Video game controllers have evolved from simple plastic molds disguising circuit boards to sophisticated ergonomic input devices that can not only sense varying degrees of button pressure, but also motion and tilt. Now they're completely wireless, they vibrate, rumble, light up, and make sounds.
As any athlete values his or her equipment, so do gamers their controllers. In fact, the industry has seen an explosive response to the expanding market of controller customization. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all offer nontraditional versions of their respective console's controllers, ranging in design from simple alternative color options to over-the-top franchise-inspired works of art. More often than not you'll find that along with the release of a triple-A game, there's an inspired custom controller to match.
Jordan McKinney foresaw this trend but had a different take. Why not offer gamers the option to personally customize their game controllers on their own terms?
It started out simple enough. A Chicago native, McKinney was an active member of the MLG (Major League Gaming) online forums and huge fan of competitive Halo and Halo 2 multiplayer. One day he decided to create a mock-up Xbox controller with the MLG logo on it and share it with his message board colleagues.
The response was immediate. Everyone wanted one. But a real one, not the image he'd created for the message board. A few hundred hand-painted controllers later he knew there was the potential for a business opportunity. Then came interest from a professional gamer.
In 2008 Tom "Tsquared" Taylor used one of McKinney's custom-painted controllers to win the MLG National Championship in Las Vegas, taking home a $100,000 grand prize for his team. A short time later, The Controller Shop was born.
A small initial investment has exploded into a full-time staffed operation where Jordan says he has customers paying up to $400 per controller for massively customized gear (though custom work is also available for cheaper). The Controller Shop offers hundreds of preconceived designs but also lets gamers upload their own art and have their handles emblazoned on the hardware. Almost every aspect of the controller can be modded, save for changing the actual form factor of the device itself.
The quality is top-notch, on par with what you'd expect from a high-end auto detailing outfit. The Controller Shop uses only high-quality paints and glosses to give their customized controllers a luxurious feel that really pops the first time you see it.
To understand the quality I needed to see exactly what kind of work Jordan was offering, so he sent me two customized controllers (an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 controller) inspired by my video podcast, The 404 Show. The results were stunning. Each controller is covered in a protective high-shine glossy shell that locks in a shimmering gray paint. Each controller's conventional buttons are painted over and replaced with "404" numbers. Even the Xbox Guide and PS Home buttons are modified as well. Best of all, after trying out the Xbox 360 controller I noticed the Guide Button's LED light had been changed from green to gray. Around back is shiny but texturized grip coating that feels just as good as it looks.
But the options for customization go well beyond some cover up paint and glossy finish. The Controller Shop offers button and analog stick replacements as well. Customers can swap out the standard buttons for 9mm bullet shell casings instead and do the same with 20-gauge shells in place of the sticks. Seemingly any design is possible, but things will add up in price the more you wish to customize.
With the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 nearing the end of their life cycles, what does the future hold for The Controller Shop? McKinney says there's no stopping. He's looking forward to the next generation of consoles so that he can get his hands on their controllers -- and take them apart of course. In fact, he's already offering preorders on the site.
He'll certainly have his work cut out for him though. Sony and Microsoft promise that the DualShock 4 and Xbox One controllers will be the most sophisticated ever made, with even more points of measurement, vibration and other functionality.