Custom controllers are making a spectacle of the London indie scene

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George Buckenham with Tenya Wayna Teens’ custom twin-stick, 32 button controller.

Bespoke is a word normally associated with a tailored suit, or one of those plush sofas you inevitably smudge chocolate into. These days, it’s also a term used to describe the range of custom-built games controllers popping up in the independent game development community. It isn’t just the art of crafting digital experiences that indies are reclaiming from bigger companies – it’s the magical feeling of seeing a controller at an arcade that’s been built for one specific purpose.

In 2003, Steel Batallion came to the UK and with it came its multi-part custom controller sporting a number of levers, buttons and pedals intended to immerse gamers more than any Xbox controller ever could. Over the years, many innovative controllers have entered the mainstream, most notably NIntendo’s Wii remote and PlayStation’s Move, but these were built to be as simplistic as possible. Some of the custom builds to be found out on London indie scene’s right now are anything but, and they’re all the better for it.

Journeying into the hardware treasure trove that is the London Hackspace, a non-profit, community-run workshop where people can build videogame controllers and run demonstrations of accessible manufacturing technology, it’s hard to overcome the urge to lean around people to catch a glimpse of tech you’re never going to find on the high street.

Sat in the middle of it all is developer and event organiser George Buckenham, the force behind a great many interesting games, gadgets and talks. More pertinently, he’s the man behind The Wild Rumpus, an occasional night of booze, exhibition-friendly indie games and unabashed dancing. “It’s exciting to just see the object,” he says, “and then it’s exciting to watch people play [with it] – that’s totally what we dig.”

Each of the buttons on the Tenya Wanya Teens controller is backlit. It’s estimated to cost between £400 and £500 to build.

“We’re looking for spectacle,” he says of the Rumpus events. “So, anything where you’ve got a custom controller will be exciting. It also makes it more accessible – everyone’s having to approach it with a level playing field.”

The controller currently sat between us is a large, two-player arcade stick ‘n’ buttons setup built specifically for use with Tenya Wanya Teens, a game featuring the objective-hopping madness of Warioware with an adorable, less abrasive aesthetic. Each button lights up different colours as the game pans out, so immediately it’s easy to see why this controller – comprised of 32 back-lit buttons and two sticks – isn’t really an easy purchase, especially with a build cost of £400-500.

The cost seems justified, given how it brings experienced gamers and total newbies closer to each other in skill level. “Once you’re in games,” says Buckenham, “you forget how intimidating an Xbox 360 controller can be. I don’t play much stuff on console, so I’m not good at it. It’s a nice reminder that [controllers are] just a weird, confusing thing.”

While the controller for Tenya is both colourful and surprising, it’s still recognisable to anyone who’s ever used a traditional arcade machine. However, there are some more experimental creations appearing on the scene. One of them is indie developer and scientist Alan Zucconi’s unnamed controller that, when we first spoke about it, he described as the sort of grab-handle, rotational-movement hardware you’d use to control the arm of a giant robot. Think Pacific Rim with a high score.

Alan Zucconi – and his custom controller for 0rbitalis – could be found at London’s Radius Festival last week.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do it was because there were too many games around. Everyone is making a game, because it’s so easy to make one now. It’s really hard to get noticed,” says Zucconi. “People are always used to the same experience – keyboard, mouse, Xbox controller. But every time they get to play with something different they’re super excited. If you can only play it there, in that moment… every time there’s a custom controller at an event, there’s a queue.”

Exhibition games have always required something extra to draw in the crowd, and it’s always going to come down to the hardware. Software can be replicated in such a wide variety of environments that your games of Nidhogg are, bar the size of the cheering crowd – functionally the same whether you’re at Wild Rumpus or at home. But Tenya Wanya Teens is a different story entirely.

“If you’re a game designer, and if a thing contributes to the experience, and you can design it, then you should design it, or have a good reason why you’re not designing it,” says Buckenham. But where is the scene going? Should it expand, or is it forever going to be defined by a limited, one-unit-fits-many-events approach?

“I want more, of… everything?” responds Buckenham, laughing. “I want more diversity, for everyone to go off in their own direction. I would like more things like Wild Rumpus, more exhibition games, more crossover between people making games and installation artists, pervasive games… As that comes, and a larger audience are there, it means you can do more interesting things as well.”

The London development scene includes custom controllers, Oculus Rift dev kits and even a game that takes place in a caravan turned into a spaceship, all for the express purpose of offering people a more alternative way to play. It’s a time of change, and a science fair of game hardware is a welcome addition to the city.