E3: as Microsoft and Sony announce new levels of customisation for Xbox One and PS4, consoles are learning from PCs

Long both the drawback and selling point of games consoles, customisation means that the Xbox and PS4 are taking on PCs on their own territory

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The Independent Tech

With the California dust settling after another breathless E3 conference, opinions still differ over whose announcements 'won' the show. Some gamers lean towards Sony and their Last Guardian resurrection act, while others look forward to Microsoft's big hitters like Tomb Raider and Gears 4. Nintendo had a rough ride, accused of disappointing fans with an excess of underpowered spin-off titles as they navigate the tricky path of supporting a failing Wii U without throwing too many resources at it. But aside from the usual manufacturer grandstanding, an underlying theme quietly emerged that appeared in all the main conferences - that of user customisation.

A significant industry already thrives on providing cosmetic adjustments to consoles, with sites like DecalGirl and SkinIt allowing Xbox and PlayStation owners to decorate their exterior with anything from Hello Kitty to Ohio State University. The enjoyment that PC gamers find in designing unique towers stacked with glowing lights is definitely rubbing off on console users. The rush for the retro-skinned 20th anniversary PS4s was such that even six months later, the limited edition hardware fetches over £1000 on eBay.

Modifications aren't limited to the outside however - it's fairly common to find people switching out the fairly meagre stock hard drives in the launch editions of the PS4 and Xbox One for larger discs that can better cope with the huge memory demands of modern games. Another popular choice of modification for the PS4 is to switch out the supplied DualShock 4 analogue sticks for their Xbox equivalents, especially among those who have recently migrated from the 360.

It appears that the manufacturers themselves have not ignored these emerging trends. Announced during E3, Microsoft's new Elite controllers for Xbox One promise a degree of customisation hitherto unheard of in mainstream joypads. Here MS are allowing players to switch out the analogue sticks, D-pad, and add up to four paddles which can be assigned button functions, nestled on the rear of the pad. Button mapping is completely customisable using a new app, allowing sensitivity adjustments as well as setting trigger min/max values.

One of the few highpoints of Nintendo’s rather disappointing event was their Super Mario Maker, which brings the same tailored-to-fit principle but applies it to software. Instead of deploying valuable staff time on new 2D Mario games, Nintendo have found a unique way of satiating fans' appetites - by giving control to the players, who can then create their own twisted versions of Mario classics, complete with auto-scrolling options and more mushrooms than a mycologists garden.

User-created software mods have been around for many years, with fan-made maps, or WADs, proving one of the great joys of the first two Doom games back in the 1990s. The mod community consists of diehard players who find ways to get deep into the files of the game and alter fundamental aspects of them, with changes ranging from removing troublesome 'weight' categories for items in RPGs, to the more creative examples like replacing dragons in Skyrim with flying Thomas the Tank Engines or creating guns that fire sports cars.

Historically, this adaptability is one of the major advantages of PC gaming over the console equivalent. At E3, Microsoft went some way towards breaking down the barriers between the PC community and console gamers by inviting Bethesda onstage during their conference to announce that Fallout 4 mods would be available on Xbox One. A PS4 announcement soon followed suit, and the prospect of taking advantage of the extra content and creativity is one that many players will look forward to.

Of course, one of the major downsides to allowing this expansive new frontier to be breached is one of stability - for generations, consoles have distinguished themselves by closing off their borders, providing everyone with a simple, effective and level playing field. There have been numerous signs that this is slowly changing. Over the last few years, with developers rushed into fulfilling optimistic release dates, patching games post-release, and struggling to make netcode work well enough for the massive online communities to all hit the servers on release day, we have already seen some significant breaches in the traditional stability of the home consoles.

Although users occasionally gripe about day one patches, or unreliable first months of online play, the concept of ‘living’ games seems to have generally been accepted by the majority of the gaming public. Already beta testing participation is part and parcel of the console experience, allowing gamers to get involved pre-launch with upcoming games and make a contribution to the fine-tuning process required before product hits the shelves.

In the future, it is possible that every aspect of gaming will be customisable. Democratising the way people choose to experience their games may result in a number of welcome side effects, from providing a more inclusive experience for disabled users, who will be able to explore more options to more easily control their characters, to crowd-sourcing new material and ideas from the playing community, following in the footsteps of the hugely successful DayZ mod. Gamers may be able to patch together their own questlines in RPGs, cross-breed assets from different games, or even re-write scripts. It’s hard to picture console manufacturers allowing things to go quite as far towards the PC world as processor swapping or over-clocking the hardware, but software is always more malleable than system architecture.

 

Customisation appears to belong to part of a larger trend developing across many forms of consumer products. In recent years many retailers have begun to take advantage of more user-friendly design tools, allowing Adidas fanatics to design their own trainers from a number of templates, materials and colours. Customers can now put their name on everything from Dove soap to Burberry ponchos. Developers working on mobile phones have tried a modular concept allowing users to slot their own preferred cominations together, which has accumulated a lot of admirers even if it hasn't proved market-ready quite yet.

In a world filled with identikit high-streets, global brands and by-the-book architecture, taking back individuality is paramount to allowing consumers to feel in control of their own destiny - and therefore feeling comfortable enough to spend their money. Videogames are attempting to lead the way on this front, and as designer Michael Kors once said: "A man in a well tailored suit will always shine brighter than a guy in an off-the-rack suit". Vanilla consoles, and perhaps games, are becoming a thing of the past, as players seek to personalise every aspect of their gaming.

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