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Alt.Ctrl.GDC Showcase: Jerrytron's Please Stand By

Game designers Jerry Belich and Victor Thompson have used a classic 1951 Capehart TV to house their touchy-feely�game�_Please Stand By_. Here, they explain to Gamasutra precisely how -- and why.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

March 11, 2016

6 Min Read

The 2016 Game Developers Conference will feature an exhibition called alt.ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase. You can find all of the interviews here.

If you've never had the chance to reach out and crank the knobs on a '50s-era television set, you've missed out on something special -- but you're also in luck, because game designers Jerry Belich and Victor Thompson have used a classic 1951 Capehart TV to house their touchy-feely game Please Stand By.

The game is coming to GDC in San Francisco next week as part of the Alt.Ctrl.GDC showcase of games designed around offbeat controllers, because Belich and Thompson have managed to design an interactive story that demands Please Stand By players flip knobs, fiddle with antennae and thump (gently!) on the old TV.

Here, Thompson and Belich share their inspirations for the project, their production process, and what value they find in making games that revolve around very physical activities in a conversation conducted via email with Gamasutra.

Who are you, how did you get here, and what was your role on this project?

Jerry: I'm a freelance game designer and storyteller. After starting to burn out on too many solo projects, I was looking for a collaborator for a new hardware based game. Victor and I started chatting, and he seemed to like my nebulous, half-baked ideas so we kept talking, and decided to give this game a shot! My focus was the hardware / engineering side, and story / puzzle design, though that was very much collaborative.

Victor: I am a freelance game programmer. Jerry and I met a few years ago and have occasionally spent time co-working and throwing ideas back and forth. When he pitched this project, we started talking and realized we had finally found something that we can work on together!

How would you describe the controller setup of Please Stand By someone completely unfamiliar with it?

You interact with the controls, and physical form, of a retro, 1951 Capehart Television, trying to make sense of the scenes and programs that are being broadcast to it. 

Thompson on the left, Belich on the right. Vintage Capehart TV in the center.

What's your background in making games, if any?

Victor: I've been making games as a job for a little over 15 years. I spent the first part of that time at a small company called Monster Games Inc, and then moved to Sucker Punch Productions. For the last three years, I've been doing freelance programming and working on side projects.

Jerry: I worked on games for a few years, ten years back, but then focused on software development in various fields for the rest of the decade. At various points on worked on physical installations, and fell in love with very tactile and immersive kinds of play. I went back to games three or four years ago after developing the Choosatron, embracing that developing love of physical experiences, but now in games and toys.

What dev tools did you use to build this game? What physical materials did you use?

Jerry: I went on a hunt for a television to use as the basis for the experience. I found one I loved up north (Minnesota), but the shop owner wasn't willing to sell it. I was a bit crushed, but my wife (who is brilliant), looked around Craigslist and found an even better TV. From the exterior, to the inputs, and even the rabbit ears (which are also wired up), I couldn't have asked for something better.

Inputs are fed into a Teensy development board, which is being used as a HID (Human Interface Device) emulator, so it appears as a gamepad when plugged in.

Victor: Most of my work has been in Unity, writing shaders and gameplay code to simulate broadcast TV. I've also done some work to physically modify the TV cabinet to hold a monitor and be a little sturdy for displaying in a show-floor situation.

How did you come up with the concept?

Victor: Jerry pitched the general idea of working with an analog TV - what type of programming would be available on it, how the viewer would interact with it, and so on - at a coworking session. The group of us riffed on it that day, and then Jerry and I went back and forth over the following couple of weeks.

Jerry:Using old pieces of technology are as much about the ritual as the forms themselves. An old TV isn't just heavy dials and tuning, but awkwardly adjusting the rabbit ears and thwacking the side like the Fonze.

The first step was emulation of the analogue reactions you'd expect, and then we talked about how to subvert those expectations. Elements of US history are brought into the game, representing various political and cultural events, as part of this look to the past.

How long have you spent working on this, all told?

Victor: I hope I'm not underselling us by saying that it's been a relatively low-impact project for me! As of this date, probably less than 150 hours. I also expect to put in a little more than that before we show Please Stand By at GDC.

Jerry: It was a bit more for me up front, finding the TV, shopping for parts, and wiring it all up, but then I was able to take a step back for a bit. Victor is probably pretty close on the hours, though there is definitely more work to do! All told it will be a couple month and change of active work.

How do you think game interfaces and controllers will change over the next 5-10 years? How would you like them to change?

Jerry: It'll be big. Even large toy companies are realizing how important smart physical toys and games are, and the space is opening up a lot due to the lowering bars in electronics, fabrication, and manufacturing.

More people will be creating small to medium runs of work that will be able to pull in enough consumers to exist. Successful experimentation will also heavily influence the future of controllers and peripherals from console and toy makers.

Victor: I think we'll start to see a lot more interfaces/controls that make use of relatively simple embedded tech - see the Kickstarter for Fabulous Beasts for an example - and of course more widespread use of VR. I do like what's happening with VR quite a lot, but I'm hoping it won't drown out all the creativity coming in from other directions.

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