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.
Dobotone, is a party game console by Videogamo. It comes with four sets of two-button controllers, and is designed to accommodate a wide variety of games. In addition, the base console has a profusion of buttons and knobs that allow players (and observers) to tweak the parameters of the gameplay.
To put it lightly, the Dobotone offers a myriad of interesting design challenges and player experiences.
Videogamo will be presenting several games at Alt.Ctrl.GDC exhibit on their unique device. Hernán Sáez of Videogamo has answered some email questions about the system.
What was your role on this project?
In the software area, I'm a game designer (along with Máximo Balestrini, who also is the programmer and electronic engineer of the project). I also make graphics and sound. In the hardware area, I worked on structural construction and graphic design.
How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?
Dobotone is a 4-player video game console, specially designed for parties, in which each player has only a two-button controller with no joystick, and the possibility of choosing between different built-in party games, selecting playing modes and modifying gameplay by using the console's physical control board's features, such as speed, gravity and glitching, among others.
For this Alt.Ctrl.2016 edition, we're presenting a fully functional prototype made in cardboard.
What's your background in making games?
I started in 2008 as a game designer in an advergaming company. Then in 2010, Maxi and I started Videogamo. We made a couple of small games, and in 2012 we released NAVE Arcade, a one-of-a-kind arcade cabinet/top-down shooter, which we tour like a rock band. The game can only be played on that one cabinet and the scores have been saved since it's release date.
We made three world tournaments so far and we've tour all across Argentina with it, at bars, parties, conventions, museums, parks and the street. Last August we crossed the Andes to Chile, which was our first international trip, and we're planning to travel hopefully all around the world with it. NAVE will also be part of the Outerlands documentary series, with an entire episode focused on it.
What development tools did you use to build Dobotone?
We basically used Unity and the Arduino IDE. Also Photoshop for the graphics and SoundForge and Nuendo for the sound.
What physical materials did you use to make it?
The version of Dobotone we're presenting at this year's Alt.Ctrl.GDC is a prototype which we intended to build as cheaply as possible, so we used hard cardboard for the structure, plastic knobs and buttons for the controls, and we printed vinyl for the surface. Two hidden cell phones simulate the built-in mini screens.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
This version of the console took us about 2 months. As for the games, we started to work on some of them in 2012-2013, in our spare time, and then we stopped for a while. Last year we started again and we're still working on them. We have 6 or 7 games in Alpha right now, which we are presenting at GDC, but we know we'll need at least a minimum of 20 to take full advantage of the console's feature's potential.
How did you come up with the concept?
Back in 2012, one week after the release of NAVE, Maxi started fooling around with some arcade buttons we hadn't used. He came up with the idea of connecting those buttons to the computer and making some games, just for us and our friends, which we could play with two-buttons-only controllers and no joysticks. Then he made some more hardware tests, but we didn't really start working on the games at the time.
Actually, joking, we just came up with a name for this game, system or whatever it was: Dobotone. (It's a made up word that comes from "dos botones", which means "two buttons" in Spanish, and also sounded good in other languages).
A couple of years later, we had the chance of building a whole new arcade cabinet game for an exposition, with external funding, and we said "let's make Dobotone a 4-player arcade cabinet!" But it was too expensive because of the 60'' led screen we wanted to use. So then we said "let's make just a console without the big screen, so you can plug it anywhere!"
The external funding never happened, but the idea stayed. We took all the experience we'd gained with NAVE (touring around parties and stuff) and we thought it'd be great to fully potentiate Dobotone as a system specially designed for parties and the needs that arise from them. A system where the players could easily relate to (even when they're drunk), choose games as fast as they could. There was also the possibility of fooling around with the console itself, by tuning some of the variables.
How has the restriction of two button controls impacted your design and approach for the party games on Dobotone?
The two-button controls are, because we're still in the making, totally impacting on our design for games. Every new game idea carries a new challenge for us.
Narrowing part of the core variables of the design, allows other branches to grow in unexpected ways. And then new problems arise and they are very fun to solve. For example, we're having the possibility to revisit some genres from the two-button controllers' perspective.
At the same time, we decided to establish a radical set of general rules that also helps. The games have to totally relay on intuitiveness, as we want the players to instantly understand what each game is about. There's no time for tutorials. There's no time to realize who is who. Just press the buttons and play.
What hardware is inside the console?
Like I said before, this is a prototype so we don't know exactly what the final components and design will be.
Inside this current version there's a laptop computer, an Arduino board for the console's knobs and buttons, a custom board Maxi built to connect the two-button controllers to the laptop, and two smartphones to simulate the four progress mini-screens.
When we started to imagine the console, we knew we wanted the players to relate to it in a more active way than they do with the modern consoles. We wanted the console to be a very present device instead of trying to hide it, and at the same time, not only help the players understand what's happening on screen, but also use it to modify gameplay, to customize the experience.
That's why we decided to identify each player with a single color that would represent him/her on the hardware and on the screen. Each player also has a personal custom mini-screen with his general score and a personal button that instantly turns that player on and off, without any kind of restriction or waiting time.
And then there's the central console's control board, where you can change many variables to play with, such as speed, gravity, glitching the image, and of course manage sound fx and music volume, without having to get into any in-game menu that could interfere with the desired experience.
We also added two special arrow buttons to navigate through the games without any kind of loading times, and a two-mode selector: freeplay only one game repeatedly or random, which automatically selects one random game after the other. And finally there's a reset button, of course, that takes you to the console's main screen and resets scores.
With all these components we are suggesting the players to kind of "hack" the gameplay. Because everyone has access to that, even people who are not actively using the console, it adds a sense of anarchy to the whole thing. In one sentence, what the console is today is what we needed to properly test the concept at its minimum expression.
How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?
Well, it will really depend on where the mainstream is at that time. In the early days, when arcade video games appeared, the standard was to make custom controllers for each game. Then with computers and consoles, controllers had to support all kind of games at the same time, and games started to be designed for those controllers.
Atari first, then Nintendo set some rules that have evolved and seem to have crystallized in what standard controllers are today (they even survived the Wii fever). But then smartphones appeared, and turned what it was an alternative kind of control (touch screens) into a new mainstream standard.
I don't know what the future will be like, but I know how I'd like it to be: classic controllers coexisting with new alternative hardware. That could turn into a new standard. Let's say, a sum of different standards. Kind of like it is today with PC, consoles and smartphones but with more variety.
Nintendo is nowadays the best example in this area: a big company with lots of resources that continuously experiments, instead of running behind the imposed standards. But I'd like to see not only big companies supporting this, but also small niche developers making their own controllers for their own games, even maybe 3D printed by their followers in their own houses.
I'm totally convinced that there's no better way to play games than with custom controllers.
Go here to read more interviews with developers who will be showcasing their unique controllers at Alt.CTRL.GDC.