When he worked for Hewlett-Packard, Jay Philbrook spent his time working on printed circuit boards and writing programs to test DSL systems.
Then he moved to a more exciting job, in an out-of-the-way Hunt Valley, Md., office cubicle surrounded by state-of-the-art computer hardware, where he studies arcane assembly-language subroutines, pores over displays of hexadecimal printouts, and occasionally cries out in triumph.
"What I've done here is to make a code that will enable you to warp from one place to another, while also enabling you to throw fireballs at the enemy," the 25-year-old programmer boasts. "The other day I came up with a code that made it so when you pressed just one button, you'd instantly be going 200 mph on the highway."
Philbrook isn't cooking up secret weapons for the CIA. His full-time job is hacking into video games for Interact Accessories Inc., a company with $200 million in sales that has hit it big with a small group of game fanatics and programmers who spend mega-hours hacking into video games.
Their goal is to devise shortcuts and "cheat codes" that allow players to shoot straighter, run faster, punch harder, jump higher, dodge bullets better and live longer than the mere mortals who aren't in on the secret.
In order to use the codes that Philbrook and others on Interact's team create, a player needs one of the company's $40 GameShark products. These are sold as disks, which are loaded into consoles before a game starts and allow players to enter cheat codes, and as hardware devices that store codes and plug into a console's memory cartridge port.
So far this group of a half-dozen programmers has cranked out more than 23,000 codes that cover nearly every game on the market. As many as 2 million visitors a month log in to grab the latest codes from the company's Web site, www.gameshark.com.
It's a niche business off the radar screens of anyone but hard-core gamers, but it's profitable. It's also a contentious arena at times, because game publishers aren't always thrilled at having their creations "hacked" and played in ways they didn't intend.
Interact hires a company in Manchester, England, to create modified versions of game systems made by Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and others. They allow a game to be unlocked as it's played so that programmers can study the code that's hidden within.
Once that code is unlocked, it can be read through a personal computer plugged into the modified game console.
For hours on end, hackers here squint over thousands of lines of numeric coding that translate to great feats of accomplishment on a video game.
Strings of numbers and characters such as "01086436" inserted at the right time into Metal Gear Solid 2 or StreetFighter can give a player "immortality" within the game. Or it might mean that Tarzan never falls off his surfboard in the new Tarzan Untamed for kids.
It's an unusual way to make a living -- the game guys at Interact earn $28,000 to $60,000 a year -- but this is a dream job for young gamers with remarkable programming skills, many of whom are recruited right off the pages of gameshark.com's discussion boards.
"This is my passion, this is what I love to do," says Philbrook, who has been heavily into video games ever since he and a group of friends spent $250 at an arcade during his 13th birthday party.
He recalls proudly how he and a buddy figured out a way to get free credits on the Dragon's Lair laserdisc arcade game that day; they skated through an adjacent roller rink and, after getting up a full head of steam, slammed their bodies into the 6-foot-tall metal arcade cabinet. It jostled the laser mechanism inside and gave them a free game for every body slam.
Today's hacks are less violent.
Philbrook's employer, Interact, was created as a video game accessory company by brothers Todd and John Hays. Although the brothers do play video games for fun, they see themselves more as entrepreneurs than game addicts.
Growing up in Ellicott City, Md., and spending time on their grandmother's farm in Cockeysville, the Hayses were always looking for a way to make a buck. In their early teens, they started a snowball stand and made $500 the first year, using a converted meat grinder to make the confections.
Eventually, SnOasis Snowballs became a 10-outlet chain (which they still operate), and by the time John and Todd Hays headed off to Penn State in the early '80s, they had enough capital to start a new business. First they made Christmas wreaths, but when the video game console craze hit in the early '90s, they headed into the world of game coding.
"These codes are serious business and it's big, huge money," says John Hays, 37. "And it's fun for us. We've got a code that makes it so that when you play 'Tiger Woods Golf,' you get a hole in one every time. "
John Hays' hacker team is overseen by 33-year-old Benn Ray, who came to Interact from Diamond Comics.
It's Ray's job to recruit hackers from GameShark's Web site discussion groups, and he looks for people who demonstrate hacking expertise and fanatic gaming tendencies.
"You have to have an innate wish to want to break things to be able to be a code hacker, and that's what we look for," says Ray .
Outside Ray's office, focusing on mapping out the levels of Metal Gear Solid 2 with a video capture device and a laptop, is Kevin Walter, 26, who quit his job as a telephone repairman in New Jersey and joined Interact.
"And now I work in a cubicle with a 27-inch TV and I'm loving life," he says.
Walter writes strategy guides for GameShark's Web site.
He spends hours analyzing the nuances of every game, and at the moment he's had an epiphany about Metal Gear Solid 2, in which he's a military commando.
"I figured out that if your character goes into the bathroom and turns the hair dryer on, the guards can hear it and they'll come in and nail you," he says.
Some purists take issue with a device that enables cheating (although Interact calls it "game enhancement"). On message boards around the Internet, hard-core gamers occasionally bad-mouth the GameShark, labeling it "a little hell device" that ruins the competitive gaming experience.
"The bottom line is the game isn't supposed to be played that way, and it helps people have an unfair advantage in online games against other players who didn't pay 40 bucks to buy a GameShark," said Kenny Harris, 19, a college student in Los Angeles who plays games with his Sega Dreamcast online. "I'm always bringing up the rear in Phantasy Star Online, and I know it's because other guys have cheat codes."
Interestingly, Phantasy Star Online, a popular space adventure in the online gaming circuit, is not one of Interact's primary targets. John Hays says that's because of the "moral issues" involved with providing cheat codes for players in head-to-head online gaming.
"We could do it, but we don't," Hays said.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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