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Mind Games: Custom Consoles Part II


When growing up, chances are there came a time when you realized that you were categorically superior to your parents in at least one regard: computer stuff. For me, that moment came when my dear father couldn’t switch the RF adapter for my NES from “game mode” back to cable in time for a Twins game. I was seven at the time.


The generational gap in technological know-how is a uniquely modern phenomenon, and the divide is only going to be larger for the next few rounds of wired youngsters. In the meantime, we should do more to develop a knowledge-driven sense of control over technology’s place in our personal lives.


As I discussed last week, console-manufacturers may be in a great position to lead that sort of paradigm-shift. By couching a gentle introduction to computer-tweaking in a common medium of entertainment, a lot more people might suddenly flex their sea legs in a world often consumed by technology. A host of obstacles have historically prevented that kind of radical change, but the playing field may be a little different today. Let’s take an updated look at some of the reasons console-makers don’t typically encourage us to tinker around with their products.


Splitting the user-base


The most talked-about problem with re-configurable consoles, without a doubt, is that they would split a manufacturer’s customers into various segments. In so doing, the traditional purpose of a console — giving users a streamlined, unified and easily advertised experience — is damaged.


What people sometimes neglect is this: we already have that problem. Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all released products in this console generation that categorically split the player experience to the point that compatible games now need to be specifically labeled. They didn’t shy away from advertising the add-ons — Wii MotionPlus, Kinect and PlayStation Move — as radically new experiences that redefine their consoles. Evidently, they aren’t so afraid of splitting the base anymore, especially if it means appealing to more people.


More importantly, most of the changes I’m advocating wouldn’t so much split  the user-base as stretch it out. That is to say, adding a couple gigabytes of RAM wouldn’t allow for categorically new experiences, just better ones of the same kind. Who loses there? That’s right, no one.


Alienating people


Consoles are popular because they aren’t intimidating. Quite rightly, their manufacturers are afraid of scaring off casual consumers with a dizzying array of options. But given the age we live in, I daresay those consumers are ready for a calculated step forward. We’ve gone from plug-and-play games to online services, micro transactions, wacky peripherals and finicky controller-syncing — at some point, we should be able to open the hood. It doesn’t have to be an instant switch to full customization, either. That would ruin the point. If we’re given a limited set of meaningfully distinguishable hardware options, I think we’d find the happy place between comfort and customization.



            This worrying problem is more on the consumer’s side of spectrum, but no less important. The standard practice for exchangeable doo-dads on current platforms is (predictably) to not pass on the savings to the end-user and instead milk their wallets dry. Typically, that’s done by creating artificially proprietary components like the Xbox 360’s hard drive or the Vita’s outrageously expensive memory sticks. It’s like a homemade mini-monopoly. It’s a difficult problem to solve, but perhaps manufacturers could open RAM or processor production to third parties and charge licensing fees, as they currently do with other peripherals. Or they could simply trust that by treating the consumer fairly, they’d sell more units and create a larger install base for lucrative software.


Companies likely to make the switch


It’s hard to say which company might release the world’s first “open” console. Of the established players, Sony might make the best fit– it’s still one of the world’s premier electronics companies, and not long ago it championed Linux and custom hard drives on PS3. Microsoft certainly has the pipeline for such a move, but seems fiercely committed to keeping the Xbox line as straightforward as possible. Nintendo is the same way, infinitely more so.


It might make more sense for a new contender to come out of the gate with a custom-console approach from the beginning. Apple has been flirting with consoles for a while (and even developed one back in the day), but it is the last company on Earth that would release a new product line with customizable hardware. Valve, the savior of PC gaming and keeper of its biggest marketplace in Steam, is the top contender in my mind. Nobody champions user empowerment more than Gabe Newell & Co., who certainly have the liquid cash to produce and market a console. If Valve ever does release its much-rumored console, I’d be shocked, in fact, if we couldn’t open it up and toss in anything that the motherboard and OS would support.

In the end, I’ll salute (and pay) whoever bites the bullet and gives the consumer the customization we crave.

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