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Unicycle Samurai jousts with a twisting, turning seat controller

Unicycle Samurai is a two-player jousting battle to the death controlled by shifting, tilting, and turning the seat under your butt.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 7, 2023

14 Min Read
two people balancing on specialized seats to play Unicycle Samurai
Game Developer and GDC are sibling organizations under parent company Informa Tech

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.

Unicycle Samurai is a two-player jousting battle to the death controlled by shifting, tilting, and turning the seat under your butt.

The Spartan Samurai team spoke with Game Developer about the game's surprise birth from a random online name generator, how designing for the ability to pick up and play the game informed much of the design and mechanics, and the complex iteration process that went into getting their seat controllers to be safe and feel right.

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

Kirsten Alumbaugh: 3D / environmental artist.

Peter Guenther: Producer / hardware engineer / prototype programmer.

Cameron Havlish: Sound engineer / quality assurance manager.

Adam Kasumovic: Unity programmer.

Jordan Latta: 3D artist, VFX, and UI.

Tate Moorhouse: Unity programmer.

Remy Streichenberger: Mechanic / level designer.

Al Wang: Character & VFX artist.

Eileen Snyder: Music composer.

Guenther: We also had help from a classmate, Yuchen Zhang, who contributed some additional UI art. We were supported through the entire process by our professor Jeremy Gibson Bond and our Learning Assistant Sadeem Boji, and by Casey Hansley, the other Learning Assistant in the class where the game was originally prototyped.

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

Guenther: To put it bluntly: "your butt is the joystick." We like to think of Unicycle Samurai as a dogfight on unicycles (more on that later) where you lean forward/backward and pivot side-to-side to outmaneuver the other player. The left pedal button allows you to dash, while the right allows you to activate Mario Kart-like power-ups that you have collected from the stage.

two jousting characters in red and blue

What's your background in making games?

Guenther: We are a student team at Michigan State University. Peter and Al are Master’s degree students in Game Studies and Design, Eileen is a Master’s degree student in the School of Music, while the rest of the team are undergraduates in the Games and Interactive Media major or minor. As part of MSU’s program we’ve each built a variety of games.

We created this game as part of the Minor sequence; Kirsten, Peter, Cam, and Al prototyped it in the Spring 2022 semester and then the whole team built it out in the Fall 2022 semester.

Alumbaugh: I’ve always been an artist. My passion continued to grow as I got older, and I knew I was going to pursue art as a career during high school. Originally a traditional artist, I made the transition to digital painting when I decided to combine my love for game design and art. Despite being primarily a 2D environmental artist, I enjoy working on the projects for the MSU game design program because they allow me to branch out and experiment in other areas such as 3D modeling.

Guenther: I try to keep a balance between game design and programming. I started writing games on my brother’s Commodore 64 as a kid, then made a few Flash and Java games in the early 2000s, and then started building in Unity a few years ago. I’ve done a little with alt controls before, from playing around with the Makey Makey to interfacing an exercise bike to a Raspberry Pi for a game, but this is definitely the farthest I’ve gone with an idea!

Havlish: My original background was in music where I got a solid foundation for a lot of the principles sound design is based on. I first started making games in high school and found that I loved going through the development process. Once I found out that MSU had a really good game design program I decided to go and combine my two passions to pursue creating sound effects for games.

Kasumovic: My passion for programming dates back to the 6th grade, and since then I have always wanted to create software that would bring many people around the world enjoyment. In high school, I liked creating several short RPGMaker games for my friends. Some were silly while others were serious, but I was not very proud of any of them. When I enrolled in Michigan State University's game design program, I learned more than I could imagine about game development and game programming using Unity's game engine. There, I created games that I could proudly put on my resume with great teams of fellow students. I will continue to improve my skills and make games as a hobby in the future.

Latta: I've always been interested in games and how they work. I grew up on Super Mario 64 and the modding community surrounding it, and my continued passion for game dev lead me to the program at Michigan State. It's been a very rich experience, and along with working on my own side projects, I've found my niche in 3D and tech art. I'm always enjoying studying or learning something new about the process.

Moorhouse: I've always been a fan of video games since getting a GameCube in 2004, but hadn't started making video games until I joined this program. Now I really enjoy the work we do in class and have started messing around with personal projects to keep improving my skills.

