The 2023 Game Developers Conference will once again feature Alt.Ctrl.GDC, an exhibition dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions in new, exciting, and clever ways. Ahead of GDC 2023, Game Developer will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.
Stump'd! is all about chopping wood, asking you to swing an axe at a stump to split logs while carefully flinging any pesky raccoons out of the way.
Game Developer spoke with some members of Team Borf about how a rhythm game concept eventually became a wood-chopping game and the thought process that drew them to add their troublesome raccoon mascot and what his presence added to the game.
What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?
Baboolal: I'm Christopher Baboolal. Our project’s name is Stump’d! and I was a game, sound and controller designer. Specifically, I have made the functionality of the controller and constructed our various prototypes.
Yang: My name is Kye-Ting Yang and my role was dealing with game and controller design.
Strakhov: My name is Kris Strakhov and I am the character, prop, and environment artist for Stump’d!. I also made the animations for the interactable objects in the game.
Ramos: My name is Mattais Ramos and I was the programmer and a game designer on this project.
How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?
Strakhov: Our controller has three parts: the stump, the axe, and the pedal. The player is meant to hit the axe against the stump in order to chop items in the game just like wood-splitting in real life. The pedal acts like one from a trash can—stepping down on it lifts the top of the stump and flings off anything that’s resting on top. In one sentence, our controller is a stump that you can chop firewood on top of but also doubles as a trash can for anything that’s not a log.
What’s your background in making games?
Baboolal: I’m a 2nd year student that has been enrolled at Sheridan College in the Honors Bachelor of Game Design program. I have some experience recreating games with C++ and also using in-game workshop builders. I have also worked on other assets such as game narrative and original music in my personal time for later uses as well.
Yang: I’m currently completing my third year at Sheridan College in the Honors Bachelor of Game Design program. Prior to that, though, my only experience was using in-game flash editors to build substantial levels to pass my time.
Strakhov: I’m a first year in the Honors Bachelor of Game Design at Sheridan College. I just started attending last September, but I’m learning so much from my peers and the wonderful staff. In high school, I had a co-op placement with my dad for his independent company (I was his only employee) where we also worked on an alternative controller game with a ship wheel. I consider myself well-rounded in various aspects of game design and development, but my main focus is game art!
Ramos: I’m a student at Sheridan College studying game design. I have always been interested in making games and have spent a lot of time in school and on my own designing and creating games.
What development tools did you use to build Stump’d!?
Yang: Our game was developed in Unity (in which our team’s dedicated programmer spent a majority of their time, if not his whole time, using). Our controller’s functionality is dependent on the Makey Makey circuit board connected to a laptop.
What physical materials did you use to make it?
Baboolal: Our first controller was mainly made out of cardboard, paper mache, construction paper, and about the world’s supply worth of duct tape. Our two controller artists Kye-Ting and Tamara Waserman did a fantastic job making our paper mache turn into our beautiful log stump. Construction paper was also used around the controller to cover up the cardboard and make the flowers that you see around the controller. Our latest model completely gets rid of the cardboard and is now entirely made out of wood with designs that were laser-burned into it. The paper mache log was too good to give up, so we also have that addition still remaining along with its flowers.
What inspired the creation of Stump’d!?
Baboolal: Stump’d! was originally a design challenge from our school. We needed to make a game with alternate controls. We had an idea that became our log chopping game since we figured chopping is something very satisfying for the player. We also wanted some sort of interference or obstacle since only chopping would be bland. Our group just kept throwing out ideas until we thought of a pesky raccoon named Borf who decided he wanted to mess with the lumberjack one day.
The best thing about our team is that we have this “snowball” effect with our ideas. Something so small turned into our mascot of the game and brought an addition to the design: a reason to use the pedal.
Strakhov: Everyone on the team thought of an idea for a game that would use an alternative controller. We then shared our concepts and voted for one. We ended up agreeing on a log chopping game!
