"We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us" -- Customizing and Creating Game Controllers

Anyone here get into customizing or creating gaming controllers? Let’s have a thread about the process of designing, building, and refining them, and for showing off the results.

As I mentioned in the GotM thread, I have gone down a major rabbit hole of hobbyist electronics over the last year or so. I’ll credit / blame the worlds of ergo-mechanical keyboards and alternate keyboard layouts for flipping a switch in my brain to start thinking critically about the tools we use for interfacing with electronics.

Not ready to show the main project I’ve been working on yet, but I can start out with a couple of smaller modifications I did along the way.

Last fall, I went on a shmup kick, and decided to try out an arcade stick for them, as that’s what they are designed for (I have lots of experience with KBM and gamepads, but never spent much time in the arcades). This 8bitdo stick seemed like a solid starter, and I found the form factor novel and fun. But after a month or two, I began to get annoyed with the buttons feeling a bit mushy and the stick needing too much time to travel from one side to the other.


(before)

Rather than shelve it or buy another model, I realized that both of those components were actually not hard to replace. So after research, I ordered a pack of Sanwa buttons, and a Seimitsu LS-56 stick, which came highly recommended for shmups.

The buttons turned out to be really easy to replace. Once the case was open, it was just a matter of sliding off a paired wire connector, and popping them out of the socket, then doing the reverse with the new button.

The stick wound up being trickier, as it used a completely different style of wire harness. The 8bitdo had an 8-pin connector on the motherboard, with 2 wires individually connected for signal and ground on each of the four cardinal directions on the stick. But the Seimitsu uses a 5-pin harness where all four directions share a common ground wire. I had ordered an adapter along with the stick, but it didn’t fit at all, and I thought I had screwed up and ordered the wrong thing (weeks later, the shop contacted me and said that they had sent the wrong adapter).

But out of impatience and not wanting to wait longer to try it out, I figured that wires are wires, and I had connected speakers and such before, so I just cut and stripped the wires coming out of the motherboard. I then spliced them to the wires coming out of the new stick, using some wire nuts that definitely weren’t intended for this purpose, but that I had lying around in my toolbox.

It’s not pretty, and it took a little experimentation to get the switches connected in the right order to get the expected directions, but once done it worked perfectly. This was a big confidence booster that these devices are all relatively simple arrangements of wires and switches, and that they can be changed to suit preferences.


(after)

Next project was the d-pad for my Lenovo Legion Go handheld PC. I’ve talked in other threads about what a great system this is, but the biggest fault was the d-pad, which was stiff and fatiguing, with some of the worst diagonals of any controller I’ve ever used. Still on that shmup kick, I railed against the waste of having a system that can stand vertically for tate mode, with a d-pad that sabotages any attempt to fluidly move in 8 directions.

Fortunately, someone came up with a solution – throw out the stock d-pad pivot and top, and replace them a 3D-printable d-pad pivot with space for a rare-earth magnet, and a spare dish-shaped d-dad from the Xbox Elite controller – my favorite for shmups. This was one of the first things I printed after getting a 3D printer, and after an hour of disassembly and reassembly (fortunately the mod creator provided thorough instructions), the system was able to fulfill its true shmup potential.

I had also gotten a Ploopy Nano trackball for work, with the idea that it could be placed near the thumb cluster on the keyboard and used without having to move my whole hand. It worked great, except that I have the keyboard tented enough that the trackball was too low. I tried propping it up on various things, but it slid around.

I had been learning CAD in Fusion 360, and this was a good chance to put it to use, so I designed and printed a pedestal at the correct height, and with a top molded to the exact size and shape of the trackball’s base.

As mentioned, all of these skills are building to a much more ambitious project that I’m really excited about, and I’ve been testing out the current prototype in all sorts of games. I’m hopeful that it has commercial potential, and am not ready to reveal it online yet (though on the off chance that anyone is local to Orange County CA and willing to sign an NDA, I would be open to meeting up for a demo and getting some feedback).

But I’ve rambled enough for now. What controllers have you created or modified? And conversely, is there anything that you wish you could change about the standard control paradigms?

