Get Our NewsletterWIRED’s biggest stories delivered to your inbox. The Young and the RecklessA minecraft failed to connect to server connection refused of teen hackers snatched the keys to Microsoft’s videogame empire. Delaware was only supposed to last a day.
The American seller had balked at shipping to Canada, so Pokora arranged to have the part sent to a buddy, Justin May, who lived in Wilmington. Queenston Bridge and hit the border checkpoint on the eastern side of the Niagara Gorge. An American customs agent gently quizzed them about their itinerary as he scanned their passports in his booth. He seemed ready to wave the Jetta through when something on his monitor caught his eye.
David, who was in the passenger seat, was startled by the question. Why would that nickname, familiar to only a handful of gaming fanatics, pop up when his passport was checked? Xbox service he operated that gave monthly subscribers the ability to unlock achievements or skip levels in more than 100 different games. He mentioned the company to the customs agent, making sure to emphasize that it was legally registered. The agent instructed the Pokoras to sit tight for just a minute longer. As he and his father waited for permission to enter western New York, David detected a flutter of motion behind the idling Jetta. He glanced back and saw two men in dark uniforms approaching the car, one on either side.
As a voice barked at him to step out of the vehicle, Pokora realized he’d walked into a trap. In the detention area of the adjoining US Customs and Border Protection building, an antiseptic room with a lone metal bench, Pokora pondered all the foolish risks he’d taken while in thrall to his Xbox obsession. When he’d started picking apart the console’s software a decade earlier, it had seemed like harmless fun—a way for him and his friends to match wits with the corporate engineers whose ranks they yearned to join. Xbox, he and his associates had wormed into American military networks too.
Pokora could see his father sitting in a room outside the holding cell, on the other side of a thick glass partition. Gutted to have caused the usually stoic man such anguish, David wished he could offer some words of comfort. But his father couldn’t hear him through the glass. David Pokora mastered the intricacies of first-person shooters.
There is a grainy video of him playing Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold in 1995, his 3-year-old fingers nimbly dancing around the keyboard of his parents’ off-brand PC. The kid was a born programmer. Pokora dabbled in coding throughout elementary school, building tools like basic web browsers. But he became wholly enamored with the craft as a preteen on a family trip to Poland. He had lugged his bulky laptop to the sleepy town where his parents’ relatives lived. There was little else to do, so as chickens roamed the yards he passed the time by teaching himself the Visual Basic . As Pokora began to immerse himself in programming, his family bought its first Xbox.
Windows-derived architecture, the machine made Pokora’s Super Nintendo seem like a relic. Whenever he wasn’t splattering aliens in Halo, Pokora scoured the internet for technical information about his new favorite plaything. To divine its secrets, these hackers had cracked open the console’s case and eavesdropped on the data that zipped between the motherboard’s various components—the CPU, the RAM, the Flash chip. Once Pokora hacked his family’s Xbox, he got heavy into tinkering with his cherished Halo.
He haunted IRC channels and web forums where the best Halo programmers hung out, poring over tutorials on how to alter the physics of the game. He was soon making a name for himself by writing Halo 2 utilities that allowed players to fill any of the game’s landscapes with digitized water or change blue skies into rain. The hacking free-for-all ended with the release of the second-generation Xbox, the Xbox 360, in November 2005. The 360 had none of the glaring security flaws of its predecessor, to the chagrin of programmers like the 13-year-old Pokora who could no longer run code that hadn’t been approved by Microsoft. There was one potential workaround for frustrated hackers, but it required a rare piece of hardware: an Xbox 360 development kit. Dev kits are the machines that Microsoft-approved developers use to write Xbox content. To the untrained eye they look like ordinary consoles, but the units contain most of the software integral to the game development process, including tools for line-by-line debugging.
A hacker with a dev kit can manipulate Xbox software just like an authorized programmer. Microsoft sends dev kits only to rigorously screened game-development companies. In the mid-2000s a few kits would occasionally become available when a bankrupt developer dumped its assets in haste, but for the most part the hardware was seldom spotted in the wild. There was one hacker, however, who lucked into a mother lode of 360 dev kits and whose eagerness to profit off his good fortune would help Pokora ascend to the top of the Xbox scene.