While brainstorming, the Logger Heads minigame from Mario Party 9 kept popping into my brain. In this competitive minigame, players must chop wood as soon as it appears on-screen and hide from Bob-ombs that make their way onto the stump. I brought up this game a lot during ideation and I can see how much influence it had on Stump’d!. Though, instead of a party game, Stump’d! is a single player arcade challenge.
How did you go about turning wood-chopping into a controller?
Baboolal: We wanted to imitate chopping wood in a fashion that players will feel satisfied and will understand with ease. Thus, we decided on making the player hit a detection pad with their trusty axe. We wanted our detection pad to fit the theme of our game, so we made the stump around it. This served as an extremely clever way to implement our actions onto a controller.
Yang: We initially came up with ideas that had alternate controllers as the main focus. The wood-chopping came pretty naturally and it was a pretty simple action for people to do that required little to no thinking—just chop.
Strakhov: Our controller is like a mini version of the real thing; essentially, the controller’s concept was half-made for us. Wood splitting is an activity that requires its own area with an axe, wood to chop, and a stump to chop it on. We recreated this area into a compact and comfortable-to-use controller.
Ramos: When we made the stump, the base, and the axe controller, we thought a lot about how to make more actions than just the chopping to diversify the action and give the player choice. Some ideas included chopping the sides or pulling a lever shaped like a twig on the side. Eventually, we decided on the pedal as the player would be able to separate the functions of their arms and legs a lot easier—the foot could stay on the pedal meaning the player could react properly without getting too limited by physical movements.
What thoughts went into the design of the gameplay that appears on the screen? Into chopping wood while sometimes having a raccoon make things difficult?
Yang: Our team’s initial idea was to create a wood-chopping rhythm game, so most of our design choices were based on that idea. However, after spending some time figuring out timing the actions and the controller going through many stages of designs, we decided to change directions and go for an endless chopping game. This was because we just didn’t have enough time or resources to create a rhythm game in four days, which was a bit unfortunate, but our team loves it all the same.
The raccoon, Borf, is featured in gameplay to add a bit of mischief in the gameplay and to add some dimension to the player’s actions. We wanted to toss some ways to throw the player off and to really draw them into the game by chopping logs and trashing Borf.
Strakhov: We wanted variety in the objects that the player would be able to interact with. A game where you chop wood before time runs out is fine and dandy, but our team wanted to add some spice. Borf is like an antagonist force in our game; he just wants to mess with you! Obviously, you don’t want to swing at him, so you need a different solution. Switching between swinging the axe and pushing the pedal requires players to assess the objects on screen and complete the correct actions to gain points.
Baboolal: Our raccoon was something to give the game more depth and keep the player on their toes. Instead of constantly chopping in certain combinations, we would also have a mix of trash items that appeared. It turned out that we could implement different combos in order to progress. It gave our game a bit more complexity that gave us that attribute of “Easy to learn, hard to master”.
The raccoon can also add further challenges to the game with different actions. What design ideas went into these? Why give your raccoon many ways to mess with the player?
Baboolal: Borf the Raccoon was designed for our pedal in order to create a trash function. We wanted something to serve as an obstacle in our game. Further designs actually have Borf appear in different ways in which the player must do a different combination of actions. Our game is also very lighthearted and comedic, so having Borf serve as a nuisance to the lumberjack added a whole new aspect of the game by itself.
Yang: In the early stages we just had the chopping motion, but that became too easy and boring for the player to do for an extended amount of time. So, we added the trashing option to add variation to the actions and gameplay. Now, because of those two motions, we have six different ways the player can interact with the controller using combinations instead of just two different interactions. We wanted to keep the players on their toes by adding different variations of logs and Borfs so players didn’t get bored while playing.
Strakhov: A: No matter what the raccoon tries, the player can only get rid of him by flinging him away with the pedal. This means that the player knows that you can’t hit raccoons, but you can hit logs. Every time they see Borf the raccoon, they know the final action they have to do is to fling him off the stump; they’re familiar with him by that point! Also, we decided to have our game be comedic, meaning that the raccoon comes up with silly, elaborate schemes partially to get a laugh from the player.
