In March 2019, Asheville resident Tyler Capps was living in Charleston, S.C., when his brother Nate asked him to help turn a glass-top coffee table into a cocktail arcade machine. Using a computer monitor that Nate found at a thrift store and a small, versatile Raspberry Pi computer — which, with the right software installed, can run almost any old video game from Atari to Playstation 1 — the siblings successfully completed what Tyler calls a “pretty simple project.” Invigorated by the endeavor, Tyler felt inspired to look into more ambitious uses for the Raspberry Pi in terms of game systems.
“Before this, neither of us had made anything quite like that, but we had both subscribed to and watched different makers on YouTube. He had seen a lot of Bob Clagett’s projects, and I had been following people like Jimmy DiResta, Simone Giertz, Adam Savage and Laura Kampf for years.” Capps says. “I was always envious of the things they were able to make, and that maker community is a big reason that I took the leap to start my own projects.”
The briefcase solution
One month later, Capps committed to making a portable gaming system, which he initially thought would be built into a preexisting suitcase or briefcase. But after looking at numerous unsatisfactory options at thrift stores, he realized he would need to make a custom case and turned his attention to woodworking and making a high-quality product. Without tools of his own or experience working with wood and only a passing knowledge of electronics, Capps also knew he needed assistance — and found it in his neighborhood.
“I have been aware of maker spaces for a few years now, and I had even sought them out before but never joined one. Reforge Charleston just happened to be right around the corner from where I was living at the time and was one of the more capable maker spaces I’d ever seen,” Capps says. “They had a full wood shop, [computer numerical control machines], laser cutters, 3D printers, etc. I learned more there over the five months that I was a member than I had in years. I owe a lot to that space and the people there.”
During that time, Capps used Adobe Illustrator and Tinkercad to aid the design, plus guidance from a few Reforge members and what he calls “a lot of YouTube videos.” He then utilized such items as a salvaged 15.6-inch screen from a disused laptop, old desktop PC speakers, pine boards, birch plywood, plus arcade controller parts, including joysticks, buttons, controller boards and wiring.
After some trial and error — during which he ingeniously discovered that the screw-on joystick ball tops, which had been preventing the case from closing, could double as an exterior carry handle — Capps’ odyssey suddenly seemed to be complete. Anxious to see if his hard work had paid off, he turned on the machine and, with everything functioning as intended, felt an indescribable sense of satisfaction. Right in front of him was physical proof that he belonged in the world of makers, and by learning to trust himself in this manner, he believes that he has found a new calling.
“It might sound silly, but the process of designing and building that first arcade case was a revelation for me. It was the most daunting and complex thing I had ever challenged myself to complete, and it ended up rearranging some priorities in my life,” Capps says.
“Given how many things I didn’t know going into it, it seems a little insane in hindsight. But I poured myself into the process. I used every skill I know, and I stepped out of my comfort zone over and over again to learn new skills that I needed. It felt right — like I was doing exactly what I was built for.”
Replicating the magic
Capps dubbed his creation The Negotiator. “The name comes from a silly idea that this box might be a kind of briefcase you would take to a business negotiation,” he says. “And the negotiation would involve competitive head-to-head arcade games.”
In spring 2020, Capps posted a GIF of The Negotiator to Reddit, and the post’s popularity prompted him to start making them on commission. He named his one-man operation End Boss Customs, launched a website and began taking orders — with the caveat that no games be included. Through open-source software RetroPie, retro games can be legally played on the Raspberry Pi, but since selling ROMs — digital versions of old cartridge or disc-based games — is a legal gray area that Capps would rather avoid, he instead includes detailed, easy-to-understand instructions for customers to add games to the machine.
“This is definitely not something I could patent, but, more importantly, it isn’t something I would ever want to patent. If someone wants to make their own, I highly encourage it. I want to inspire people to make stuff the way I was inspired to make stuff,” he says, noting that he’s by no means the first person to make a folding case arcade machine. “The most notable and most amazing is a Swedish maker named Love Hultén. He is incredibly talented and makes funky high-end custom game systems and electronic instruments. He’s much fancier than me — for now, anyway.”
Capps describes his current order volume as “a trickle” — “It’s not booming, but it’s not nothing … and I’m very grateful for that,” he says — and feels more than capable of handling the current workload. He asks for up to two months to build and deliver the finished product and says that feedback from customers has been great.
“I’ve got some good constructive criticisms that have led to minor quality-of-life design changes,” he says. “One customer said he and his son have been playing it side by side and beating old games together like Altered Beast. That’s amazing and super satisfying to hear.”
Now living in Asheville, Capps has made the last couple of Negotiators by using a combination of the downtown Asheville Makers’ space — which he describes as home to “great people,” but not as robust as Reforge and lacking wood shop tools — and the Harvest House’s wood shop in Kenilworth. The COVID-19 pandemic understandably shut those options down, so he’s been “bumming some friends’ tools and workshops.”
Capps’ dream is to one day have a small shop space of his own where, in time carved out on the side from his full-time job in production and facility maintenance at Smith Systems in Brevard, he can work on Negotiators and other projects that he’s dreamed up. He has a lot of different case designs in mind and eventually wants to create a handheld device.
“I also want to produce and sell simpler DIY kits for people who want to assemble a game system themselves,” he says. “It would be really cool to build custom projects for brewery spaces — once things have calmed down, that is. I’ve also dabbled in making puzzle boxes with custom-designed locks and mechanisms that I would love to make more of. I have tons of ideas.” endbosscustoms.com