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ALT.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Chapeland, Iakouchev, Giuliani, & Six's Plug-Plug

Plug-Plug gives players a controller with pieces they can attach, allowing them to use the varied parts to create a custom cute tank to play with.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 20, 2020

7 Min Read

Alt.Ctrl.GDC is 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

Plug-Plug gives players a controller with pieces they can attach, allowing them to use the varied parts to create a custom cute tank to play with.

Gamasutra spoke with Matthieu Chapeland, lead developer of Plug-Plug, to talk about the challenges that came from designing a controller players could custom-assemble, how to create the right playful mood with the game's visual style, and making experiences that encourage players to be creative.

Plug & players

My name is Matthieu Chapeland. I am the game designer and lead developer for Plug-Plug. I came up with the concept for Plug-Plug with François Iakouchev, who did all the artwork for the game. Our team is made up of François Iakouchev, a game designer/game artist, Thomas Giuliani, a game designer, Adrien Six, our product designer, Florian Hochez, who created some music for the game, and me, who worked as a game designer/programmer.

Our team is primarily composed of students from Rubika Supinfogame, a French school for game development. With this being our third year in this school, we’ve worked on multiple different projects and games. I’ve personally created two board games with François Iakouchev (Vostok & L’Odyssée des rêves), that are on their way to being published. I’ve also developed a 3D platformer with a team of five students in 2018-2019 called Haut Comme Trois Pommes. I’ve worked on multiple small and personal projects over the years, and have started working on a new 2D platform fighting game with François Iakouchev.

DIY controller

With Plug-Plug, each player can personalize a controllable modular robot by plugging up to three parts into their controller. There are multiple unique parts, each offering an original ability/manner of interaction. Using their unique configurations, players can face off in a variety of game modes like Sumo Wrestling, Basketball, or Volleyball.

Kids playing with robots

While brainstorming for the creation of Plug-Plug, we really fell in love with the childlike fun of creating your own robot and using it to fight your friends. Following that train of thought, we knew that we wanted the controller to be what the player would directly be assembling, really keeping this aspect of childlike play. I guess that the robots being cute was a natural outcome of that core concept and our dynamic as a team.

On the tools used to make Plug-Plug

To create Plug-Plug, we primarily used Unity 2D and the Arduino IDE. We used Photoshop to create the assets and Illustrator to create the blueprints for laser cutting. For the music, Florian Hochez used FL Studio.

Being students, we don’t have access to a lot of resources for the physical parts, so we aimed for efficiency. The controllers are made of laser cut wood. The controller houses an Arduino Uno board and a LOT of wires. We also used small but powerful magnets to make the connections between the parts, as well as to make the controller feel more satisfying.

Creating a means for the player to express themselves

Really early on in development, we knew that each part would need to be completely unique and offer really fun ways to interact with each other. We didn’t want to stop ourselves when an idea seemed too wacky or strange. The fact that some parts are a bit weird is key to letting the players unleash their creativity. It’s really satisfying as a developer when a player takes your game and flips it on its head by trying new, different, and wild combinations that you would never have thought of. The plugs really give an opportunity for anyone to express themselves and create their own gameplay experience.

Developing games for unwieldy robots

The aim was: simple but stimulating. The fact that Plug-Plug can sometimes be a bit unwieldy, depending on the plugs used, makes it really hard to have objectives that are too challenging or complicated for the players. We really wanted the mini-games to be as simple and straightforward as possible. Often, adding a simple objective that pits two players against each other, is enough to have them be fully engaged in the game when you factor in the meta game of choosing your combinations, trying to control your creation, and having an opponent that uses a completely different move set.

But we're still thinking of new game ideas to implement Plug-Plug in. Our latest idea was to create simple co-op puzzle platforming levels. With Plug-Plug we really just created a control scheme - in what game we choose to use it in, it is completely up to our imagination.

The challenges of piecemeal controllers

Personally, this was my very first time using Arduino, and learning how to make it communicate efficiently with Unity was a bit of a challenge. The documentation and support for Arduino to Unity communication exists, but isn’t great. A lot of tinkering and replacement code had to be done to have everything work without any latency or data loss. 

Another problem that we came across was how to recognize the parts that had been plugged in. I really wanted to keep it as simple as possible, as it was my first time doing any of this, so we came up with a really cool way of using the digital pins as binary code to identify the parts. Each plug type has a unique 3 pin code that differentiates it from the others. This simple system, combined with the specific analog pins connected to each side of the controller, lets Unity know exactly what part is plugged where at any given time.

Visually playful

Plug-Plug’s art style directly stems from the core intention of childlike fun. Taking inspiration from games like Kirby and Snipperclips, the aim was to convey the feeling of silliness and chaos that the gameplay provides, while still having the game look very accessible. 

We started this project with simple tanks in mind, but as soon as the idea of adding faces to them came up, the whole theme of the game really came together. Having the robots react to everything that happens around them really adds to the experience of watching the game being played. We really wanted the game to be entertaining to watch, so we spent a lot of time making the abilities look as fun as possible. The tentacle, for example, took me a lot of time to get right, but it was definitely worth it. 

It’s all meant to come together to make the game look like pure unadulterated fun, especially when combined with the silliness of watching the players fumble around with their parts, hectically trying to to switch up their tactics. People who haven’t tried the game yet can very easily imagine what parts they would use, and what play style they would go for, just by looking at others play.

Seeing how players approach a new experience

The modular nature of the controller really fascinated us from the very beginning. It’s a concept that hasn’t really been commercially done in a similar fashion before, or at least not that we’re aware of, so the Alt.Ctrl competition was a great opportunity for us to really try to make it work.

Something that really fascinates me as a developer is the way that players approach a new experience. How do they take advantage of a provided system? What do they try first? How do they acclimate themselves to a new mode of interaction? The modular controller really lets every player express themselves in this way, even though they might not realize it.

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