By Zoe Kleinman
Technology Reporter, BBC News
Modding can allow gamers to revisit old games
"It's like telling someone their dog's just died," said one of the thousands of Xbox Live gamers who were disconnected by Microsoft recently.
The gamer had fallen victim to Microsoft's Terms of Service for its online gaming service after modifying - or "modding" - his Xbox 360.
Microsoft has not revealed precisely what kinds of modifications led to the gamers being disconnected. However, many are thought to have been using "modchips" - a microchip for a games console that is not provided or supported by the manufacturer.
The chips commonly enable a console to play unauthorised software and games.
These can include home-made games (known as homebrews), games from other manufacturers and pirate copies of mainstream games.
It is these mods - rather than the purely cosmetic ones, such as changing the console box design - that the gaming industry takes issue with.
According to Elspa (Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association), the body that represents all the major games publishers in the UK, pirated videogames cost the industry up to £750m a year.
It can cost over £15m to create a game, it says, and therefore its members need to protect their returns.
Microsoft is also unequivocal in its position.
"In line with our commitment to combat piracy, and support safer and more secure gameplay for the more than 20 million members of our Xbox Live community, we are banning these modded consoles from Xbox Live," it said in a statement to the BBC.
'Worth the risk'
Despite the risks - which also include invalidating the warranty if a mod goes wrong - not all modders are deterred.
"It's not something everybody can do," says Kieran O'Neill, chief executive of gamers forum playfire.com.
"You need to be technically minded. There is a small percentage of people do it - but those who do, do it quite a lot and teach others online how to do it."
The web is awash with adverts for modkits and instruction manuals and videos compiled and uploaded by modders keen to share their skills.
University student Alex (not his real name), a regular gamer, disagrees with Mr O'Neill that it is a niche activity.
"It doesn't seem to be particularly difficult," he says, adding that plenty of people he knows mod their consoles in order to take advantage of cheap or free games.
"In the old days - like with the Playstation 2 - people would hack consoles so they could play international games that hadn't been released in the UK yet - it was about getting them first," he told BBC News.
"Now it's more about getting more stuff than you can normally."
Some modifications mean that old games from previous consoles become playable again without purchasing an updated version.
"People think, I've owned that game, I've bought it once, I don't want to buy it again."
In addition to the recent Xbox Live mods, Alex says that "everybody" has hacked the Nintendo Wii, and that when Sony releases a firmware update for its PSP console, the firmware is easily modifiable, introducing a host of extra features that should not be on the device.
"There are regular system updates and sweeps which block the hackers," he adds. "But it makes no difference - within three weeks they find a new way around it."
Some gamers feel that the control exercised by the manufacturers remotely in response to modding is unethical.
"It's a scary idea that a company that's sold you an item can change the way that item works," says gamer and systems programmer Chris Gutteridge, who has not modified any of his equipment.
He cites another recent example of online retailer Amazon withdrawing George Orwell's novel 1984 from Kindle owners after a copyright glitch in the US.
Kindle customers who had downloaded the book from the Kindle store found that it had vanished from their readers, and their account was refunded.
The concern raised by Mr Gutteridge and others is one of ownership. If a device has been fairly purchased rather than rented, he argues, it should be under the control of the purchaser rather than the manufacturer.
"I think over the next few years we will see far more of this," he adds.
"How much will people allow their freedom to be remote controlled?"