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Exploring unique surveilling and thieving controllers for Debono's HEIST '98

HEIST '98 uses cameras, door controls, and tapping pad controllers to simulate a thief and security guard going head-to-head.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 6, 2023

8 Min Read
a multi-button control panel is being pressed to switch cameras as someone uses voice controls to close a door
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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.

HEIST '98 uses cameras, door controls, and tapping pad controllers to simulate a thief and security guard going head-to-head.

Game Developer spoke with Dean Debono, developer of this grouping of different controllers, on creating immersive experiences.

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

My name is Dean Debono and I'm currently a first-year student in Sheridan College’s Game Design program. HEIST ‘98 was initially developed as part of “design week,” a program-wide design challenge. This latest design week had the theme of “alternate controllers.” During this period, I worked with a team as project director and lead programmer to complete a playable prototype of the game. After the design challenge, I spent time improving the design and visuals of the game to finalize it for GDC.

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

HEIST ‘98 aims to create an immersive experience for both players by utilizing CRT monitors and controllers designed for each role.

Security players are given a control panel emulating a security guard camera setup, complete with switcher buttons and pan/zoom dials, allowing for complete control over in-game cameras. They are also given access to a voice recognition system, allowing them to control in-game doors with simple voice commands.

Thief players are given pressure-activated pads that allow their in-game character to turn and run. To run faster, players are encouraged to smack down on the run pad as hard and fast as they can.

What's your background in making games?

Aside from my brief experience at Sheridan, my background in making games is limited to my work on personal projects and game jams I've participated in.

What development tools did you use to build HEIST '98?

During development I used Unity, Photoshop, and Blender. Unity’s ProBuilder plugin was crucial in allowing me to prototype levels quickly.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

The touch pads for the thief player were built out of cardboard, tape, and foil, which, although crude, proved to be resistant to smacks and hits from players. The keypad for the security player was made from a repurposed DIY macro pad, which I customized with extremely clicky Kailh Box Jade mechanical keyboard switches. Each player was given a PVM-style CRT monitor, and each play space was decorated with a variety of printed maps and sticky notes.

What inspired the creation of HEIST '98? What interested you in making a head-to-head game of security versus a thief?

During the initial stages of Sheridan’s design week, my team was brainstorming to come up with games we could make with what we had on hand. I have a background in video production, so I was able to provide a couple CRT monitors, which became the backbone of our concept.

Inspired by my video production experiences, I had originally proposed we make a game where you play as a video production assistant working on a talk show shoot with a tricky host. The player would be tasked with switching camera angles and scrolling a teleprompter, making sure to maintain the correct prompter speed when the host would go off script. Due to our week-long time constraint, the team felt like we were unable to complete this original idea and instead decided to adopt parts of it, namely the camera switching mechanic and the CRT monitors.

Since I had already lugged a couple monitors in, we decided to make a multiplayer game, which only a few teams were working on. The concept for HEIST ‘98 developed organically from here, with rapid prototyping and playtesting refining our vision.

What drew you to the visual style of the game? What appealed to you about this look?

With the CRT monitors being such an important part of the game, I wanted to use a visual style that would look great on them. I settled on utilizing a style somewhere in-between PS1 and PS2 games, adopting the PS1’s infamous dithering effect while using more advanced lighting techniques.

The game uses several control styles. What drew you to use voice commands and an array of keys for the security guard? Touch pads for the thief?

For this project, I designed the control styles for each player with their roles in mind. The security guard should be smooth and calculated, which is why their controls are very dedicated and purpose-built. Following my original concept, the array of keys was designed to emulate a video production switcher. I didn't want to use a simple control scheme, such as left and right buttons, to move between cameras because I thought it was inelegant and would make navigating between cameras to catch a quick thief player very frustrating.

Originally, the security guard was able to open and close doors using dedicated buttons, which made it far too easy to manage your limited number of closed doors and catch the thief. Voice controls to open and close doors served as both a "What if?" and a fix for this midway through development. Implementation happened to be very easy in Unity, so they made the cut.

The thief player controllers were designed to oppose the design philosophy behind the security player controllers, using rough materials and requiring rapid force for effective use. I originally prototyped them with cardboard, tape, and foil and planned to replace them at a later date. After playtesting at the end of Sheridan’s design week, I was really surprised to find that the cardboard stood up to the barrage of playtesters and decided to keep the prototype design. If I don’t find anything better in the meantime, they’ll probably still be cardboard at GDC!

How did these unique control schemes affect the layout of the play space? How did you design the museum to draw out the interesting elements of these varied control styles?

The impreciseness of the thief movement controls meant that the level had to be designed in a way that was fairly open, allowing for easy traversal. As the thief player had no minimap, rooms were color-coded to allow for easy reference with the physical map the player was provided with. This was a fix that was implemented in response to feedback from our first round of testing, and it significantly improved the thief player experience for subsequent first-time testers.

Security players have access to a total of 10 cameras spread across the 7 rooms that make up the main game level. To simplify the already-complex controls for security players, each camera is tied to a room, limiting the actions they can take to either switching to a camera, opening a door, or closing a door. This door-centric design meant that we had to ensure that we did not exceed 10 doors in a level and that each camera had sufficient coverage of the level. Certain camera angles were chosen intentionally with the delay that comes with voice commands in mind, so that security players could only see their opponents for a few seconds before needing to make a decision. This choice paid off and lead to many moments during testing where security players would panic and make the wrong decisions.

You make a point of noting the clickiness of the buttons for the security guard. Why was that important to you? What do you feel a nice, snappy button adds to a gameplay experience?

My goal with the design for HEIST ‘98 was to create an experience that would not feel the same without the game’s alternative controls. A grid of buttons was chosen over other control schemes as it would allow players to know what camera they were switching to without relying on UI elements. Part of making this possible was making sure the actual buttons had both audible and physical feedback, a key element in developing muscle memory in players.

The macropad I had repurposed for the security player supported swappable mechanical switches, which led me to the Kailh Box Jades, which I had bought but decided against using for a personal mechanical keyboard build. They have deep and loud clicks and very strong tactile feedback, making them perfect for the security player controls. I believe that the appeal of clicky and snappy buttons stems from the same part of our brains that enjoy fidgeting with objects; clicky things simply feel fun to press. Speaking from testing experience, more than a few players felt the same way, rapidly pressing the buttons while they waited for the game to start.

The audio of the buttons and controls is something both players can hear, giving them hints about what the other player is up to. What do you feel this brought to the experience?

I believe that this aspect of the game helped to amplify the social and competitive elements of the game and encouraged players to pay attention to their opponents outside of the game screen. The controls for both players, like shouting commands and smacking down rapidly, are fairly easy to understand from sound alone, even for players that have not played on the opposing side. These were so easy to understand that first-time thief players were able to (unexpectedly) deploy counter-ops and start shouting their own commands to drown out the voice recognition system.

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

As a relative beginner in game design, designing a game around a unique controller provided me a new perspective on game design, and showed me there are things you can only do with non-traditional controls. If divorced from the controls that we created for HEIST ‘98, the game wouldn’t feel the same. Looking towards the future, I’ve become more excited about exploring alternate controls through VR controls and new controller tech like the Adaptive Triggers in the Dualsense.

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