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.
GridMaster sees a pair of dancers going head-to-head, taking turns tapping their feet on a dance floor controller to send increasingly complex inputs over to the other player. This gives both players control of how the game flows, allowing them to adjust it to create a unique dance experience that gets sent to their partner.
Game Developer spoke with team member Jonathan Voss about creating a next-gen hopscotch that would draw out players' sense of childish play, what thoughts went into bringing players into the process of creating the dances, and more.
What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?
My name is Jonathan Voss, and I did pretty much everything: designing the experience, building the step pads, programming the microcontroller, coding the game, and making the graphics for GridMaster.
How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?
GridMaster is like a competitive Dance Dance Revolution where you stand on the screen. There is a 10ft long "screen" on the ground with step pads on either end, and the game is projected over it all. One player stands on each side, and as one player dances to make a pattern of tiles, the other player must try to match the pattern, creating an interactive dance competition game.
What's your background in making games?
I actually started off with a final project for an electrical and computer engineering class at the University of Texas at Austin, where I coded a UT-themed version of Frogger from the ground up in C. This project was focused on low-level coding, but it was a fun little project that played into my passion for interactive experiences. From there, I learned Unity while coding an AR application as part of an internship at Dell Technologies, and Unity's ease of use caught my imagination. GridMaster came from a synthesis of this microcontroller experience with a desire to make a game in Unity.
What development tools did you use to build GridMaster?
GridMaster utilized four pieces of software for its creation. Arduino was used to code the microcontroller to take step pad input and feed it to the computer over USB. Unity was used to create the game itself, and I wrote the code in VSCode. Finally, all visual elements were made in Photoshop.
What physical materials did you use to make it?
GridMaster is a bit of an amalgamation, with all sorts of materials used due to its large scale. The step pads are actually the covers of old and damaged hardcover books with copper tape laid across the inside with thick sticky tape separating them. They act as massive buttons which conduct electricity when stepped on. The wires from these buttons are stripped audio cables which run back to the central controller, an ESP32 Dev Module. This microcontroller plugs into a laptop, which then runs cables out to a speaker and a projector, all sitting on a four-foot tall PVC structure. Finally, the step pads are placed under a ten by ten-foot white tarp, which the game is projected onto.
What inspired the creation of GridMaster? What made you want to create a controller specifically for dance showdowns?
GridMaster actually came from a question asked in class by one of my professors, MK Haley: "What would next-generation hopscotch look like?" The idea of tiles moving towards you that you physically dance on was the core concept - trying to capture the childlike fun of large, jumping movements.
After the first concept felt too similar to DDR, I set out to design something more interactive and unique, focused on getting people to just have fun with each other. The combination of these design goals led to my solution: a screen where you stand across from your opponent and make up your own dances. This concept would allow pairs to feel more in control of their gameplay experience and difficulty level while bringing people back to their childhood and helping them make memories with their competitor.
What drew you to have the players be able to create attacking beats to send at one another? Why give the players that much control over the gameplay?
Giving players direct control over their experience serves three purposes. On a surface level, players are able to self-regulate the difficulty with their partner. If two teenagers are playing, for example, they can make it as difficult as possible, jumping all over the buttons. In comparison, a parent could play with their child and create a simple pattern. In this way, every player can have the experience they want to have, and walk away feeling proud of themselves.
My secondary reason was to give players agency. With my history in interactive experiences, the concept of agency, and allowing players to truly make their own choices, is always in the back of my mind. By allowing players to dance their own pattern, they aren't just playing a game, they are using the game as a framework to create their own fun and unleash their imagination. Finally, and most importantly to me, GridMaster is about getting adults to play like children, having fun and making memories with their partner/competitor. Players don't battle the machine; they battle each other in an unfamiliar but intuitive arena, allowing them to tap back into the competitive, playful part of their brain used back at recess in grade school.
In giving players control over the buttons that get pressed in the music, the game feels like it encourages them to explore the music on their own terms. What was the appeal of creating this kind of personal exploration of the music?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's all about having fun. The step pads are large and placed far enough apart that you really do jump around while playing. When you start getting into the beat of the music, you find yourself dancing around and simply vibing. Encouraging players to get into the groove and giving them the places to step encourages everyone, even people who can't dance (like myself), to just let go and have a fun time. That was the key for me- creating a framework on which players can express their own creativity, and play like a child again.
