/coding.I don't even use my PS3 for linux or homebrew, I just have fun coding it.

I have 2 PS3s and one is not jailbroken. It's on the latest firmware and I use it for games and as a media hub. The other one is jailbroken and I only turn it on to test something."

One thing that comes across from talking to KaKaRoTo is how passionate he is about his ideals, that information should be freely distributed and that the more open things are, the better. He certainly doesn’t come across as the fame-and-fortune seeking type and you have to wonder “Why does he do this? What’s in it for him?”.

Neowin: What made you decide to create the “Humble Homebrew Collection”?

KaKaRoTo: "I found Pattern (my favorite puzzle game) on my PC. I've been playing it for years and I thought 'this would be a good/simple homebrew app'. I tweeted that and Clément Bouvet came out quickly with a proof of concept using Cairo. I thought 'awesome, someone actually listened to my request, maybe I'll help him', so I looked at the Cairo API and the SGT Puzzles' design and I loved them both, so I decided to write a full app around it.

I realized there's no toolkit for the homebrew apps on PS3, so I also started working on one (the menu system you see in the homebrew app) in hopes that it will help others build their own apps. Then I thought of the humble indie bundle and I wanted to do the same thing, but differently. Having a petition against Sony has always been something that I wanted to do, so this was the perfect opportunity."

Neowin: Have you ever done anything like the Humble Homebrew Collection before?

KaKaRoTo: "No, this is the first time, but I've seen many petitions before - like the OpenMedia petition against the CRTC's decision to impose usage based billing in Canada. It worked, it made the government force the CRTC to revise its decision. But I've never created one myself and it probably shows that it's amateurish :p"

Neowin: Are there any future plans for the Collection?

KaKaRoTo: "I'm not someone who plans ahead. Like I said earlier, I never planned to be in the PS3 scene in the first place. I also quite often said that I would never do homebrew because what I like is the low level stuff - writing libraries for others to use in their homebrew, for example. I didn't plan the humble homebrew collection, but it happened.

I planned on improving the puzzles, fixing some performance issues, making it better in many aspects (there's a 'TODO' file in the game's source directory) but since I've received some critiques about the games, (people don't like the idea of 'crappy little puzzles' as a "homebrew") I thought I'd move over to something else.

I'll probably still fix the various things I wanted to do for the SGT Puzzles, but for now, I'll do something a bit different. My plan was to relax, and put the PS3 scene behind me for a little while and let others pick up where I left but I've once again had my curiosity get the best of me. Yesterday, I went to a little wikipedia page and randomly clicked on one of the games there.

It was Chromium B.S.U, a space shooter that seemed quite fun. I played it for a bit on my pc, I liked it and then I wondered how easy it would be to port to the PS3, so I started the process. It didn't go so well because Chromium B.S.U. depends on OpenGL and we don't have that yet.

I found Mesa3D and so there's a way to get it to work by using software rendering, but I don't really want to do it (it looks boring). So I looked at other games, two of my favorites were Widelands (a clone of Settlers 2) and Free Heroes 2 (a clone of Heroes Of Might and Magic 2). Widelands depends on some stuff like OpenGL, python and lua, so I didn't bother, but Free Heroes 2 only depends on SDL, which has already been ported for the PS3. So I tried to compile it and it worked!

I've been playing a bit of it right now on my PS3 while doing this interview. So I think that will be the next homebrew that I'll add to the collection, but people need to understand that it's not that easy to port a new game, so it might take a few more weeks before it's ready, depending on what I want to add to make it 'PS3-compatible' and how much free time I get."

True to his word, later on in the interview he linked to this video of the game running on a jailbroken PS3.

Neowin: Sony seems very reluctant to allow Homebrew on the PS3 and have a history of stifling it in some of their other products, why do you think this is?

KaKaRoTo: "I think there are two types of people at Sony. First, the lowly developers who try to sneak in some features that we'll like (like OtherOS, I'm pretty sure it wasn't an exec's decision), and then you have those big guys in suits who probably never played a game in their life. The guys making decisions are the guys who understand nothing about how the real world works and they only hear the excuses of those below them who say 'it's because of piracy' whenever they can.

