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.
Peripherals and toys that interact with games are extremely popular lately. Skylanders, Disney Infinity, and Amiibo have all done quite well, mingling collectability with gameplay enhancement. Still, they do not offer much in the way of having the player physically interact in the game.
Terence Tolman of Pretty Fox Games saw an opportunity here, one born of an argument with his brother. He, along with programmer John Ceceri III, came up with Slap Friends!, a game of conflict resolution through silly character slap fights, all played out using cute, funny hats that connect to the player's hands.
Selected as entrants for GDC's Alt Ctrl GDC exhibit (North hall - Booth N2624), a showcase of unique, innovative controllers, Tolman and Ceceri are eager to talk about Slap Friends!'s design, inspirations, and why it feels good to put on a silly hat and hit your buddies.
What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?
Tolman: My name is Terence Tolman I’m the director, lead game designer, artist, and silly hat maker on Slap Friends! My super cool programmer is John Ceceri III.
How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?
Tolman: It’s an adorable avatar hat that players use to control a matching in-game character via Bluetooth.
What's your background in making games?
Tolman: I’m primarily a 2D artist and have been making games for a few years now. Last year I did some work as an environment concept artist on Tale of Tales’ last title Sunset. I am currently working as an art director with USC Masters student Elaine Gomez on her thesis game “The Sound of Separation.”
I also helped develop a table top party card game called Doodle Fail that was recently presented at Boston FIG. In 2015 I was an after school teacher at the Girls Inc. organization where I taught 3rd-5th grade girls how to make games!
I’ve also worked as an artist with Laila Shabir and her Girls Make Games organization. On top of all that I help organize a free and inclusive game development space founded by Jamey Stevenson in upstate NY called the Tech Valley Game Space. The space is actually how John and I met and where we did the majority of the development on Slap Friends! (including the sewing)! It’s a pretty cool spot and you can make games with us from anywhere in the world!
My programmer John is a talented engineer and RIT Game Development bachelors graduate who has worked on a bunch of cool student projects and soon will also be working on “The Sound of Separation” with us this year.
What development tools did you use to build Slap Friends!?
Tolman: I used Photoshop and a Singer sewing machine! I’m not an engineer so I’ll let John answer the rest.
Ceceri: Most people are surprised to find out that that our 2D game was developed in Unity 3D using an orthographic camera. Terence wanted a very specific continuous and uniform look for the wiggly arms. Unity 2D physics are less robust than the 3D tools and 2D was proving to be very unwieldy (and not in the way we intended!) so we came up with the clever idea to “cheat” the 2D look in 3D.
What physical materials did you use to make it?
Tolman: I used comfy fleece from the fabric store! We had some help with the hardware from our friend Keith Morgato (who is also an awesome game dev!) It’s actually all off-the-shelf stuff as far as tech - it’s just a circuit board with power and a Bluetooth accelerometer.
"Lightweight accelerometers turn our custom fashionable hat characters into functional game-controlling puppets!"
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Ceceri: We've both spent around five to six months working on it. The game itself came together fairly quickly, but getting it to feel and look how we want is something we're putting a lot of hard work into.
Tolman: Yeah, it’s more difficult than you think to make something feel silly! I really wanted to hit that sweet spot between giving the player a certain amount of control without it becoming too predictable. John did a great job working with me and fine tuning it until we got it just right!
How did you come up with the concept?
Tolman: About 6 months ago I was trying to get my younger brother into game development and so we decided to work on a small game together and while we were having a minor design disagreement
(or sibling squabble) we found ourselves in an ACTUAL slap fight. And then it hit me! (pun intended)
I had the idea to make a “dispute resolution simulator”.
I immediately recalled some really great games that I admire like Push Me Pull You and Realistic Kissing Simulator. I thought how awesome it would be to combine that weird and silly bendy look with controls found in games like Gang Beasts and QWOP. I went directly to the game space to pitch the idea, John volunteered to code, and that was that!
Why make a wearable controller? Why make that controller cute?
Tolman: The “wearable character controller” or “Wear-A-Buddy” is my proof of concept for a whole new market similar to what we’ve seen in games like SkyLanders, Lego Dimensions, Disney Infinity, and Amiibo.
These peripherals are fun to collect and all add something to the game, but you don’t physically control anything during actual gameplay, nor do you have a chance to really show off your fandom to the world outside of that context. A wearable avatar that you can take anywhere and actually use during gameplay seemed like a logical extension, and this style of hat is already popular among fans of gaming and pop culture.
I would love to see my idea picked up and licensed by all kinds of popular intellectual properties and expanded beyond a simple slapping game.
As far as why I made them cute, this was done simply to match the cartoony art style also its really hard to make something plushy and have it NOT turn out cute. Besides, everyone likes cute things!
What is it about your wearable controller that makes the play feel special? Why move away from conventional controllers?
Tolman: Everyone feels special when they wear a fancy hat! It's like putting on ceremonial garb! It’s a very ritualistic experience where you are a spectacle and you are literally IN the game. Plus, its physical, and anything that gets your blood moving is a very different, very memorable experience. It’s the same reason VR or those full car seat racing controllers feel special.
Why move away from conventional controllers?
Tolman: The game is actually still very fun with traditional analog sticks, but in our case, I’ve always wanted to be a part of things like Alt Crtl GDC and the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. That’s where I tend to see the most fun innovative stuff so that’s why I focused on an alternative control system.
Do you think a unique controller brings something more to a game?
Ceceri: I think it helps people connect with it on a deeper level. If you make a controller for your game that is attuned to how it plays, people are going to feel that and get more invested as they play.
Tolman: We are from upstate New York. It gets cold here. You can wear your controller to stay warm.
How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?
Tolman: It will be mandatory for everyone to have one of our hats. Also the futurist in me predicts there will be a great emphasis on touchless and holographic or AR interfaces like those in popular science fiction. Google is already developing a micro-sonar interface that has super fine control. Lastly, the next generation of smart phones better have Leap Motion and/or Kinect-style tech already built in. I think it’s a pretty obvious innovation with a ton of potential for practical and playful applications.
Ceceri: I think we're going to see controllers start to borrow a lot more from smartphones and the like. The PlayStation 4 controller already has motion capability, and the Wii U gamepad shares a lot with how mobile games play. People seem to like moving and swiping more that button-mashing.
Go here to read more interviews with developers who will be showcasing their unique controllers at Alt.CTRL.GDC.