Ramos: The raccoon "messing" with the player was never made to trick the player, which wouldn’t be fun. These different states of raccoon make the player really think about their actions and adds a lot more difficulty as the player progresses through the game and time speeds up. It makes for a satisfying flow state.
Chopping can be an aggressive, taxing motion. What thoughts went into designing the controller so it could take a hit, but also so it wouldn’t exhaust the player?
Baboolal: The controller is designed with the thought of our other players with different capabilities. This is not a test on strength, but rather being able to identify and react with quick reflexes within our game. Our axe swing was meant to track even the softest swing inputs so it's more accessible to all players.
In addition, our controller is extremely durable to take the hardest hits as well since it's made out of wood now instead of cardboard. Our pedal had the same treatment and precautions in mind. Our controllers were meant to be extremely durable while taking soft inputs into consideration.
Yang: Our axe is just a simple plastic axe that doesn’t weigh much. This is mostly so that the player doesn’t have to use much strength or momentum to hit the controller to detect collision, but it’s also for the actual controller itself. Cardboard can’t really take much and isn’t super conductive for the Makey Makey, so we needed a way to keep the controller steady and durable. I came up with an idea to crochet a square for padding and weave in some strips of tinfoil so that the tinfoil on the axe (to connect the Makey Makey circuit) wouldn’t tear after extended use.
During playtesting, someone mentioned that steel wool would work as well and we later decided to use that for the top of our stump to provide both padding and conduction for the Makey Makey. We also wanted to protect the wires, so I took my crochet hook out again and crocheted some leaves to protect the wires but also hide them and blend them with the rest of the controller.
Strakhov: At first, we believed that we should implement force detection, tracking how hard the player swung the axe. However, because the early version of our controller was primarily made out of cardboard, we didn’t want players to end up smashing it. Even if our controller is now wooden and stronger, we aren’t testing the player’s strength. Stump’d! is a game about quick reflexes, and the harder you chop, the slower you are and the faster you tire yourself out. In the current design, the controller still makes a very nice thunk sound when you hit it just right. It's very satisfying to use while playing!
Has building a game around a unique controller taught you anything unexpected about game design?
Baboolal: I have learned a tremendous amount while working on this game. A great game can come from simplistic designs since our game has very easy mechanics to learn, yet it is difficult to master. It has also taught me many things that deal with considering the player's actions and also many accessibility design. Overall, it changed my point of view on how to design certain aspects of a game, which are very important skills moving forward.
Yang: I definitely learned a lot during this experience. This project has really helped me to consider a lot more about accessibility for gameplay and has made it one of the top priorities I look at when designing other games as well. Before this, accessibility wasn’t the number one priority when designing for players, but my experience with this has absolutely changed the way I look at other designs and how I design for things. Another part of this experience also taught me a lot about durability for physical controllers, how they would be used by different types of players, and how those actions can affect gameplay and provide immersive experiences. It was a really exciting opportunity and I would love to work on more alternate controller projects in the future.
Strakhov: One thing that I learned that also made me feel good about the project is that simplicity is perfectly fine; oftentimes it’s great! In Stump’d!, the player is just alternating between hitting and stepping—both easy mechanics to implement—but true mastery of the mechanics lies in the mind of the player and their quick thinking. Also, you can put extra effort into the details of another aspect of your design; the visual look of our controller drew players to our table at the game jam showcase, which then led them to play our game!
Ramos: Designing the game with the unique controller was not anything too different from a programming perspective, as the inputs were still inputs. Designing the game around this controller made us think about physical limitations such as how fast someone could actually complete actions when they need to move their entire arm for it. This game has also taught me a lot about the design process and iteration, because making this new controller means no one has tested it before. This meant we had to design a lot of things without any prior information, making us think about things that would be automatic for other designers.