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.
The aptly named Crank Tank was created by three students at The New School. It looks sort of like Combat for the Atari 2600 if you, with a top-down view of two tanks doing battle. But the controller is, to put it mildly, a lot different than the standard one-button joystick that came with the 2600.
Crank Tank is controlled by means of two large hand cranks. There's a four player version in which teams of two must learn to coordinate their movements, and a PVP mode in which players face off with a crank in each hand. Gameplay is fast, frenetic and fun. It's a decent upper body workout to boot.
We talked to Andrew Genualdi, one of the the three developers of the game, about how and why the them rolled their own unique form of game controller.
Who all was involved in making this game? What was your role on this project?
My name is Andrew Genualdi, and I'm one of the co-creators of the project alongside Henry Lam and Jaeseong Yi. My primary role on the project was coding the game in Unity.
How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?
Good question. It usually takes a minute and some hand gestures to explain it properly. The best way I've found to describe it is this: a crank-wheel that drives the onscreen tank (cue cranking gestures).
What's your background in making games?
Before Crank Tank, nothing really. I've dabbled around with a few side projects, but nothing nearly as complete as Crank Tank. Before I came to my current graduate program, I was a research assistant in a neuroscience lab aiming to get my PhD. I got bored with that and decided I wanted to make video games, so I'm really proud to have Crank Tank be the first of many I hope to be a part of.
What development tools did you use to build Crank Tank?
The game itself is built in Unity 5.2 coded with C#. The art assets were done by Jaeseong (who is currently working on a 3D model for a massive future update). An Arduino Leonardo powers the controllers via the Arduino IDE.
What physical materials did you use to make it? How was it assembled?
The controllers themselves are made out of 3/4'' Baltic birch wood and cut with a CNC router. The pieces were cut basically like a puzzle, so the first iteration (what was submitted to GDC) was basically hammered together with brute force after cutting. Our newest and current iteration fits together more easily and is slightly less bulky to allow for easier transport and stability. The controllers are connect to the Arduino via a CAT5 cable which we cut open and resoldered to our input wires, then reattached so it could be plugged/unplugged from the original jack.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
About 40-50 hours.
How did you come up with the concept?
The original concept was pitched by Henry, who wanted to incorporate some type of physical cranking mechanic into an arcade game. We bounced around a few ideas (having it power a flashlight in a horror game, for example), but nothing really stuck. We were challenged by a professor of ours (Bryan Ma) to think of the cranking mechanic in a situation other than what it might be used for (such as charging a generator or reeling in fishing line). Off of that, we came up with the concept to drive a car through an obstacle course using the cranks to control the left & right tires (similar to the mechanic of the old Atari arcade game Firetruck). After a couple more iterations, we eventually landed on having a multiplayer, competitive tank death-match.
How do four-player matches between first time players generally unfold? How does that change as they familiarize themselves with the controls and learn to coordinate?
Oh, it's pretty fun to watch. Surprisingly people seem to get the mechanics fairly quickly despite it being a sort of awkward interface. The matches usually start off with the players driving around in circles or into walls as they figure out how to work together to drive straight and turn in the proper direction. After a few rounds, most players seem to get the hang of it and can actually drive around the map and coordinate with each other fairly well.
How do two-person PvP tend to differ from four-player matches?
Length of time, usually. Driving the tank yourself is significantly easier than trying to coordinate with a teammate. The game was created during a 2-week period, so right now there is a singular game mode that can be played by either 2 or 4 people. In the future, we might add some different things for each mode to make them a little more distinctive.
What has this game taught you (and Henry and Jaesong) about the benefits and drawbacks of a unique controller? What sort of takeaways do you hope that players get from the experience?
I think one of the largest benefits is that you get to give players a more enjoyable and immersive experience when playing your game. Instead of moving around a joystick to drive the tank, players actually have to drive the tank by turning the "treads." One of the biggest drawbacks is that you are often creating something entirely unique and when you run into problems or roadblocks you might not have access to an easy answer. On the flip, when you do accomplish your goal it is that much more satisfying to see your vision come to fruition.
I hope that after experiencing Crank Tank (as well as the other games exhibiting at alt.ctrl), people see that arcade games are much more than a standard cabinet with a joystick and buttons. I also hope that people will get inspired by these projects to start making more games and controllers like these, because they really are an incredible experience to be a part of.
How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?
As far as "mainstream" interfaces/controllers go? Probably not by much. In my opinion, Microsoft pretty much perfected the traditional 'controller' with the 360/X1 controller. The largest change I can see is the full-on integration of VR along with hand-tracking to completely remove the need for any physical controller. For smaller, arcade-based projects I can see things like Leap Motion being used to create experiences that don't require you to physically push any buttons or move any joysticks.
Go here to read more interviews with developers who will be showcasing their unique controllers at Alt.CTRL.GDC.