As I was researching the history of Wii mod chips and electronics modding in general a friend mentioned he could get me in touch with someone actually in the mod chip manufacturing business. I jumped at the chance and soon I was having an email correspondence with Chipsuhhoi. Chips made a number of stipulations to secrecy before granting a formal interview, so there are some obvious omissions of what Chips insisted were telling details that could be used to identify him later. A digest of our month-long series of emails follows.
ME: How did you get started in the mod chipping biz?
CHIPS: I had been laid off from a pretty big internet company after the IPO bubble burst. It wasn’t so bad really. I had stock options and had been saving a portion of my significant salary. I’d always been into games so when the first console mods had come out I’d open up the box to see what had been done. I was an amateur electronics geek so I did some poking around, hung out at the shop where my PS2 got modded, asked questions, was pretty much a pest. Eventually they figured as long as I kept coming by they could put me to work. I knew how to solder, so it was no trouble for me to tack chips on. Everything we were doing came from pre-fabbed kits and I was just some solder monkey. It got boring real quick.
ME: Where were these mod chip kits coming from?
CHIPS: Well, I can’t say specifically, for obvious reasons. Each console had a different kit, or in most cases a number of kits to choose from. We we’re a fairly small time operation, just doing two or three mods a day so our chips were coming in on a small order basis. Pretty much we were getting them from guys who were whacking them together in their basements, garages, whatever. I started to see the same kit coming from two different guys, or one guy producing two different kits for two different consoles and it kinda dawned on me that the guys manufacturing the mod chip kits were just kinda doing what I was doing, but at a slightly more advanced level. Soldering stuff together from instructions. Of course that was an oversimplification but I was stupid enough to think, “Hell, I could do that! I bet there’s more money in that than just melting kits onto boards.”
ME: Was that the case?
CHIPS: Well yeah, I mean the money is better sure, but is it as easy? Hell no! I started doing a little research online, joining underground forums, the whole nine yards. That’s when I really started to learn my stuff. In no way was it simple or easy, like I thought but like my girlfriend will tell you, I’m just stupid enough to not know when I’m in over my head, so I just kept at it. Let me tell you that first functioning mod chip set I put together was my friggin’ baby! No seriously, it took me like nine months of trial and error and then wham! It was done and it worked and I was like I couldn’t believe it y’know? We went out for a celebratory dinner and everything. My girlfriend thought I was nuts. Here I am sitting at the kitchen table every night burning my fingers, swearing at these chips, and then I was like, “Honey I did it!” She was like, “Thank God. Finally! Can I have my kitchen table back now?”
ME: Did she get her table back?
CHIPS: Yeah, but she wasn’t very pleased with the solder drips I left on it.
ME: How long ago was that, your first working mod chip?
CHIPS: That was like, four years ago.
ME: So what is your operation like now?
CHIPS: Now I work with just one console, just cause the manufacturers are putting so much effort into defeating mod chips, you really have to specialize to stay on top of your game. Also working with one product allows you to produce faster. Just keeping an eye on the latest developments is a full time job. I just do chips, not programming, so that’s kind of a black box for me. I’m always testing when new stuff comes out, just so I can figure it out for myself. When one of my buyers calls up with a question I have to be on top of things or else I could lose them as a client. I put lots of time into the marketing of my chips, for safety’s sake. I’ve kept my operation fairly small, right now just covering three states. I like to go around and meet a buyer, you know not the individual ones but I sell through shops and installers, so I like to go and see what they are up to, who they are. It makes me more comfortable and I think it makes them more comfortable too. A lot of this business gets done through mail and I think that’s an invitation to trouble.
ME: Are you worried about the legal implications of Mod chip manufacturing?
CHIPS: Well I’d be stupid not to. That’s why I try and keep my business low-key and person to person. There’ve been some busts in the past few years where they clamped down hard on both manufacturers and installers. Even little guys like me working out of a garage or whatever. That stuff just pisses me off. I mean, all the components are legal, all the programming is opensource or paid for or whatever. You bought your console. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to do whatever the hell you want with it? I mean in this country you can mail order a modification to turn a an assault rifle from semi to fully automatic, legally! But the government is busting people for modifying video game consoles? Really? Seriously? Now they try to link it in with terrorism, if you read some of the things they said after those big busts in 2007, they’re trying to say mod chipping your console means money going into the hands of terrorists! Do they seriously think people are that stupid?
ME: Thanks for the interview.
CHIPS: My pleasure!