Alt.Ctrl.GDC Showcase: Objects in Space

"It’s a bit like we’ve built a mock-up of the consoles from a real space capsule, but instead of mimicking a real one, we built it based on a fake retro sci-fi aesthetic of our own design."

The 2017 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.

Objects in Space is a game of galactic trade, one where players will need to pilot a rickety ship past pirates, criminals, and shady government officials as they make enough deals to keep their ship going. That ship may take some getting used to, as it uses real switches and controls to immerse the player in starship travel.

Objects in Space looks to give the player a pleasant tactile sense of hitting buttons and switches, drawing inspiration from submarines and naval vessels to give the player a sense of navigating, rather than directly steering. It can be played with keyboard and mouse, but like Steel Battalion, the complex controls make Objects in Space feel truly special.  

Developers Elissa Harris, Leigh Harris, and Jennifer Scheurle all have years of coding and game design experience, but it was their love of old sci-fi starships and space travel that drew them to make a game about it, wanting to channel that sense of complexity that is often lacking in games of galactic travel.

Gamasutra spoke with Elissa Harris and Jennifer Scheurle, looking to learn more about the modular ship they'd created for players to pilot, and how they made players move from keyboard and mouse to a feeling of really piloting a starship (which you can take out for yourself at the ALT.CTRL.GDC exhibit).

What are your names, and what were your roles on this project?

Harris: My name is Elissa Harris. I coded Objects in Space, including the controller interface code, did the Arduino C code, designed the Arduino-based circuits inside the consoles, and most of the soldering work on them.

Scheurle: My name is Jennifer Scheurle, and my main role in the project was doing concept art for space station interiors, characters and space ships. On the unique controller setup, my role was to help design and realize the physical layout, putting together the plan and interaction as well as building, painting and putting together the pieces.

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

Harris: It’s a bit like we’ve built a mock-up of the consoles from a real space capsule, but instead of mimicking a real one, we built it based on a fake retro-sci-fi aesthetic of our own design. You control the game using these panels almost exclusively, enhancing the feeling that you’re controlling a “real” space vessel.

Scheurle: It almost entirely frees you from using the usual setup for the game (it can be played normally with a mouse and keyboard), and allows you to check your system status, navigate the ship itself, and engage in combat. Our setup is based on arduinos, and our vision was to create a model to showcase what we ultimately would like for players to build themselves. We built the layout to be modular, so technically anybody who wants to get into this can pick any layout - big or small - they want and add it to their own game experience.

What's your background in making games?

Harris: I toyed with making games as a kid with my brother, both board and video, and five years ago, after a career writing database & application programs, I began to design & code games. This time, it became a career for both of us, and Objects in Space will be our fifth released title.

Scheurle: I'm a game designer with about 6 years of experience. I have studied game design back in Germany, and I now live my passion for making strange and quirky indie games. I have worked on over 10 released titles in different capacities to date, currently also spending some time teaching game design to upcoming talent at the Sydney campus of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment.

What development tools did you use to build Objects in Space?

Harris: In term of coding tools, Objects in Space is made primarily in C++ using Xcode on Macs, with various game content editing tools build as Swift macOS apps.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Scheurle: The current setup is a little different from our earlier prototypes, mainly because it had to be ready to travel overseas (we've shown the setup at PAX East and PAX West, but we're based in Sydney). Given that it had to be sturdy enough to survive long journeys, we decided to use wood for it (to make it super durable) instead of plastic (more suitable for players wanting to make a home setup).

Technically we could've made the whole thing one giant box, but we wanted to build modular pieces in case something broke or one of the five pieces got confiscated by an overzealous airport security guard for resembling a bomb (seriously). Border control is usually only semi-happy with seeing what we carry with us, so we wanted to make sure we could at least run parts of the setup if something went wrong along the way.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Harris: It began as a prototype done over Christmas in 2013, and had been worked on here and there in the background since then. It became a full-time project in January 2015 when we decided it was a project we wanted to really pursue and complete.

How did you come up with the concept?

Harris: It began as a merger of a vague concept that my brother Leigh and I developed. The mechanics of the Project, in a very broad sense, had percolated in my mind since I was a teenager, and the way in which the story and world would be crafted & presented to the player was something Leigh and I had discussed as a potential way to do an open-world project for some time. The two ideas meshed pretty well, and became Objects in Space.

What drew you to the idea of navigation over piloting? Why give players that different kind of control?

