Widgets Magazine

Mind Games: Custom Consoles, Part One

One late night in the summer of 2009, I sat bleary-eyed and jittery over a rickety card table in my parents’ basement. I’d been there for what felt like days. A completely disassembled Xbox 360 lay strewn in pieces before me, each component resting gently on its own six-inch square of newspaper. A clap of thunder rattled the window as I steadied the screwdriver in my hand.

 

By the next morning, I’d brought a console back from the brink of death — and even managed to trick it out with a new heat sink and some other goodies. I’m hardly a bona fide techie, and frankly, that was some hard shit. But when that pile of bolts sparked to life and I heard that disc drive purr … let me tell you, it felt damn good.

 

Most people don’t ever think to open up a console. Or a phone, a calculator or even an alarm clock — and certainly not a proper computer. But as anyone who’s built a PC from scratch can tell you, there’s an unexpected emotionality to the experience of powering something on when you can think to yourself, I had a hand in making that.

 

If more people are going to experience that quiet euphoria, the barrier for entry needs to be lower. People also need a better reason to break out the toolkit in the first place — in this era of mass-produced laptops and AppleCare, we’re getting used to the (very incorrect) idea that if we ever want a different experience from our computer, we should just hand it to a Genius or pony up for the next year’s model. And with the way we are taught to use our technology — companies emphasize computer-generated software more than parents encourage their kids to be astronauts — we occupy ourselves with software-based tech start-ups and settle for the hardware they hand us. For better or worse, we’re sheltered from ever encountering the inner workings of a computer, even as we become increasingly dependent on them. Ironically, that trend is concurrent with an almost opposite one: Hardware prices have absolutely plummeted in recent years, and it’s never been easier to piece together computer parts from different marketplaces on the Web.

 

For the mainstream consumer, we need something in between those disparate extremes. Something, that is to say, must change. I have to wonder if console manufacturers could make the difference — after all, it certainly would’ve made that summer night a little less nerve-wracking if my Xbox had been meant to be opened.

 

For the uninitiated, it might be instructive to explain what a radical shift it would be for a company like Nintendo or Sony to sell a console with exchangeable components. Since their inception, video game consoles have been all about minimizing maintenance and maximizing entertainment. You sit down on your couch, turn the thing on and forget about it — there are no files to manage, no drivers to hunt down and certainly no graphics cards to update.

 

It’s a trade-off, of course. It opens the gaming experience to more people, but closes off the technical tweaking that enthusiasts crave. (And let’s be honest: A unified, simple device is always going to be easier to market.)

 

I should note that modifiable consoles aren’t entirely hypothetical, but most historical examples are fairly cringe-worthy. The Sega Genesis 32X was overpriced and under-supported, while the Nintendo 64 disc drive never even saw release outside of Japan. The Nintendo 64 also had an interesting expansion pack to add a whopping four megabytes of RAM, but only two games ever truly took advantage of it. The only example in the current generation might be the PlayStation 3, which allows users to swap in a new hard drive.

 

Those examples are outdated and mostly superficial, and the industry has changed since they came along. I’m not sure if the industry is ready for properly customizable consoles, but at the very least, it’s time to re-evaluate the question.