Alt.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Baumgarten & Autio's Rotator

"Our controller is three big motorized steering wheels. The idea is to experiment with different ways the wheels can work -- maintain constant motion, reverse directions, wind up a spring, and so on."

The 2016 Game Developer's 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.

Rotator is like a DJ's dream come true. This game controller is a multi-tiered set of discs that vaguely resemble record turntables. Each disc is connected to a motor that makes it spin and provides directional feedback. The games creators have created a series of bespoke minigames for the unique controller--use it to crack the combination on a safe, or control the movements of a spaceship.

The game has been selected to be part of the Alt.CTRL.GDC showcase at GDC. Gamasutra talked to developers Petri Autio and Robin Baumgarten about their creation.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

Petri: I did co-design, co-engineering, game development. 
Robin: I worked mostly on the hardware side -- motors, encoders, and wiring up the Arduino to Unity.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

Petri: It's like a Russian nesting doll except with three big motorized steering wheels in a winning combination of German engineering and Finnish WTF.

What's your background in making games?

Petri: I've been making small gamelings in my spare time to scratch my heterodox itches since 2013, including the Radio Box Controller which was at Alt.Ctrl.GDC 2015, again in collaboration with Robin. I code, make visuals, make music and write. 
Robin: I've started at University, making an AI bot for Introversion's Defcon, then made mobile games for a while until I became interested in alternative controllers, of which I made a few now, all of which have been at the previous ALT.CTRL.GDCs. Most popular so far is probably Line Wobbler, which won the IndieCade Award for Game Design and the AMAZE Berlin WTF!? awards last year. It'll be showing at Day of the Devs at GDC this year, too!

What development tools did you use to build Rotator's accompanying games?

Robin: The games are made in Unity, which is connected via a cool serial communication script from Alan Zucconi to the Arduino, which handles the hardware sensor side.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Petri: One big sheet MDF laser cut for the chassis (the London Hackspace 3d printer was out of order leaving our more alien models on the drawing board), a bunch of acrylic for custom gears and of course Lego wheels for bearings! An Arduino microcontroller (Teensy 3.2) for the motors and rotary encoders. 

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Petri: Perhaps 50-70 hours on the controller and another 50-100 hours on the minigames.

How did you come up with the concept?

Petri: We went to a car boot sale in November to pick up bits and bobs for inspiration as the year before it had yielded a radio box to retrofit. With backpacks stuffed with conductivity meters, otorhinolaryngological equipment, a plastic wolverine claw, a whisk and some random items we sought shelter from the chill in a pub and brainstormed over some pints only to reject all our treasures. 
We both wanted to create a multi-purpose controller and the ideas we were coming up would have made very specialized controllers. Robin had been speaking about a safe-cracking game and I'd been struck by a stack of pots and pans at the car boot sale with the handles jutting out in all directions, so I proffered the thought of concentric wheels. We developed this a bit and figured it would hopefully fit many different types of games and allow us to include force feedback, so we started building the controller from scratch. Plus, a three-wheeled controller for beings with only two hands has got to be fun, right?

Can you describe the mini-games you've created for this controller?

Petri: We wanted to try a broad variety of games to test the versatility of the controller, so we've got about half a dozen of minigames we're working on for GDC. Prominently there's a digestive cycle where you co-operatively navigate a three-engined ship through the ether to a neon space worm, swapping over to control the worm's mouth to devour incoming ships. These lucky swallowees in turn explore a dark esophagus which leads to a bunch of glowing guts where you must squeeze en masse with your fellow ships through the wormhole only to be launched into space again. At the recent SplashJam we made Qwoptopus, which plays rather exactly as it sounds. And then there's even a turn-based strategy game to test your wits called Milk Blossom...
The idea is to experiment with different ways the wheels can work, either needing to orient the wheels jointly or for different purposes, or to maintain constant motion, reverse directions, wind up a spring and so on.

What other game types would you like to explore in the future?

Petri: Things that spin while they spin while they spin, so perhaps a government simulator or something to do with the algorithmic trading of derivatives or other such froth of our financial markets. Otherwise there are a bunch of more arcade-like multiplayer game ideas it would be great to try out. 
Robin: The current prototype is a bit fragile, so it won't really support aggressive force feedback, which I'd really love to do. On all modern game controllers, the feedback has been relegated to wimpy vibrations, I want to go the opposite direction, ideally something that can overpower human strength. But I fear I'll have to speak with health & safety first before I publicly exhibit those. And I probably shouldn't make the AI in these too smart ...

What have you learned from observing how players interact with your controller?

Petri: The controller ended up being quite big and physical (at 40cm by 40cm), so it's been interesting to see people's reactions so far. The temptation to yank big wheels is understandably substantial but the hardware is only meant for moderate wear, so we've worked to take that into account in our game designs incentives gentler and more gradual motion over hectic tugging. People have commented on the potential of such a tactile yet button-free controller to address issues of accessibility as well, something which would be interesting to work on.  

How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?

Petri: In the next five years we'll see new interfaces continuing to emerge from VR and AR, as well as more personalized standard controllers and objects from local fabrication machines. Given the great people working on alternative controllers, I think there'll also be a vibrant niche of DIY controllers which can counterbalance any runaway Virtualization.
Robin: I agree, VR does provide an interesting playground for custom controllers. I've already seen that VR can amplify any tactile and physical feedback we receive, for example in a VR-in-an-actual-elevator demo by Henning Steinbock, where you'd move in VR when the elevator would move, but 10 times faster. This should be explored with more senses and custom controllers and pushed to the extreme!
Petri: In ten years there'll be commercial mind-to-machine interfaces. Given the success of the control-a-person FPS video last year, I won't be surprised if we also find people submitting themselves as temporary voluntary mind-controllees for games. Maybe the first person breaking their arm by smacking a wall through another's thought-command will be happy to discover an old-fashioned, gentle spinning electrical machine to toy with...
Go here to read more interviews with developers who will be showcasing their unique controllers at Alt.CTRL.GDC.


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