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Alt.Ctrl.GDC Showcase: Disco is Dead!

Zombies are on the prowl and a only pair of snarky buddy cops with a mean slap, fueled by the player literally slapping a head, can stop them in Disco is Dead!.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 7, 2018

9 Min Read

The 2018 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.

Zombies are on the prowl and a only pair of snarky buddy cops with a mean slap, fueled by the player literally slapping a specially-built head that's in front of them (or high-fiving one another for ultimate slapping power), can stop them in Disco is Dead!.

Disco is Dead! draws from the pleasure, and natural energy and excitement, that comes from slapping something (and the silliness that comes alongside it), and Gamasutra spoke with its developers about harnessing that goofy, entertaining action for their game of zombie smacking and buddy cops.

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

Barkun: I'm Jeffrey Barkun, and my role was the creative director, lead programmer, and one of the six game designers. My contributions to the project included setting up creative sessions with the team to explore different ideas the game could have, programming various tools and aspects of the game in Unity, balancing the score system, and designing some of the enemies.

Kadar: I’m Kassandra Kadar, and my roles on this project were: game designer, UI/UX designer, and project manager. My main goal for the game as UI and game designer was to ensure efficient lines of communication between the game and the players. Aside from my design roles, I was tasked with keeping the team on track and well aware of the state of the project at all times.

Baker: I’m Coulter Baker. My role was lead of game design and auxiliary programmer. I also participated in art development, making animations in spine for the final Level, featuring Discothulu. My contributions were to focus on game design and flow, development of levels, bosses, and pacing, and the designing of certain tools like a level sequencer.  

Alkadi: My name is Nuha Alkadi. I was the lead narrative designer and also did marketing for the game. I took on the creative challenge of designing and writing a full-blown narrative for this wacky arcade experience. I focused on designing the buddy cop game feel and immersing players into a funky world, so that players feel like they are truly acting like bickering buddy cops in a 1970's disco.

McQuarrie: I’m Melissa McQuarrie, game and level designer for Disco Is Dead!. I helped design enemy types and implemented them in sequences across levels. I also was challenged with creating a tutorial level that teaches the player the game as well as how to use our unique controllers. I also conducted playtest sessions with new players to gather feedback and improve upon our latest build.

Johnson: I’m Jennifer Johnson. As the art director, it was my job to realise the creative vision for all the assets and artwork that led to its unique visual identity. I communicated graphic themes of style and goals to the team, while ensuring quality, consistency and compliance throughout the production process. I assisted the project manager in the selection of resources and setting production schedules.

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

Kadar: “Come on over and slap some zombies!” Each controller features a zombie head that is placed right in the hands of the player. How do you play? Slap the zombie head to the left, to the right, and smack-down on the top of its head. Watch for the zombies to appear on the screen with arrows above their heads. These arrows correspond to the direction players need to slap the zombie. When you see your Buddy Power at max, grab onto your disco ball and give your partner a good old high-five (literally!) to activate Buddy Mode. It’s that simple!

How does it work? The sensors in the zombie heads are handmade pressure sensors that connect to the computer using a Makey Makey. The disco ball controls rely on physical touch where players complete the circuit to activate Buddy Mode.

What's your background in making games?

All: We all have more than four years experience making games. We graduated from Sheridan College's Bachelor of Game Design program in Oakville, Ontario during in the spring of 2017.

What development tools did you use to build Disco is Dead!?

Barkun: We used Unity 3D to build Disco is Dead!, and it was coded using C#.

Baker: In addition, we also used tools like Flash and Spine to develop animations for the game, and incorporate them into it.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Kadar: The controllers were made using:

Wood - Base of the controller structure

Foam - Head form (keeping it light weight)

Screws, bolts, etc - Holding the controller together

Door stoppers (springs) - To give the controllers a slight wobble

Metal clamps - To clamp the wooden structure onto almost any table

Aluminum tape, craft foam, sponge, wires - Custom pressure sensors

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Barkun: We spent around 8 months working on this game. The game initially started as a game jam project in July 2016, and then it became a full-time project starting in September 2016. Development for the game ended in April 2017.

