Save hacking is exactly what the name implies, the manipulation of the raw data of the file a game uses to store such things as ammo counts, collected items, unlocked levels and more. It’s been a solid and reliable way to alter many games, be it the number of lives you have all the way up to unlocking removed levels and cheats that the game designers never wanted you to see.

I’ve been interested in save hacking for many years, I was once employed to do this very task, but a worrying trend has appeared recently, particularly in console saves.

Let’s take a (short) trip into the past.

Over the years developers and even the console makers have been finding different ways to make save hacking as difficult as possible. Saves started to use checksums to verify data integrity but these were easily bypassed. Next saves were encrypted by the game, although this too was bypassed by skilled people able to determine the methods used by the game and reverse the procedure. All was still good in the land of save hacking.

Fast forward to 2001 and the advent of the original Xbox console. Saves for this system used a digital signature as standard as well as other methods such as checksums and encryption, altering even one byte rendered the save invalid and the game would not load it.

After some serious hacking of the console and its operating system a method to resign the digital signature on the saves was discovered but the details of how to do this were shrouded in secrecy. A few people, myself included, were able to (re)discover the methods used and create our own tools to assist in save hacking. The most useful of these was a tool that the public could use to resign saves, but only those allowed by those with the knowledge. This secrecy, usually a burden to endeavours like these was a necessary evil; Xbox Live had taken off a storm and, due to the information to resign the saves for Live compatible games being released, the cheaters started to appear. This wasn’t the only way to cheat on Xbox Live but it was one that could be hampered and almost stamped out, so an unofficial and unagreed stance was taken by the few; no-one was to provide information on the resigning process nor provide keys that could affect online play.

Now in 2006 we have the next generation of consoles and save hacking faces new challenges.

The Xbox360 saves contain a digital signature, the methods and keys to resign this signature are still not known, at least publicly. I’ve yet to see hard evidence of a save for this system being hacked, at least in the traditional method.
The PS3, Sony’s latest games console, uses a system based on its work with the PSP.
The virtual PS2 saves it uses, the format of which I have mapped over at PS2 Save Tools, uses a digital signature so again, even changing one byte makes the save useless.
As for the saves generated by PS3 games, these are similar to PSP saves and as such are a totally encrypted file. The only save tools available for the PSP must be run on the PSP to unencrypt the data, at this time it is not possible to unencrypt the PS3 save data on a PC.

Where does this leave us?

I had hoped that the Xbox360 would have been laid bare by now but the DVD drive firmware modification has meant that many of the people with the technical knowledge are focusing on breaking new protections Microsoft put in place. This appears to have slowed down, if not stopped completely, efforts to run unofficial software on the Xbox360, a definite step towards editing and resigning save files.
At this time we are unable to run unsigned code on either the Xbox360 or the PS3 (Linux does not come into this) and in the PS3’s case, this may be exactly what is needed as it is with the PSP.

It’s a grim future for save hacking, the security systems on both the Xbox and the PSP have been bypassed by clever manipulation of certain save files which has resulted in tighter and more complicated methods for protecting the data integrity and ensuring we cannot alter save files.
Will I still be save hacking in 3 years time? I hope so but the future’s very uncertain at this time and not looking good…