One of the biggest problems the PlayStation Portable faced was piracy. It was absolutely rampant on Sony’s debut handheld game system resulting in developers and publishers being scared off who might have otherwise supported it. With PlayStation Vita, Sony has gone to great lengths to avoid having history repeat itself, opting to use proprietary memory cards as opposed to SD cards or the Memory Stick Duos used by PSP. Sony’s Scott Rohde described the solutions it had implemented as helping to protect the company “from piracy for the long term.” But never doubt the ability of the collective hacker/modder community, as Ars Technica reports a way has already been discovered to run software on the system that Sony did not intend — and Sony has not stood idly by while it happened.

Although it did not provide a way to suddenly run the sort of homebrew content you could on PSP, the Vita Half-Byte Loader is an open-source homebrew loader capable of running, among other things, emulators for NES, SNES, and Game Boy. This is done through a vulnerability discovered in certain PSP games which can be played on Vita (remember, not all digital PSP games are compatible with Vita at the moment). The first game announced to work with the exploit was Motorstorm: Arctic Edge; as demonstrated in the video below, it could be used to load up and play a game like Doom for PC.

Word of the game’s identity surfaced at the beginning of March. Rather than wait and release a firmware update, which was the tactic Sony typically employed in the PSP days to combat the latest exploit, the company instead removed Arctic Edge from the PlayStation Store the following day so as to minimize the number of people capable of making use of VHBL. The loader was then released to the public later in the day, and the ensuing week brought with it an explanation for the way news of the exploit was being distributed (the goal being to avoid tipping off Sony any sooner than necessary).

In the process of removing the game, certain individuals who purchased it were reportedly unable to download it and were never given a refund. You may not have a tremendous amount of sympathy for anyone purchasing a game for an exploit it contains (even if that exploit would allow the system to run homebrew content and not pirated Vita or PSP games), but it’s entirely possible someone purchased the game around that time with the intention of playing it and was not allowed to download it. That’s not to mention those who already owned the game and found themselves unable to download it, as they should be able to at their leisure, because of Sony’s war on piracy.

Another PSP game (this one, like Arctic Edge, was also incompatible with Vitas in the U.S.) capable of supporting VHBL was discovered recently and revealed over the weekend. On Sunday it was announced Everybody’s Tennis features a similar exploit allowing VHBL to be loaded up on Vita by those who own the game, with the announcement being accompanied by a facetious statement noting how it “could allow people to run software that would be extremely dangerous for [Sony's] business, such as 20 year-old 8 bit games and 154 different versions of pong.” This game, too, was almost immediately removed from the PlayStation Store in the regions it was available.

The disappearance of a few games from the PlayStation Store — which presumably will only be temporary until the exploit can be patched out — may not sound like a big deal. But there’s no telling where this could stop. Many more games may receive VHBL ports, and if each one has to be removed from PSN for an unknown period of time that could be a real annoyance to gamers, particularly those who simply want to play a game they’ve spent their money on.

It’s not the first time gamers are being affected by Sony’s desire to shut down piracy and homebrew wherever it can. Not every update released was in response to piracy, but the frequency with which the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable, especially, have received firmware updates can be blamed at least partially on this fight. Firmware updates were released early and often to stomp out the latest creations of the hacker community, often to only have hackers come right back with yet another workaround Sony would then have to deal with.

I understand the need to combat piracy and the like, but as is the case with DRM, when doing so comes at the expense of impacting your legitimate customers I’m not sure it is always worth it. (One anecdotal example: I know multiple people who now shy away from Sony platforms because of their experience with frequent firmware updates on PS3 and PSP.)

What would be an interesting way of dealing with Vita owners who want homebrew content is to create an official marketplace where that sort of thing could be distributed. (It’s a pipe dream, I know.) If Sony were to set up such a service it would surely have to approve of the content that gets published, making it an unattractive option for those who are most interested in the ability to play SNES games or other things Sony would not allow. But for those who just want to download and play around with others creations of modders, this might cause them to be less likely to turn to hackers who could enable them to illegally download and play Vita games, which is the last thing Sony wants.

It’s a difficult position Sony finds itself in, not wanting to inconvenience its users while also dealing with those who use its hardware to do things it doesn’t want happening. There may not be a perfect answer for how to approach this situation, and unfortunately it looks like even those uninterested in the homebrew community will continue to be affected.

[Image courtesy of Flickr.]

By Chris Pereira