How did you come up with the concept?

Barkun: We came up with the concept of Disco is Dead! during a game jam. The theme revolved around making a game for an arcade cabinet. We wanted to make a game where the motion of the players mimicked the actions of the character on the screen, so we made a game where players would slap the cabinet’s joystick to make the characters slap. When we decided to turn Disco is Dead! into a full-year project, we agreed as a team to take the slapping mechanic to the next level by making a custom controller.

Baker: From a thematic angle, we wanted to make a game that would surprise and entertain people by subverting their expectations - like the concept of very macho guys whose only defense is slapping. The disco theme came from brainstorming funny settings for those macho guys, and the strength of the name “Disco is Dead!”, which tied into the zombies. This gave us a really strong base for our comedic and absurd tone, and just made for a really amusing aesthetic and theme overall.  

What drew you to slapping as a form of interaction? Why slap a zombie's head to smack zombies in-game?

Kadar: Because it’s fun! Slapping feels natural and it acts as a sort of energizer for players. We noticed that a foam head form fits perfectly into people’s hands, while the slap actions utilize a simple and comfortable range of motion. Players don’t need to look at the controllers to play the game - they are made comfortable with their position and the gameplay actions. With the added wobble from the springs, players also get to feel a sort of liveliness from the zombie heads. The main goal for this project was to create an arcade game that could be picked up and played by almost anyone. The controls are kept simple and satisfying for this reason.

Alkadi: The slapping mechanic is the core comedic essence of the game, and allowing the players to physically slap away at the zombies allows them to feel like they’re the ones producing the comedy. Players feel like they’re the comedians towards the story, and when people feel like they’re being funny, they feel empowered. And also... slapping is a really really really fun stress reliever.

How does the physical interaction with the game add onto the excitement and fun for players?

Kadar: Because the gameplay and controls are so simple, players can easily attend to the excitement and action on-screen. With One Finger Death Punch, Elite Beat Agents, and of course DDR as inspirations, it was known that a physical or rhythmic approach to gameplay would produce a similar effect. There are many articles about physical activity, music, rhythm and endorphins. It’s important to note how slapping is used in the game’s comedic context. It seems like the right thing to do to give players something to lay their hands on.

What do the disco ball controllers add onto the slapping  experience? Why throw them into the mix as well?

Kadar: It’s always a pleasure to watch players activate Buddy Mode for the first time. The players and audience together get very excited with wonder and curiosity. As a mechanic that is only used sparsely, the disco balls are a sort of reward that players get to engage in when they perform well in the game. The quality art and cinematic sequence definitely add to the hype, as it leads to an endless slapping mode where players can just let loose on their zombie head. Especially through testing, we have noted the impact of the disco ball controllers and the technology used. It wouldn’t be the same game without them.

Alkadi: The disco balls also enhance the buddy cop genre of the game. In order to activate Buddy Mode, both players must hold their disco ball and high-five each other. So, both players must externally communicate with one another to coordinate themselves at the right time. With this mechanic being a literal physical human interaction, it definitely strengthens the bond forming between both players, especially when in they're in the zone role-playing as two cops who sometimes cannot get along.

How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?

Barkun: In terms of controllers seen in console and PC platforms, I believe we will see the rise of flexible controllers. We are beginning to see the popularity of this concept with the Nintendo Switch, along with the recently announced Nintendo Labo peripheral, where the flexibility of the controllers allows players to play in various play styles (such as the freedom to use the system as a handheld or console, use the controller as a current-gen controller or classic controller, or easily attach peripherals to the controllers to match the current game).

I’d like future controllers to include the ability to easily swap input methods (such as swap a joystick input with a D-Pad, or adjust the spacing between buttons) in order to create a controller that will not only work for the players’ comfort, but also allow disabled players to create controllers that will let them play.


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