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Alan Zucconi's "3 degrees of freedom" custom controller for 0RBITALIS

Italian indie Alan Zucconi says making his unique controller to demo 0RBITALIS was a way to help him stand out from an increasing crowd of games.

alan z.JPGIn part of a close look at the unique devices featured in the first alt.ctrl.GDC exhibit last month, developer Alan Zucconi discusses his "three degrees of freedom" MCMC controller for recently released on Steam 0RBITALIS that accompanied it.

Like the innovation of gameplay that indie games have driven, developers are increasingly going beyond the boundaries of what hardware manufacturers have built, leading to new gameplay experiences. This led to me pitching to GDC organizers to host the first alt.ctrl.GDC exhibit to showcase alternative controllers and device inputs.

The exhibit was a huge success, and I wanted to allow the developers showcased a chance to discuss their creations in more detail. I hope this inspires other developers to not just think outside the box, but go and make their own to play in. The future of games can be not just what we will play but how we will play them, as Alan Zucconi's "three degrees of freedom" MCMC will illustrate.

Can you discuss how you built the controller and share some photos of its iterations?

The core of the controller is a knob attached to a volume slider; technically speaking, a rotary encoder and a linear potentiometer. The external case is made of acrylic perspex which has been laser cut. And of course, as it happens in every home-made hardware project ...meters and meters of sellotape! The circuitry is connected to a microcontroller which communicates to the computer via a USB cable. The fist prototype was built in three hours; the rest of the time was spent (unexpectedly!) designing a proper case.

Prototypes of the controller:

controllers MCMC.jpg

Main boards (left to right, Arduino to Teensy):


Can you discuss why you built the controller?

Making a game is hard; despite this, making a game is easier than has ever been before. It's not surprising that almost everyone attending GDC was working on his or her own game. Getting noticed is thus becoming progressively harder and to get audience attention we need to do something different. I have always been interested in designing innovative experiences and building a custom made controller is the perfect way of doing it. People might have played already a game with a mechanic similar to 0RBITALIS, but they surely never saw something like the MCMC. And when a player experiences something truly new, it's unlikely he or she will forget it.

What are the "three degrees of freedom" in your controller?

The controller allows to rotate, to push-pull and to press a button. Then, it's up to the game to decide how to use and integrate these inputs. Along with 0RBITALIS, I had three other games to showcase how the controller can be used in different situations.

How does it differ from the accelerations and rotations driving controllers do?

Standard driving controllers usually try to replicate the experience of driving a car. With my controller I want players to feel a new experience, not to relate with something they have already experienced. Mechanically, there are indeed similarities with controllers based on steering wheels. During the design of the MCMC, however, I got inspired by the amount of bizarre sci-fi controllers that can be seen in movies such as Pacific Rim or anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Was it just you who built it, and when and where was the first exhibition?

Yes, as it happens for the majority of my projects, I usually for alone. I have been helped a lot by Robin Baumgarten (co-director of the London Game Space) who was exhibiting his own alternative controller at alt.ctrl.GDC. The support of the London Hack Space has also been incredible. I showcased the controller, in all its iterations, to London Indies and their comments and feedbacks have been extremely helpful. After GDC, both 0RBITALIS and the controller have been showcased at Rezzed.

How did it compare showing the MCMC at a consumer event versus a dev event?

Developers deal with unfinished games for the 99% of their time; consumers only plays the finished version. Because of this, showcasing prototypes to developers is often highly rewarding: they can imagine what is missing and very often giving valuable feedback and suggestions. With consumers, this is not always the case. They are generally less prone to try something experimental or unpolished and this is a shame. But in the end, consumers are the one who are going to buy the game, and this means that providing the best experience to them is mandatory, not optional. Last week I showcased 0RBITALIS and the MCMC at EGX Rezzed and despite my concerns, the majority of players responded really well. I'll surely bring the controller to all the game events I can.

Do you think it is important for the industry to highlight these hardware experiments?

A few years ago, before the "Golden Age of Indie Games," only big companies were able to produce games. And as is it well known, AAA titles often lack of originality. Paradoxically, this pushes players to wish for more creative gameplay. As soon as making games became more accessible to developers, thousands of small masterpieces of interactive art were born.

Something similar is now happening for controllers. Building custom made hardware is now becoming incredibly easier, and I do hope this will allow developers to realise all the bizarre, experimental, innovative ways of interacting with games they can imagine. I hear every day people saying that everything has been already invented and this is so untrue: we just have to step out of our confident zone and ...try something new.

What are your thoughts on standard controllers for major current game systems?

I understand that designing controllers is incredibly hard: it's a trade-off between creating a unique experience for every game and building a device that can be used for as many games as possible. I fear a future where every game needs its own, expensive custom made piece of hardware. But at the same time, I appreciate companies such as Valve which is trying to build something slightly different from the usual.

Lastly, where does the name 'MCMC' come from?

There has been a lot of speculation behind the meaning of MCMC. The truth is probably a little bit disappointing, though. I wasn't really keen in finding a name for it, but I was tired of keep writing "my custom made controller", and this is basically where MCMC came from. Since I am showcasing it with 0RBITALIS, I am now more keen in considering the MCMC as an extension of the game, rather then a separate project. I have ideas for other controllers and experimental devices ...and I'll make sure to find a proper name for them this time!

Oh, the controller software does not use Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithms... but I have massively integrated Kalman filtering to reduce jittering and inaccuracies.

Check out the MCMC in action starting at the 3:15 mark, courtesy of Gamer Attitude, filmed at Rezzed.

[If you are making an alternative controller or device, be sure to reach out to sister site IndieGames EIC John Polson. *Top photo provided by Kert Gartner.]

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