Streichenberger: Much like my classmates, I’ve known since I was in middle school that I wanted to make games. I had made board games in my free time and video games over summer camps. Eventually, I decided I should be making games for the next generation of kids to enjoy like I did.

Wang: I’m actually fairly new to the game development life. I joined in at the start of my Master’s program back in 2021, coming in with a background in cinematography. I already had experience in animation so I settled nicely in the visual arts. In the span of a year, I picked up Blender and quickly developed a love for 3D character modeling as it gave me a chance to show off my animation skills while making something of my own as a basis. Now I spend time every day learning and improving my art by working on personal side projects.

Snyder: I was the type of kid to boot up a game just to go to one specific area to listen to one specific track. I always fixated on the music over other aspects of a game, so it’s no surprise I sailed the circuit of arranging VGM to writing my own soundtracks for non-existent games to finally collaborating with MSU game designers on very-existent games! It’s always a fresh, exciting experience crafting a unique musical world for each new project.

What development tools did you use to build Unicycle Samurai?

Guenther: Unicycle Samurai was built in Unity3D (2020), including Cinemachine for the cameras. The 3D assets were created in Blender, and we used Wwise as the sound middleware. The alt controls were programmed in the Arduino IDE and use the Arduino Joystick Library by MHeironimus.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Guenther: The heart of the controls are a pair of REV Robotics through-bore encoders, which I was familiar with from coaching high school student teams for the FIRST® Robotics Competition. One sits on the main axle and senses the angle that the player is leaning forward and backward, and the other sits under the seat and senses the left and right rotation of the seat. There’s also an arcade button for Start and a pair of microswitches for the Dash/Activate pedals.

The seat is a standard bicycle seat mounted on a cut-down seat post mated to an axle for turning. The axles are half inch steel hex shafts. Other than that, the controllers are mostly wood (1x4s, 2x4s, and a plywood base) along with a PVC pipe and fittings for the stability bar.

a birds eye view of jousting characters

What inspired the creation of Unicycle Samurai? What drew you to create a unicycle-based jousting game?

Guenther: Last spring we were in MSU’s Game Design and Development II class, which does 3 full rounds of prototyping games. For the second project, at kickoff we were given a set of 5 game titles randomly chosen from an online generator and told to mix and match words to spark ideas. Enraged (or Advanced) Unicycle Samurai rose to the top; otherwise it was going to be Night of the Crystal Battleships and we didn’t like the ideas for that as much.

From there we asked what a Unicycle Samurai would do. "Enraged" led us to think about games where you drove around smashing things while "Advanced" made us think about doing tricks or precise movements. In the end we were drawn to make a battle game and driving was interesting enough that we kept it a joust with fixed swords. When we tried letting players control the sword it just wasn’t satisfying, so we came to think of the game as an aerial dogfight where you outmaneuver your opponent and strike from a safe angle. On unicycles. With swords.

We started Unicycle Samurai with traditional controllers. As we developed our pitch to take the game into production, our professor Jeremy Bond suggested that the game could work really well with a more physical controller. He encouraged us to look at Alt.Ctrl.GDC as a possible venue for the game, so we quickly put together a first prototype for the pitch and then iterated on it for seven months.

What thoughts went into creating the different moves the player can do? What challenges came in tying those to body motions using your unique controller?

Guenther: In the game’s production phase, we developed Unicycle Samurai for both traditional controllers and the alt controls. The power-ups and moves were developed for the traditional controller game first. When it came to the alt controls, the biggest challenge was mapping things in a way that a player could learn quickly, then remember and successfully accomplish while keeping their eyes on the screen and their body on the bicycle set.

From the start, the alt controls were planned for events like GDC—this wasn’t something you would have in your home and spend hours to master. Rather, the game was something you had to get on, learn in a few seconds, and then feel successful as you chased your friend around a Japanese garden with a katana. We’ll talk about how we arrived at the final driving control scheme below, but for the other actions, designing the alt controls meant trimming down significantly.

We wanted to keep the motions all lower-body; with GDC and Alt.Ctrl.GDC’s focus on accessibility, we realized that while the controller did require able use of both legs, we could design it in such a way that neither hands nor arms were required. That meant we couldn’t use buttons on the stability bar and needed something foot-activated, but we also couldn’t expect the players to look down while they were focused on the game screen. We experimented with pressure-sensitive pads like DDR pads but they weren’t reliable or easy for players to feel. Arcade buttons that could be side-tapped by the player’s heel seemed promising but tested very poorly with the team, so we eventually developed pedal buttons that could be tapped beneath the foot: no looking, no figuring out which is which, just one for each side.

