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 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 local firm 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 the Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox and other consoles.
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 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 on Padonia Road 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.
"As time went on, we became e-commerce guys," says John Hays, 37. "These codes are serious business and it's big, huge money. 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. It's wild - it goes right over the dogleg on a par-5, hits the green and goes in the hole."