It's simple, you release a good game and even if you can pirate it from day 1, it will sell like crazy and you'll get rich. When you release a crappy game, even if there is zero piracy, you will not sell it and you'll lose money. The thing is, if there is even a 0.000001% chance that someone pirated that crappy game, then those responsible for the game will blame it all on piracy. They'll say 'if it wasn't for piracy, we would have made billions of dollars more' and the stupid CEOs believe that., so they say 'do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING (even if it's illegal) to stop this from ever happening again'.

The result - all their customers suffer from it, piracy stays the same and now they have a good excuse to continue shipping crappy games instead of improving their games. So when a question like homebrew or linux or something similar comes on the desk of that stupid CEO who doesn't understand a thing about this, he asks 'euhh.. how much will that give us?', he gets the answer of 'customer trust, loyalty, happy users' and he says 'HOW MUCH!??' and they say 'nothing substantial on the short term' so he throws it on the garbage because he doesn't understand what it really means."

Neowin: Some people have suggested that Sony wont allow Homebrew because they would lose money from it, or that there’s no way to monetise it. Do you think that’s true?

KaKaRoTo: "No, I don't think that's true. Look at Google, Apple and Microsoft, they are making a lot of money through homebrew. People think 'homebrew' means piracy or 'crappy little apps', but they don't realize that most of the applications on the iPhone's App Store are homebrew. You'll see a few apps who are made by a company (like Angry Birds by Rovio) but if you run the application and you don't see a company logo as a flash screen, then that's homebrew.

Why is the iphone selling so well? Because it has all this huge library of apps and games! Has apple lost any money from it? No. Does apple get tons of money thanks to homebrew? Definitely!

If I remember correctly, Apple gets 30% off the sales of apps on the app store and that's a substantial amount of money considering how much cash people are spending there. So, 'there's no way to monetise it'? That's just an excuse. Sony are extremely arrogant and that's probably the only reason.
If you sell your SDK for 100$, you'll get 1 million people to buy it, that's $100 million, Sell your SDK for 25 000$, and you'll get 100 people to buy it, that's $2.5million, do the math.
Actually, I don't know if Sony's SDK is 25K$ or 100K$, I heard both numbers... but whatever the price, some guy coding in his garage can't get it, EVEN if he had the money for it."

This is true, Sony wont sell just anyone an SDK, you have to be a registered developer and the cost of entry is very prohibitive. However, it should be noted that this is a fairly common thing, with both Microsoft and Nintendo doing a similar thing (although Microsoft does at least have XNA).

Neowin: Assuming Sony doesn’t budge on the whole issue, do you think Homebrew on the PS3 has a future?

KaKaRoTo: "I honestly don't know. I see the scene almost dying, we need more exposure, we need more developers, but first, we need a good SDK. We already have PSL1GHT, which is awesome, and the SDK has been ported, but we're still lacking proper OpenGL support. Once we get that and we get a hack for the latest firmware, so more people can get on board, then we'll probably see some more homebrew apps popping up. It takes time, it takes a huge amount of time to develop something, so that's probably why it's so slow.

I'll try to keep encouraging people to develop homebrew and hopefully it will become very active."

Neowin: A lot of PS3 owners have been upset at the recent PSN hack and many people blame the Homebrew community for it. What would you say to these people to alleviate their concerns about getting Homebrew on the console?

KaKaRoTo: "People are unfortunately confusing homebrew, developers, hackers and crackers. It's like I said before, any app on the iPhone that doesn't show you a company logo whenever you start it IS homebrew. So, if apple gets hacked tomorrow, are you going to blame it on the guy who wrote that fart app?"

Neowin: How did you feel when you first heard of Anonymous’ planned “attacks” against Sony?

KaKaRoTo: "Well, when I first heard of it, I didn't know who or what Anonymous was. I later learned about them and their history, but I didn't agree with their methods.

