Sony May Use Serial Keys To "Secure" Next-Generation PS3 Games

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News Posted: Sun, Jan 23 2011 4:56 PM
Sony may use serial keys to verify legal PS3 games in the wake of the complete PS3 hacks publicized earlier this month, but the efficacy of such a plan is dubious at best. The Dutch website PS3-Sense reports that a very reliable source close to Sony has informed them that Sony will begin issuing unique serial keys for all PS3 games at some point in the near future. The client-server support for such a security model has reportedly existed in the PlayStation Network since the console launched—if true, Sony could deploy the system in considerably less time than it would otherwise take.


Product activation sequence (Artistic Impression)

The concept as described is analogous to Steam. Upon first installing/launching the title, players would have to connect to the PSN for initial authorization. Since every PS3 already has a unique ID number, that number would presumably be combined with the unique serial key to create a verified activation code. Once this is done, the game could be played online or offline. At present, each game could be installed up to 5x (we assume to different systems) per purchase.

As far as legal consumers are concerned, this type of system could work fairly well. If gamers were able to activate a product without direct Internet access and if previous game installs to other machines can be invalidated (thus returning that authorization to the pool), Sony would actually have a piracy solution that didn't generate instant hatred before it launched. It's protective enough to block casual piracy while permissive enough that it wouldn't result in hackers declaring war on it on the grounds that Sony was being a jerk.

Under normal circumstances, we'd never believe Sony would embrace anything so sensible; the company has a decades-long history of designing great technology that everyone eventually abandons due to the availability of cheaper, less-restrictive options. In this one particular case, however, Sony may have realized that it has no real choice.

Not only is the PS3 irrevocably broken, the team that did it has openly testified that the only reason they went after Sony in the first place is because Sony, in their opinion, unreasonably banned them from using a product feature they and others had paid for. This is literally a unique event in IT history. No other corporate giant has ever had both its software and hardware sales model smashed by a small group of unpaid volunteers acting in response to what they believed was unacceptable behavior. The fact that it took less than a year is icing on the cake.

Sony needs to demonstrate that it can at least prevent some piracy in order to retain the confidence of both game developers and investors and it needs to do so quickly. A solution like this would accomplish both tasks to a degree and, properly implemented, would avoid encouraging hackers from re-attacking the system armed with buzzsaws and BFGs.

There's one more potential benefit worth mentioning. All of the individuals in Fail0verflow + GeoHot (George Hotz) have maintained that they do not condone or even indirectly promote game piracy. While Sony will inevitably hit them with a DMCA violation charge (early frustrations notwithstanding), the group can counter-claim that Sony broke consumer protection laws by removing device functionality. In this type of scenario it's possible that both sides could win. Regardless, the group's well-known stance has frustrated Sony's attempts to portray itself as the injured party.


GeoHot, aka George Hotz. Imagine trying to convince a jury that this is the face of evil.

No one who cracked the system described above could rely on the same defense. While absolutely breakable under the circumstances, there's no non-piracy justification for doing so. Additionally, because it relies on an online component, it's a security system that can be implemented without interfering with the function of Other OS, should Sony be ordered to restore it. With practical piracy protection no longer possible, Sony may have been forced, for the first time in its history, to make a consumer-friendly deal regarding fair use. Maybe. With Sony, you never really know.  
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3vi1 replied on Sun, Jan 23 2011 5:21 PM

It won't happen.

1) It would kill the ability to rent or sell used games. While Sony might like that, they know it would drive customers away in droves.

2) There would be keygens available about 5 minutes after the games hit the shelves, and legal owners could be prevented from using their game because someone already keygen'd the same serial.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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Joel H replied on Sun, Jan 23 2011 6:28 PM

3vi1,

#2 can be prevented by using a sufficiently complex and genuinely random code generator. While there will always be a technical chance that someone gets caught in this, proper phone support can fix this sort of problem in no time flat.

Game rentals could be dealt with via the equivalent of Volume License Keys. These discs would always present a security risk, but what makes this situation so unique is the fact that there's nothing Sony can do to resecure the system permanently on any level. The logical approach is therefore to implement something--even a fine mesh grate slows the flow of water--but to attach sufficient goodies to being legal that customers opt for it.

Under the circumstances, does it really matter that VLKs are a security risk? I think not.

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coolice replied on Sun, Jan 23 2011 7:06 PM

Fascinating, i wonder what sony will do here. I own a PS3 as well, but bought it solely for a blueray player. Ironically, i dont own a HDTV yet haha. But i use the thing to stream music, videos and pictures time to time.

I hope it doesnt go down the 360 route where getting games is soo easy. Perhaps they'll have a new iteration of the ps3 soon enough. Similar to the xbox slim, which i believe till today is not mod-able.

The ps3 extra-slim?

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3vi1 replied on Sun, Jan 23 2011 9:22 PM

Doesn't work for PC software, won't work for console software.

There will be patches for most titles that allow you to simply NOP the code that asks for the serial while you're ripping the disk to your HD. A serial system would cost Sony a ton of money to support, REQUIRE you to have your system connected to the Internet for any kind of meaningful verification, and it won't even slow down the casual copiers.

If there are Volume License Keys, there will be keygens for them. Just like Windows. Has anyone *ever* had a problem finding a serial or cracked version of Windows?

I disagree that the logical approach is to implement 'something', even if it does no good. That's what got them into this mess.

What they'll likely do is put spyware in a never-ending series of firmware upgrades that examines your HD content for known hacks and then phones home to blacklist you. It won't matter to the real hackers though, because the firmware can now be dissected and the changes analyzed before anyone updates their firmware. There are already several flavors of replacement firmware available.

Most people will continue to buy PS3 games, whether the system can be hacked or not. The only real solution for Sony is to rush the PS4 through development now. But, I won't be buying it. I'm going to stick with PC gaming, where I can be sure no game company's going to remove features from the system I paid for.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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Joel H replied on Mon, Jan 24 2011 1:23 PM

"I disagree that the logical approach is to implement 'something', even if it does no good. That's what got them into this mess."

Keeping piracy off the PS3 since launch constitutes *enormous* financial good. If they hadn't removed Other OS support, the PS3 would still be locked; the cracks discovered prior to the Other OS removal didn't fling wide the door for pirated content.

Furthermore, I suspect you vastly overestimate the technical capabilities or interests of the typical PS3 owner. Console junkies may well spring for a pre-cracked system if they can purchase one, but that doesn't translate into people feeling comfortable doing the work themselves.

As far as I know, there isn't a PS4 to rush. I'm sure someone, somewhere has been tasked with drawing up hypothetical specs and charting the lay of the land, but Sony has clearly articulated that the PS3 is the console to target for the "foreseeable future," which I arbitrarily translate to mean two years until a PS4 is announced and 3.5-4, minimum, before a PS4 arrives. Even if my numbers are off one way or the other, there's no way to just adjust the development schedule--not when the software companies have adjusted their own products and delivery dates to accommodate the PS3 as it stands today.

A rush job is also potential suicide. Sony could certainly deliver a PS 3.5 by incorporating advances in GPU and CPU technology, adding larger caches, more memory, etc. The software compatibility issues surrounding this, however, are nightmarish--and the PS 3.5 would by its very nature have to somehow maintain compatibility with previous games.

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They foget the main mantra of todays tech croud, if you key it...then someone has to crack it:P

This will drive people to either not use their content or move towards a more round about way of getting the content.

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Joel H replied on Wed, Jan 26 2011 4:33 PM

Anima, do you even read articles? :P

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