The problem with games designed to be played online is that they can be shut down by their publishers. Decisions that often make commercial sense for the publishers a few years down the line, but which still have an impact on any remaining players.
One such game was Metal Gear Online (MGO), which shut down in 2012, four years after it launched. Yet in 2014, the game has been brought back to life by a group of ethical hackers, working under the SaveMGO banner.
Later this week one of the researchers, Joseph Tartaro from security consultancy IOActive, will detail the techniques his crew used to get Metal Gear Online back online for its fans to enjoy.
Tartaro, who will deliver his ‘Cyber Necromancy’ talk at the Brucon conference alongside fellow security technician Matthew Halchyshak, told the Guardian that as many as 80 people are playing MGO every day thanks to the group’s work. And he predicted that other games will be resurrected in the same way.
The group’s aim was to create a server that would effectively trick PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 consoles into believing they were speaking with the old official server. In the case of the PS3, the researcher believes this could be the first private server to host multiplayer melees on the console.
The team started with the PlayStation discs themselves, taking a look at the executable files that make the game run.
They figured out how the code worked – reverse engineering it, and then did something similar with the network protocol determining how the consoles communicated with each other, and the now-defunct remote server that once hosted the multiplayer games.
The process was rather tedious because the original online server was no longer available, said Tartaro. The team had to use educated guesses in pushing various pieces of fake data to their consoles, and then using the responses to craft adequate private servers.
This, Metal Gear Online came back to life, initially for PS2 last year, and then for PS3 just over a month ago. In a gaming context, “cracking” is often discussed in the context of piracy, but in this case, the encryption was being cracked in order to help fans of the game play it once more.
“We broke the encryption for the network protocol, as well as the file encryption, but the network protocol was the only one necessary to get it back online,” said Tartaro.
There are a few caveats to this project. Anyone wanting to play MGO again on PS3 needs to be running a hacked console, although for the PS2, a cheat device like Code Breaker will suffice, as well as a rooted console.
The SaveMGO group is providing information about how to modify consoles on its website, but Tartaro recommends that people don’t tinker with the hardware themselves, but rather acquire a downgraded console to install the necessary custom firmware.
These issues arose largely because the SaveMGO project involved altering or patching the game files, with unsigned code unable to run on non-jailbroken consoles.
The team is hoping to find a vulnerability in the game which they could exploit to make hacked consoles unnecessary. “There’s no easy security bypass or vulnerability that I’ve found so far,” said Tartaro.
He also suggested that many other older online games could be brought back to life using similar tactics. “In the end, you’d be able to do this to any game,” he said, pointing to similar work on Pro Evolution Soccer 6 and Resident Evil Outbreak.
The obvious question: what will the original games’ publishers make of these efforts? The SaveMGO group has sent tweets to MGO publisher Konami to make them aware of the not-for-profit project, and are hopeful of avoiding a copyright fracas.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010