With two pedals, that meant we had to trim down from the 5 buttons the traditional controller uses in combat. We were quick to eliminate spin right and spin left as disorienting to the player using alt-controls. We also dropped the Dodge (a backward dash) for simplicity and quicker matches. This left us with Dash forward and Activating power-ups as the two remaining pedal buttons.

What do you feel the physicality of the motions adds to the combat of the game? What does that sense of real motion and exhaustion add to the experience of playing a combat game like this?

Guenther: Having to control the game physically adds to the fun and outlandishness of the concept. First, you’ve got samurai on unicycles and now you have to move and twist around to control them?! It’s been a blast at events like Youmacon in Detroit to see two friends or a couple walk up, get on the controllers, and then chase each other around while laughing and having a great time. The controls provide a good level of challenge, forcing players to move differently than they’re used to without the frustration of learning to actually unicycle.

There’s a "visceralness" players get from the alt control version of the game that you don’t get in the top-down, traditional controller version. The physicality of the controls combine with a lower camera angle to put the player into the game in a different way. A single player against the game’s AI opponent becomes more of a suspense/horror experience: "Where did he go? Oh no he’s right behind me isn’t he? Aaargh!" Even a few one-minute rounds on these controls really work the quads and the core, and in the two-player version the combination of the action and the movement really get the heart rate up and the adrenaline going. It’s really a pulse-pounding experience.

a view of wood and a bicycle seat for the controller

What thoughts went into incorporating the samurai aesthetic into your game? What thoughts went into balancing the lighthearted, but sometimes bloody, tone of the game?

Guenther: As mentioned, Samurai were our starting point for the game. Initially the juxtaposition of these bloody warriors and one-wheeled contraptions led us to the humorous side, but as we gave the game more juice and impact, the camera got increasingly cinematic, which led us to old Samurai movies. That’s when we got more dramatic and bloody, although in another accommodation, the game includes an option to replace the blood with cherry blossom petals to keep it a game everyone can enjoy.

Balance is a challenge when working with unicycle-like play. How did you design your game to make it safe for someone twisting and moving around?

Guenther: Lots and lots of iteration. We started with a cheap Amazon balance board and a gyro sensor, which was a lot of fun and a good workout but hard to learn initially and more than a little unsafe.

The Mark 2 added some springs for resistance and re-centering, but was still unpredictable. The Mark 3 added the PVC pipe to hang onto and really played well at a game showcase. That may still be a viable option for a future game, but other than balance it still didn’t seem that much like a unicycle, so we started looking at how to use a bicycle seat.

We looked a lot at heavy-duty springs for things like playground ride-ons, but eventually settled on an automotive U-Joint to allow the Mark 4 to lean in any direction. Testing at an IGDA Ann Arbor event showed that it was just too hard on the knees and still somewhat difficult to control.

That’s when we went back and looked at how you actually control a unicycle; you don’t turn by leaning, you turn by pivoting your waist. We still liked leaning forward and back to control speed and direction, even though that’s not realistic, but we separated out turning into this pivot. By locking the lean to one axis and having this separate motion, the controller became a lot more stable and easier to learn.

The Mark 5 wasn’t sturdy enough, so it was the Mark 6 where we really tested the lean-and-pivot controls at a LAN party run by MSU’s eSports club. It went really well and people liked the game, but when people settled their weight they tended to fly backwards. That lead us to make the neutral position not straight up-and-down but further forward to keep the player’s weight more centered. The controllers went through several more iterations, but from that point on, the basic shape and movement control scheme was set.

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

Guenther: It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the experience has driven home the value of iteration and player testing. The physical controller has gone through more than a dozen iterations between major and minor versions and we’ve learned so much from testing. We brought versions to our class and IGDA Ann Arbor multiple times, to the MSU LAN party, to Youmacon in Detroit, and to the MSU Games Showcase. All told, we had over 200 people try the alt controls by the time we submitted to Alt.Ctrl.GDC, and hearing what they loved and didn’t lead to the controllers and game we have now. It’s been a real privilege to see so many people interact with and enjoy the alt controls.

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