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Haber Dasher steers alien invaders with a massive co-op hat controller

Haber Dasher is a sensible controller for well-dressed pals, where two players use a giant hat to help an alien blend in on Earth.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 17, 2023

8 Min Read
two people wearing a single colossal hat
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The 2023 Game Developers Conference will once again feature Alt.Ctrl.GDC, an exhibition dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions in new, exciting, and clever ways. Ahead of GDC 2023, Game Developer will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.

Haber Dasher is a sensible controller for well-dressed pals, having two players use a giant hat to help an alien blend in on Earth.

Game Developer spoke with alternative controller creator and gargantuan headgear enthusiast Erin Truesdell about the challenges that come from making a colossal hat into a controller, how they designed a game around two people navigating a world using a hat as a controller, and the effect this controller has on potential players the moment they see it.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

My name is Erin Truesdell, and I’m the developer of Haber Dasher, both the game and the controller. I’d also like to give shoutouts to my doctoral advisor, Dr. Brian Magerko, for supporting this endeavor, and my research assistant, Marianna Madera, for being an absolute rockstar. This project wouldn’t be what it is without them.

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

It’s a really, really big hat. For two people.

Seriously, though, one of the things I really like about this controller is its simplicity. There are no buttons to figure out or complicated combos to learn. Just wearing and tilting a truly enormous hat.

giant hate controller

What's your background in making games?

I’ve been making games since I studied game design as an undergraduate. I’ve since been fascinated with all manner of weird and off-the-wall games, and I’ve continued to work with weird games through my doctoral study. I’m really interested in designing games and controllers that promote collaboration and social play, and Haber Dasher is one of a few projects I’ve worked on to explore this idea. The big emphasis with the hat controller is the fact that players have to work together to move the hat due to its size and the fact that they share it, plus the fact that it’s almost like a costume.

What development tools did you use to build Haber Dasher?

Haber Dasher is built entirely in the Unity engine, and leverages a wifi controller asset that sends information about which way the hat is tilting over a network. Inside the hat is a smartphone which collects and relays that information via an app. The tilt of the hat forward, backwards, and side-to-side moves the player avatar.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Building a hat this large that was also light enough to wear was a really unique and interesting challenge. I had to do a lot of materials testing for everything from the base and construction of the hat to the materials and coatings that cover the outside of the hat.

One of the biggest challenges was just working at this scale. For example, I had to cut the base of the hat on a CNC machine because it was the only tool I had access to that was big enough to fit the foam that forms the brim. The structure of the hat is a chicken wire and foamboard base covered in sculpted spray foam, lightweight spackle, and then painted black. I also created or adapted patterns for and sewed the fabric trimmings and head holes myself. The whole process took about seven months from start to finish.

early hat wearing sketch

What inspired the creation of Haber Dasher? The creation of a game about a big hat that is very funny?

The inspiration just struck me one day while I was contemplating ways to craft controllers for two people to use together. I doodled a couple of stick figures wearing a huge hat and decided I liked the idea. Within a year, I was bringing in people to play the game and getting to share this ludicrous idea with other people. As a designer, one of my favorite things is watching people play my game and laugh at each other and themselves, and getting to do that, both in the lab and now at GDC, is incredibly rewarding.

How did you design the gameplay around this hat? Around making two players work together under this massive headpiece?

One of the great things about the hat controller is that it’s really simple. One of the design challenges for building a game around the hat controller is ALSO that it’s really simple. I only had two tile axes to work with and no other inputs, so everything in the game came from movement being the primary mechanic. I drew a lot of story inspiration from the scene in Men In Black 2 where a "person’s" head pops open and it turns out he’s a tiny alien operating a human mech-suit. The idea of an alien trying to blend in with regular humans and being really awkward about it felt like it fit the humor of the hat and the awkwardness of moving it around.

What ideas went into the appearance of the world itself? What drew you to create a mundane reality that you navigate using a colossally silly hat?

I really liked the idea of the player avatar trying really hard to blend into the “normal” world but not really doing an awesome job of it. The in-game tasks are based on what I think an alien might imagine "normal human business" activities to be: picking up a briefcase, getting coffee, etc. Plus, Zorg is not great at using his human suit, so the players using this huge silly hat can try as hard as they want to look like a Regular Human, but some of that humor comes from being the only businessperson in the city that’s not quite right.

Wearing a giant hat on your head can be a taxing task, even if two people are sharing the burden. What thoughts went into its design to make sure people didn't collapse under its weight, but that it was still awkward enough to be hilarious?

There was a LOT of materials testing involved in the build process, because it’s hard to build something that big that’s still light enough to wear. Every step of the way, I tested the various components of the hat for weight and suitability on a ¼ scale test model. One of the things I learned while building this hat is that Home Depot gives you a discount if you buy more than a dozen cans of spray foam at a time.

Also, one of my new favorite things is lightweight spackle, which is what the coating of the hat is made of. It allowed me to build a good, textured finish for the hat while adding very little weight, and it’s super useful when that’s a big concern. I’ve become a regular at my local hardware store because, during the construction of the hat, I’d be in there two or three times a week to pick up more foam, paint, spackle, or whatever else I needed.

Why did you choose the type of hat that you did? What drew you to this particular hat style?

The bowler is a very "hat"-looking hat, by which I mean it’s got a lot of things that make it close to the prototypical idea of what you think of when you think "hat." It also fits really well into the fiction of the game—an alien posing as a businessman could possibly look at Earth media and say, "Ah yes, this is how Business People dress." and put one on their human suit. The avatar in-game wears the same kind of hat as the players, putting players almost literally into Zorg’s shoes while they play the game.

There's an inherent humor in a giant hat that draws potential players in. What do you feel compels us to put on giant silly hats? What draws us to absurd things?

I love using humor as a design tool. Especially with adults, it can sometimes be hard to make people socially comfortable in entering into something really playful. One of the great things about making something completely absurd (like a really, really gigantic hat) is that people can come in and laugh at themselves even while they play. We also give our players clip-on ties to wear to really sell that ridiculous experience. With Haber Dasher, it’s really easy to be in on the joke and not feel like anyone watching is laughing any harder than you already are.

Has building a game around a unique controller taught you anything unexpected about game design?

SO MUCH. Enough that I’m going to get a whole dissertation out of it. Building Haber Dasher has been such a wonderful experience. I picked up a lot of new materials techniques, if nothing else. But I also have used Haber Dasher as a vehicle to understand collaborative controller design more broadly. It’s been one example of creating a safe play-space where players can take on a role, and then forcing them to rely on one another to succeed. I’ve built a couple other games and playful installations based on these principles, and it’s led to a lot of principles I’m going to carry forward into my future work.

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