Harris: Two things were a factor here - firstly, my love of open-world space games during my youth, and yet lack of skill to play them well given the dexterity-based requirements most of them had. Secondly, feeling that most of the sci-fi stories and media I enjoyed which weren't video games showed ships as having more in common with naval ships than planes. I wanted a game that replicated that experience, and few seemed to.

How do you create a 'realistic' feel to controlling a starship? How did you design your navigational controls?

Scheurle: I think the most important aspect to the current feel of the setup is that we iterated on it after we cobbled together a first one within just two weeks to show at PAX Australia 2015. Elissa had tested the functionality in a shoe box at first. The second attempt for PAX Aus was just 3 boxes of MDF plates and lots of nails and glue. But we'd found what I think is the most compelling part of the controllers: physically satisfying buttons and switches.

We spent a lot of time sitting on the floors of electronic stores touching as many buttons and switches as we could, looking for those which were the most satisfying and interesting to flick, press and toggle. We have mostly stayed with our choice of buttons even after the second iteration - especially the large, red safety-latch switch for firing a missile, which always makes players giggle with excitement.

Harris: Aesthetically, we spent a lot of time looking at the console layouts of 1960s-1980s vintage NASA and Soviet space craft, and tried as best we could to replicate the tactile feel of that, combining it with a low-res retro look for the in-game computer monitors, which I think worked really well.

Scheurle: When I designed the layout for the second iteration of the controllers, what was important to me was mimicking the feeling of a cockpit. I envisioned at the time that the player would feel confident enough, after an initial learning phase, to let go of the regular mouse and keyboard setup and fly the ship with their hands on the side panels, which allow you to steer manually by spinning the ship around and firing thrusters. This is the reason why the setup has an arched form - for ease of two- handed control.

We wanted the controllers to allow for visual and tactical feedback beyond only the pressing of buttons, so the middle panel has a sound system and sub-woofer built into it that will make the panels shake when firing thrusters. Apart from that, we added small details to really help bring it to life: a little fan behind a grill that turns on and off with the reactor, a big red 'Potential Collision Event' alarm light and more.

Everything you see on the controllers is also shown in the game itself, and you are able to play entirely without it. The setup is just pretty damn fun.

What do you feel the complexities of the controls add to the experience of controlling a starship? What about these complex inputs makes the experience feel more immersive to the player?

Scheurle: Something we felt was important to the setup was for it to be intuitive once you understand the general rules of the game's universe. The game itself, as well as the setup, look fairly intimidating, so I wanted to make sure we provided a layout and design for the controllers that was simple enough to pick up quickly and added depth at the same pace as you learned more about flying your ship and monitoring the systems in the game itself. In our demo, for example, we don't use all the systems that the physical setup provides.

We have seen kids as young as 9 get to grips with the controllers, showing how wonderfully intuitive it is. We've found that people pick up the controls and systems of the setup incredibly quickly, even without experience within the game itself. I believe that is due to the design of the setup itself, but also part of the nature of Objects in Space as a game, which is based on pressing buttons and managing systems on- screen anyways, even if you don't have the physical setup. So, the translation into real buttons and switches feels native to how people play the game, except that we add real blinking lights and the satisfying feeling of pressing an actual button.

How difficult was it to create a game where players could create their own bridges at home? How did you make the game open to players creating their own inputs?

Harris: Fortunately, while this may have been difficult in years past, there are so many brilliantly-made micro-controllers available off-the-shelf in electronics stores these days that have good communities around them, that by the time we became aware of them, I realized it was actually well within my skill level to handle.

It began as a side-project, and I realized I could do it when a friend introduced me to Arduinos. I was delighted that it was fairly easy, and by the time I had a basic shoe-box console working as a prototype, Leigh and I began to discuss it as a sort of 'for the hardcore fans' feature. We'd always intended to announce the feature closer to release, but then, just before PAX Australia, we realized its potential as something we could spend time on to show off the full possibilities of the game in a game-expo environment. When we realized how much of an edge it would give the game on a show floor, we had a meeting with Jenny and got to work.

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

Scheurle: I, personally, would love to see people tinker with their own setups more and more as technologies like arduino and raspberry pi become more accessible. But, I generally feel like discussions and design around input methods will become more interesting in the future, especially with VR and AR becoming more and more popular. I believe classic setups will always have a space in the gaming community in one way or another, but these technologies will bleed into how we engage with games, and especially with more experimental and flexible setups, such as the Nintendo Switch, being a major console tend to shake up how we view interaction.

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