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How constraints fueled Two By 4 Racing's co-op steering wheel controllers

Two By 4 Racing makes two players work together with bike tire-based steering wheel controllers, driving and powering a cooperative vehicle with their actions together.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 15, 2023

7 Min Read
two people in racing helmets sitting back to back, each steering using a bicycle tire steering wheel
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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.

Two By 4 Racing makes two players work together with bicycle tire-based steering wheel controllers, driving and powering a cooperative vehicle with their actions together.

Derek Williams, designer of the co-op steering controllers, spoke with Game Developer about drawing inspiration from a mixture of Mario Kart and CatDog, the challenges that came from building the game around equipment that the developer had lying around, and what thoughts go into creating a compelling race for two players with very different roles.

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

I’m Derek Williams and I was the sound designer on Two by 4 Racing, but everybody on the team filled a bunch of roles on this project. I also designed and built the controllers, helped write the vehicle physics controller script, and designed the race track layout.

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

Our controller is pretty easy to explain; it’s a steering wheel! Specifically, two BIG steering wheels made of bike tires. These two controllers are used cooperatively by two drivers to control a single vehicle. The player up front steers, while the player in the back operates the "engine crank," controlling the speed of the vehicle. As a final touch, both controllers have two big red buttons on them that, if pressed, will rotate the chassis of the vehicle in-game and switch the roles of the players.

During development it was important for us to design a controller that was relatively easy to use for as many people as possible. That meant a huge tactile wheel, two large buttons on either side of the wheel that performed a singular action, and a controller design that can be flipped to use standing up or sitting down.

Two by Four Racing tire wheel controller

What's your background in making games?

I’m currently attending the ETC at CMU in the hopes of becoming a game designer. I’ve been playing games my whole life, but I’m actually pretty new to game design! Kind of a long-time listener first-time caller situation. My teammates have an extensive history of game jams and personal game projects.

What development tools did you use to build Two by 4 Racing?

We used Unity to develop and Maya for our assets, but arguably our most important tool, a track layout drawing tool that utilizes splines, was made by one of our programmers, Ezra Hill. Couldn’t have done the track design without it.

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Where our design philosophy differs from most other vehicle manufacturers is we wanted to use whatever materials we had lying around. So, we ended up with our controllers being made of wood, a couple of bike tires, and a few large arcade buttons. For the controls we used Arduino for the button press, and Phidget rotary encoders from 2003 for the steering input. Our programmers would like to recommend using more modern hardware unless you enjoy the challenge.

co-op racing avoiding cows on a rocky path

What inspired the creation of Two by 4 Racing? What drew you to make a cooperative racing experience?

We knew from the get go that we wanted a cooperative, chaotic experience. Our early conversations were about the fun we had playing Mario Kart Double Dash as kids and how great it would be if players could jointly control CatDog [from the animated series of the same name]. Also, I’m an ex mechanical engineer and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to build a contraption for this game.

Once we knew we’d be building our own hardware, our biggest inspiration for this project was the Cartoon Network show Code Name: Kids Next Door. Yu Xi Lee, one of our 3D artists, did a great job capturing that DIY 2x4 technology aesthetic for the vehicle.

What thoughts went into creating the different roles for each player during the race?

We started by giving ourselves the hard rule that the players would play the game back-to-back—not entirely sure where that came from, but I’ve found that weird constraints can breed creativity. So, the job of the player in front was easy; someone has to steer the vehicle and the job should probably be given to the person who can see where they’re going.

The job of the person in the back was a much bigger challenge for us as designers. Ideas jumped around from a grapple hook that collected fuel pods to a Tony Hawk Pro Skater-style balance mechanic that would keep the vehicle upright. Ultimately, we settled on the rear player controlling the throttle and brake of the vehicle. It encourages the current driver to communicate their speed needs while hurtling around the track's various twists and turns.

Why let players switch roles while racing?

Mostly it was that we wanted players to contribute in the way they felt most comfortable. Driving and controlling the speed of the vehicle require two very different skill sets and we didn’t want to be the ones deciding who should be in each seat.

Also, the pacing of our game is fast and loose, and we wanted to lean into that chaos. If the player in the backseat thinks they can do a better job driving, they can smash the button on their controller at any time to switch roles, and vice versa.

using a tire to steer the game

How did you design the racing gameplay and track to make it interesting for the two players? What ideas went into the gameplay and track design?

The first track design had the duo barreling down a steep hill on a narrow, winding track, a la Snowboard Kids or the Wario Mountain Mario Kart track. We found this level of speed and chaos, plus the fact that players had to learn how to pilot their vehicle together, too punishing for first-time players. We wanted to cultivate the feeling of being in control, so the track was widened and turns were made much more forgiving so that we could leave the speed and feel of the vehicle untouched.

We also wanted the aesthetics of the track to brighten the mood of the game and guide the players through the experience. Our other 3D artist Yuxuan Wu did a great job with the landscape art direction and handy road signs.

What was the appeal of using a big tire as a steering wheel? What do you feel it added to the experience?

I would be lying if I said the size of the steering wheels weren’t a product of convenience—those are just the wheels I had on my old bike sitting in the garage. But their size and weight turned out to be a perfect fit for the feel of the game. It’s fun to see how fast you can whip them around! My favorite memory of the game so far is watching a kid playing at the ETC’s festival, maybe 5 years old, laughing maniacally as he’s cranking the wheel, sending him and his mother careening off a cliff.

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

Once you have a unique controller built, it drives the design of your game. We had this silly, big 'ol controller that almost demanded a silly, chaotic experience. This lead us to add features in the game like the high score boards for least cows hit... and most cows hit. Or the random team name generator that our programmer Quoey came up with that requires players to mash their buttons at the same time to select whatever weird name they’ve decided on.

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