Custom controllers: From art to accessibility

At times, particularly in recent months, it can feel as though Microsoft is more concerned with releasing Xbox One controllers than Xbox One games.

A recent example one that’s rightly garnered a great deal of positive attention is the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Due for release in September, it’s a highly customizable input device designed primarily for those with limited mobility. Built in conjunction with disability charities and community members to be as accessible as possible, it supports external devices – switches, buttons, sticks, etc. – to allow all players to create a control setup that works for them.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a huge and important milestone for accessible gaming. But custom peripherals of all stripes have been with us for years, from special controls to limited edition casings and other cosmetic features.

February, for instance, saw the release of the Limited Edition Sea of Thieves controller for Xbox One. A translucent purple affair with a lightly dappled texture, a compass design around the left stick, and a single golden trigger, it’s actually a rather beautiful-looking thing. But its reveal was hardly surprising; Sea of Thieves joins a growing list of high-profile games which have released their own special edition controllers, including Minecraft, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Forza Motorsport 6, Gears of War 4, Halo 5, and Titanfall.

Even beyond the game-specific controller designs, Xbox One owners have not been left wanting for choice. The basic console has your standard black and white controllers, as well as launching blue and red variants. But historically, that’s pretty much as extravagant as things get from platform holders. Beyond these, the names ‘Volcano Shadow’, ‘Patrol Tech’, and ‘Winter Forces’ – despite their slight ridiculousness – reveal something about Microsoft’s approach to limited edition controllers: these are actual, considered designs rather than basic palette swaps.

The Limited Edition Sea of Thieves controller.

The Limited Edition Sea of Thieves controller.

These releases were in effect a prelude to the launch of the Xbox Design Lab last year, which allowed players to create their own custom controller designs using a simple online tool. The most obvious comparison outside of games would be NikeID, the service rolled out by the sportswear brand in 2012 for customers wanting to customize and personalize their own gear, though companies such as Custom Controllers UK and Scuf were offering similar services for game controllers long before Microsoft’s Design Lab.

This isn’t the first time that Microsoft has taken inspiration from the work of independent custom controller firms. At the end of 2015, Microsoft released the Xbox One Elite controller. Billed as “the world’s most advanced controller,” it comes with swappable thumbsticks and D-pads alongside the real game-changing addition: configurable paddles on the controller’s underside, which can be used to perform functions normally served by face buttons. However, the Elite controller was not the first to do this.

“It’s not as commonly known, but it’s a fact that the Elite controller came about, in part, through our innovation,” Scuf Gaming CMO Diego Nunez tells me. “Microsoft licensed our IP, so some of the things that you’re seeing in that controller are a result of that.”

Scuf has been creating high-end custom controllers for the competitive gaming community since 2011. It’s been granted 36 patents, with another 35+ currently pending.

“We look at it as recognition,” Nunez enthuses. “What we brought to the market was recognized by Microsoft when they decided to create a more competitive, top-of-the-market controller, which they called Elite.”

What does all this mean, then? What even is the controller in 2018? It’s clearly no longer just a slab of buttons and sticks; a means to an end. The people have spoken, and they want colors and ergonomics – but even more than that, they want something uniquely theirs. With the limited edition drops, the push towards premium designs and options for customization, the first parallel that springs to mind is sneakers. But is there an audience, a culture around controllers in the same way?

A look at YouTube suggests that something like this could indeed be developing. You can find several videos featuring impressive collections of custom and limited edition controllers, including this one from Gerardo ‘GT’ Guerra. In it, Guerra shows off limited edition Gears of War 4, Titanfall, and Halo 5 controllers, alongside three from Scuf. His video also shows that he displays his collection using wall brackets, giving them ornamental as well as practical function.

I reached out to Guerra to learn more about his collection. He told me he first caught the bug with a clear blue Nintendo 64 controller, and has been actively collecting for around five years now. His collection is now more than 40 strong, and growing. “Looks were a top factor in my decision making, but now I need to have both looks and functions,” he tells me. “I have used all my controllers at least once or twice, then I put them up on display. Once they go on display, I use the standard issued controller or a modified controller.”

Guerra owns an esports team that competes in Call of Duty and Halo, and he reports that in this environment, custom controllers are crucial. “The reason for that is that it improves [players’] game and skill,” he says. His Xbox One controller collection video also features Scuf controllers branded with the logos of esports outfits OpTic and Team Kaliber. Indeed, Scuf’s Diego Nunez is less keen on the sneakers comparison, preferring to think of Scuf’s controllers – which emerged from esports – like sports equipment or apparel.

“If you’re a fan of a certain esports team and we have a new version of their controller, you’re going to want that,” he explains. “Think about Premier League football: when the season starts, there’s a new kit. You’re going to want the latest jersey. I think that’s where there’s more of a parallel.”

What Nunez does see, however, is the same excitement among Scuf’s audience whenever it launches a new controller. “It’s a very passionate community, and when you have something you’re passionate about, you want to have more than one way to express yourself,” he says. “We definitely see that there are people that might buy more than one controller… In general, I think it’s like anything else: if you spend a lot of time with it, you’ll eventually want to have something new.”

The Microsoft Xbox One Adaptive Controller uses a modular design to suit all kinds of players.

The Microsoft Xbox One Adaptive Controller uses a modular design to connect with any peripherals the player needs.

Something new, perhaps, like Scuf’s collaboration with Porsche for Forza Motorsport 7, which went so far as to have a certificate of authenticity come with every controller. (The Porsche 911 GT2 RS was the game’s cover car.) This is a long way from the dodgy third-party controllers you would palm off on your friends on sleepovers.

“For the most part, the emphasis from the console makers has been the overall product, driven by the software and the console,” says Nunez. “The focus on evolving the controller hasn’t been as high as the other two aspects.”

In this sense, Microsoft’s Xbox One Elite Controller and Design Lab were victories for companies like Scuf: both showed that independent companies were effectively dictating the conversation around what controllers can and should provide, while the attention of platform holders was elsewhere.

This is especially true of the Adaptive Controller which, while undeniably an admirable step from Microsoft, is only possible thanks to the advances made in video game accessibility by committed charities and individuals over the past several years. Before, many players with disabilities played on bespoke peripherals designed for that individual’s needs in mind.

The notion of a console game controller that is not only completely open and customizable, but also a coveted design piece worthy of collecting, would have been almost unthinkable just a few years ago. While Microsoft may not currently be leading the market in software sales, it’s thinking more ambitiously about the controller and its place in gaming than any of its competitors.