Was this always the plan for GridMaster? Did its design change as you were planning it? If so, how so?
Although GridMaster started as a single-player experience, it shifted to the current design very quickly when I sought to make a more unique and interactive experience. The guiding force for the evolution in design was getting players to play like a child at recess, followed by giving the players agency in their experience. This led to the two-player competitive model, where players would stand across from each other, giving them the ability to look each other in the eye and talk. Additionally, by allowing one player to make the tile pattern the other would be dancing to, GridMaster handed over complete control to the players, giving them free range to play and explore.
With players stepping on your controller, what thoughts went into making sure the step buttons were durable? That they would not slip while people were using them?
Finding a material that was durable enough to not warp during gameplay but also cheap enough to fit my college budget (free) was a challenge. Not wanting to buy acrylic sheets, I decided to use the most durable and readily available material I had: old hardcover books. The university disposes of lots of books which are freely available, so I tried to pick the most damaged or obsolete volumes for destruction. (My apologies to those offended by this, but I hope my de-covering of the 1970's particle physics symposium transcriptions can be forgiven).
To actually detect the steps, my initial solution was to use piezos, the little devices used in Halloween step pad triggers, to read user steps. These little discs caused no shortage of issues as they send voltage spikes when the applied pressure changes, and reading these can be unreliable or even damaging to the microcontroller. After utilizing my electrical engineering coursework more than I had expected, I pivoted towards a simpler design which would prove much better: buttons. I had tried to avoid creating large buttons for a fear that the book covers would deform and break the button mechanism, but applying copper tape to the inside faces and separating them with foam sticky tape proved both responsive and robust. With the buttons designed, we set up the projector so we could see the game on the floor. We then taped the buttons to the floor, under their projected counterpart, and laid a white tarp over the whole play area. This tarp served to make the projection more visible, hide the step pads, and provide a non-slippery player surface.
What thoughts went into getting the visuals and feel just right? What ideas went into a look that felt right for a dance battle?
The visual and musical inspiration for the project were actually decided by its original purpose: GridMaster was made for a Synthwave-themed student showcase for the Arts and Entertainment Technologies school at UT Austin. Thus, the Synthwave movement was baked into the game's design from the beginning. All songs and visuals, from the tiles to the grid that the game is both played on and named for, are taken from classic Synthwave imagery. I made all the graphics myself in Photoshop, which gave me the freedom to dial in on a neon pink to neon blue gradient for everything. Finally, with gameplay based around tempo, the black background of the game pulses white on the beats to give players a visual queue to correlate with the audio they hear.
You also designed some accessibility tools for GridMaster. How did you come up with these tools?
GridMaster was designed as an evolution of hopscotch, which in turn is very physically demanding. While fun, this is extremely inaccessible for a number of different reasons. With my passion for themed entertainment experience design, however, accessibility of experiences is very important to me, so I designed two alternative control methods to try to make GridMaster as accessible as possible.
The first tool is a pair of poles with tennis balls mounted to the end. These allow users to use their arms while still capturing the grandiose scale of movement, opening gameplay to users who are either unable to or do not wish to jump around for the duration of the song. This is still physically demanding, however, so I also created a pair of controllers which can be played with just one hand. The controllers have a row of four large buttons, imitating the four-step pads, and open up GridMaster to an even wider audience by significantly lowering the physical demands of gameplay. Both of these tools were, at the end of the day, designed to allow as many people as possible to play and make memories with those they love.
Has building a game around a unique controller taught you anything unexpected about game design?
Working on GridMaster has really opened my eyes to how physicality can bring a new dimension to both immersion and fun in games. By projecting the tiles directly onto the step pads, and having users jump directly on those tiles, I sought to design a game people would forget they were playing. In this way, GridMaster was a personal test to bridge the gap from video game to interactive themed experience, and its success has encouraged me to keep exploring the twilight between the two. The world of alternative controllers, or more accurately in my case, of alternative presentation, is a world of endless possibility, and I would implore anyone with even a wisp of interest to dive in and explore.