The 2019 Game Developers 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.
KOO-KOO tasks players with guiding a group of birds through tuning hands and pulling weights on three cuckoo clocks. Through having to manage the mechanisms of all three, players have to juggle several inputs to keep the birds on track.
Nikita Westdorp of The Overtimers!, developers of Koo-Koo, sat down with Gamasutra to talk about what drew them to create a controller out of a cuckoo clock, the challenges that come with turning clock mechanisms into inputs, and their work exploring inputs that just "feel good."
The clock makers
My name is Nikita Westdorp, and I’m talking on behalf of The Overtimers! Our team consists of 5 members: Jasper Oprel, Loes Banken, Can Ur, Miles Cascas Pescador, and Nikita Westdorp (of course). Oprel and Westdorp focused on the design of both the game itself and building the physical controller, Banken and Pescador were responsible for the art, and Ur was responsible for our audio while handling the programming with Oprel.
We’re all second year Games & Interaction students at the HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. Most of us don’t have any other experience with making games apart from the one and a half years we spent at this school. Except for Ur, who has been experimenting with lots of different game platforms and systems since his childhood.
Guiding birds with a clock
In KOO-KOO, you control a flock of mechanical birds with the mechanism of a cuckoo clock. The birds all move with their own tempo, which encourages the player to jump from clock to clock to give new commands. The interaction contains visceral pulling on weights and finely setting the hands of the clock. The gears inside the mechanism resist pulling and rattle along with the movement of the birds. All in all, this creates a frantic multiplayer game where you are never really in control.
On the tools used to create KOO-KOO
Unity and Arduino. A lot of the gears were generated with OpenSCAD.
All of the clock components are laser cut. We mostly had access to MDF, which is what gave birth to a maker aesthetic that we continued in the game art. To collect the inputs, we use and IR laser module and a rotary encoder hooked up to arduino.
Creating a game from interactions that "feel good"
We started working on the project very shortly before the submission deadline, and our design process was almost game-jam-like. We started by brainstorming about interactions that just “felt good”, like squeezing a stress ball. We worked out three different prototypes in a couple of days, and presented our results to whoever would listen.
One of these was KOO-KOO, born from one of Oprel's childhood memories of an old cuckoo clock that would hang in his grandmother’s living room. When the clock needed to be wound, he would practically beg his grandmother to let him do it, because it was so satisfying to hear the clock wind up. We got a lot of positive feedback; the pulling interaction was fun and we thought that building the mechanics of a clock would be really interesting!
On creating an input device from a clock
First we tried our hands at existing clocks, but the mechanisms were tiny, finicky, and wouldn’t stand up to a lot of play. We decided on building a simplified clockwork from scratch. At the start, we built an escapement mechanism, which is what controls the pendulum swings in history’s earliest mechanical clocks. Working this out, however, we found out that the teeth of an escapement wheel had to be so thin, they wouldn’t be able to withstand a lot of play.
So, we started to look for an alternative. We came up with the idea to use a ratchet gear in combination with a laser system. This way we could still make use of the original idea to store kinetic energy inside the clock that would be released in ticks. A large gear only spins when the main weight pulls downward, and the laser transforms this rotation to ticks we send to the computer.
Building on a cuckoo's energy
We had this stored kinetic energy that we wanted to turn back into motion on the screen. To keep this interaction from being too one-dimensional, we added the clock’s hand as a way to introduce direction to this force. Now, we can have objects move around on the screen!
We are storing energy, so the player is left with some time to see the object on screen act on the inputs they have given. At this stage, we started introducing more clocks, about three per player. Since cuckoos are associated with this manic energy, we wanted to slightly overload the player with a large amount of inputs.
Drawing unique play from juggling multiple inputs
Even though the player controls the cuckoo birds’ direction and movement time, it is still very hard to have complete control over them. This is mainly because the player has to control three clocks (and thus three birds) at the same time. We have noticed that this overload of inputs can actually give way for a lot of different play styles.
Exploring intuitive interaction & social engagement through playing with clocks
Unique controllers create an opportunity for different types of interactions and social engagement. Making a controller for a single game allows you to work with new physical interactions that are intuitive for your players and surprisingly deep to design for.
We like how KOO-KOO offers a physical experience that really resembles the original mechanism and is highly social in nature. The large amount of clocks makes the number of players really flexible; people can just walk up to the installation and join in.