That’s cool stuff! Joysticks are rather easy to mod these days depending on which one you buy. They know that people will often go get their own buttons and sticks that suit their play style. You’ve probably also seen things like the Hitbox for fighting games where joysticks are essentially turned into buttons.

The advent of the 3D printer has made all sorts of interesting modifications possible, so that’s super cool you were able to get a proper d-pad on the Legion Go!

I’m not near Orange County, but if you ever want to ship something out to PA for testing/eval, I am a former game reviewer who continues to play a ton of shooters/arcade games. I’d be willing to sign an NDA. I’ve done that a number of times in the past.

You should definitely take a look at the Retro Game Boards as I’m pretty sure there’s some good discussion about joysticks and modding over there as well as some folks who do a lot of it themselves.

I haven’t created anything myself, but I have used a lot of non-standard stuff through the years. I have a Microsoft Strategic Commander that I’d like to muck around with again. Steam Controller, various joysticks from different brands, and I recently got a Candy Con from Gamestop that I really like.

Hit Box can sit and spin for their most recent attempt at patent trolling under the guide of a “licensing program”. The good news is there are plenty of other companies making leverless arcade controls and they’re easy enough to DIY as well if you so choose.

In fact, this small form factor one is launching today and is super moddable.

I have an old PS3 SF4 stick that I’ve looked into modding, but the stock gear is Sanwa so not much room for improvement there. At most I’d probably swap out the restrictor plate. Looking to pick up a couple cabs in the near future and they would definitely need some work including button and switch swaps.

Wow that’s impressive!

Thanks – will keep that in mind as things progress!

And yeah, very aware of the leverless game controller market, as that’s the jumping-off point that I’m working from. I tried a few of them, researched a bunch more, and came to the conclusion that they were all stuck in an arcade-derived local optimum, but there was a better way (at least for my tastes) that absolutely nobody was pursuing.

Agreed. Hitbox initially popularized this market, but seem very shady as a company. I took a look at their patent, and was shocked at the way they frame it to take advantage of examiners who presumably are not familiar with the gaming world.

The actual novel aspect of the Hitbox was taking a bog-standard arcade control setup and replacing the stick with individual directional buttons. But their application doesn’t mention arcade sticks at all, and the only “prior art” it shows is a PlayStation gamepad. It frames it as if Hitbox’s invention is the idea of adapting a gamepad to be more ergonomic by spreading out all the buttons onto a flat surface. It ignores decades of relevant arcade history and makes all sorts of claims about protecting the arrangement of the right-hand action buttons in two arcing rows, which is an industry standard directly copied from numerous arcade sticks.

Anyway, yeah, there are a ton of different makers out there now. Haute42 is the general recommendation for anyone wanting to try one out affordably. But that LightFox looks like a great option too. And at the higher-end, the Razer Kitsune is really slick, and with built-in PS5 full compatibility.

And it’s definitely easier than ever to make your own. GP2040-CE is a really full-featured software that runs on affordable Raspberry Pi boards ($5-$35 depending on various features).

Here’s a little detail that I might be inordinately proud of.

On the current prototype, I have hotswap sockets pressed into place underneath each button switch, and soldered wires from them to the main board.

This works, but they can pop loose from the switch. More importantly, they were incredibly fiddly to solder, due to the need to keep the socket and the wire steady while holding the solder and the soldering iron. Helping hands are fine, but they aren’t completely solid, and need to be repositioned for every join. The plastic part of the hotswap socket also has a tendency to soften and deform when I’m heating the metal part. I’m sure I’ll get better at soldering with practice, but this still seems like it would be by far the biggest bottleneck to manufacturing.

So after quite a few false starts, I came up with this solderless hotswap. It has narrow channels for a section of stripped wire to run through, perfectly aligned with the hole for the key switch pin to maintain physical and electrical contact.

It slides into the overall switch socket horizontally, and the fit is tight enough that the wires are held firmly in place by friction so they can’t pull loose. And once the switch itself is added, it locks the whole thing in so it can’t slide back out the way it came in.

Building this into the next iteration to make sure it holds up to continued usage, but the testing has been very reliable so far. And it’s both much faster to assemble than the soldered version, and much easier for anyone to replace or repair if needed.