I didn't participate in any of the attacks, and I disagree with the DDoS, but someone explained it to me like "we're like protesters sitting in front of a building's entrance, preventing people from entering" so I'm not sure exactly what to think of it.

One thing though that I can say: Sony deserves everything it's getting. The users, the gamers don't deserve that small downtime of PSN when Anonymous was attacking Sony but Sony themselves deserved it. Now, about the PSN Hack, which I'm introducing in this question, but which is (probably) unrelated to Anonymous...

Again, the users did not deserve getting their information stolen and they did not deserve being without PSN for 3 weeks, however Sony deserved it in the sense that:

1 - They lost customer trust - which is exactly what should have happened when they removed OtherOS.
2 - They lost money and got sued and got in a lot of news sites about this - which is exactly what should have happened when they removed OtherOS.

And while the gamers shouldn't have lost PSN access for this long, at least now they understand what it feels like to be 'without PSN access...because some giant a**hole decided to force it on you for their own enrichment' and just like the users didn't deserve what happened to them (or their personal information), we didn't deserve losing functionality we paid for either."

Neowin: It has been rumoured in the past that the PS3 would be getting Google TV integration. This would potentially bring the Android Market to the PS3 - do you think this would alleviate the desire for Homebrew?

KaKaRoTo: "Sony would probably not allow it, but even if it did, android runs on Java, which is inside a virtual machine. It would probably be a very limited/neutered version meaning you probably can do anything with that on the PS3. Maybe some small apps, but probably not a full game."

Neowin: What if Sony decided to bring “OtherOS” back? Would that make a difference?

KaKaRoTo: "I think it would, yes. It would first be a huge step towards the goal but when you think about it, it wouldn't be much more than 'hey, here's your PS3 the way it was when you bought it' so they'd actually not be doing anything.

But now that people have tried and enjoyed being able to run their homebrew directly from the XMB, I'm wondering whether or not they'll be happy with just that.
For me personally though, if we get OtherOS back, it will already be a big success."

Neowin: Anything else you’d like to add?

KaKaRoTo: "People often say Geohot, Fail0verflow, KaKaRoTo or Mathieulh to talk about those who 'did something for the PS3 scene', but I'd just like to say that you only know those names because we somehow end up being the 'face' of the scene, but in reality, there are many talented people who deserve a really big thank you and a huge applause for all their work.

For instance, I'm thinking about the contributors to PSL1GHT. Without them, we wouldn't be able to do any of that. Sometimes people forget that there are many building blocks and painting a wall is worthless if someone didn't take time to actually build that wall. So, I'd like everyone to remember, whenever they think of the scene, of all the people 'behind the scene' who also make this possible. The PS3toolchain, PSL1GHT, the PS3libraries port, the SDL port, etc..."

And with that, we parted ways. KaKaRoTo is a man that isn’t afraid to give his opinions on subjects and stand firmly behind them. He’s quite clearly a tinkerer of sorts and wants everyone else to be able to tinker with him, if they want to. 

Whether you agree with him or not, KaKaRoTo certainly doesn’t fall into that "hacker" stereotype that has been spreading regarding the whole PS3/PSN hacking fiasco. He isn’t bragging about what has been done, he isn’t threatening Sony or anyone else until he gets his way and he certainly isn’t in it to make a buck or two. It would have been nice to have reached Sony themselves for comment on this whole issue, but sadly they only seem to be sending out this same response to everyone who asks about homebrew:

Dear PlayStation consumer,

Thank you for your recent email requesting homebrew support for PlayStation 3 systems.

Our policy on this issue has not changed.  We are therefore not in a position to fulfil your request.

Thank you again,
The PlayStation Support Team

It doesn’t appear as though Sony is likely to ever change this stance, but it doesn’t seem that homebrewers like KaKaRoTo are giving up, either. If KaKaRoTo has convinced you that homebrew deserves a place on the PS3, feel free to head on over to http://humblehomebrew.com/ and sign the petition. If you disagree with him, then feel free to download and enjoy the free games anyway.

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