Really Good Buttons, But Not Really Good Presentation

RGB - Richtig Gute Buttons / Really Good Buttons - was an experiment. Last year at the same time, for the Annual Exhibition at the Designhaus Halle (the start-up incubator where our office is), we made a game that was pretty much a single-button-game with a fun premise (you control the game with high fives). So for the event this year we thought we should do another “easy to grasp and play” project.

High Five Romance Race

So while the game idea wasn’t very clear yet - just that you have to push a button at the right time, because that’s fun in itself - we knew we wanted to have a custom built controller that would be simple and (figuratively) scream “use me”, so people would be even less reluctant to come forward and try it out. Big buttons with a diameter of 100mm or 60mm can be found at various shops selling electronic stuff; those were the first things we ordered. It turned out that the 60mm buttons are big enough, especially as the light distribution is not ideal, more so with the bigger version.

I began to extend my sparse knowledge of electronics (mostly: RGB LEDs) and Arduino related stuff, and also my tools and materials. Overall it was a somewhat expensive, but fruitful venture. (Of course there is still so much to learn...)

First wiring tests.
A plastic box for the controller - we wanted to build casings out of wood at the beginning, but didn't have time for that.

Using RGB LEDs make the buttons more versatile - so instead of a red button, there would be one that could have any colour, meaning it can even be re-used for different game ideas. But now there were a lot of things to be taken care of while building the controller, because the white LEDs of each button had to be replaced with an RGB LED - which meant instead of two pins there would be four, which made removing some metal from the LED holder necessary, and soldering a lot of wires to pins.

Preparing the LEDs

I built two controllers, because the final idea was inspired by Space Team. In our game, every player would see a different screen (easily done thanks to Unity’s ability to put each camera view on a different display) with different rules/instructions - either commanding a player to push a certain colour (red, green, blue, yellow, cyan, magenta), or forbidding to push a certain position (left, center, right). Each instruction would only be applicable for player A or B, and not necessarily displayed to this user - but the other one! This is why the players need to communicate: “Push the yellow button! But not the one on the left!”, and so on.

The two screens side by side.

The game was created very hastily, and unfortunately could not be tested during the development. It was made with Unity; I used Uduino for communication with the Arduinos, although I'm not sure if it was necessary to get that plugin. In any case, Jana was not available during that time, and creating a local multi-player game all alone proved to be not the brightest idea. Yet, I wanted to finish this as it started so strong - and expensive.

It wasn’t helping that one of the two controllers just didn’t work well enough. In over 50% of the time, 2 of the LEDs would not be turning on, and finding the error wasn’t possible; in the end I made a complete new set of LEDs and wirings the day before the exhibition.

Testing the final controllers

The Annual Exhibition became a series of unfortunate events. Just to continue the difficulties during development now the other controller had severe problems; it just didn’t work at all. And even though it became clear the next day that its Arduino (acquired years ago as reward for an IndieGoGo - it’s a micro controller board by Borderless Electronics) somehow had become defect, replacing the board with another one didn’t make the situation much better as there also seemed to be some loose connections. Update: It seems that not the board was at fault, but there are some bugs with the Arduino IDE, which prevent uploading the sketch. The loose connections were a real problem too though.

Moreover, as the game just wasn’t polished at all, it is full of bugs, and - worst of all - not quick enough to grasp by itself. In the current state the game needs a person to explain it to players, and I didn’t have time (or motivation) for that.

Instead I placed a short explanatory text next to each controller, but this is of course a hopeless effort. And if there’s something every developer loves to tell you (even if you already know it but don’t have another solution right now) then that “players don’t read”. In any case, it turns out that even with only three buttons, there are so many questions and confused looks.

Of course, this is not a problem in itself. As long as the learning process for the users is fun already they will forgive shortcomings; all they have to do is spend some more time, which can’t be expected from this specific audience (people interested in art and design visiting a university-wide exhibition).

Even though the project had so many pitfalls and a less than satisfying result, we definitely want to tackle it again when there is some more time. The controllers are built (which was quite an achievement for me) and the possibilities are endless - maybe making a simple instrument instead of an elaborate game would be a saner idea. In any case I tasted blood and would really like to do more light hardware experiments and custom input methods in the near future.

As always - if you want to talk with us (and other enthusiasts) about our games and/or game development in general, visit us at our Discord!

The Sky of Bronze – The Game

As was promised in the last blog post, here’s a short article about the project we worked on in 2018 (mostly): a turn-based survival game as part of an app about the Nebra sky disk. The sky disk is a bronze circle with 30cm diameter and probably the oldest depiction of the known cosmos. It was found by treasure hunters in 1999, here in Saxony-Anhalt, and is now one of Germany’s most notable archeological discoveries.

The sky disk, as shown in the game

The project was an idea by MotionWorks, a local animation studio known for the Marco Polo series and games, and of course for a lot of other projects. MotionWorks’ plan was to create a mobile app that would teach children and teenagers about the sky disk in a playful manner: with short films, 360° pictures, puzzles, background information - and a game. So they approached us for a commission and we said yes, because educational games are satisfying to make, and because the regional and historical relevance of the topic appealed to us a lot - after all, the sky disk was found close to where we live and work.

As we only created the game and not the remaining parts of the app, we worked in parallel with other local businesses all under MotionWork’s lead. For example, codemacher was responsible for programming the app and making sure that people can use it on-site in Nebra via GPS. I.e., whenever you reach a certain hotspot in Nebra, a new animation would play. The Sisters of Design created the website and even a booklet with a comic, crafting instructions and an Android code for the app. It looks gorgeous and has a goat (the unofficial mascot of the whole endeavor) key ring pendant as a gimmick. MotionWorks themselves animated the clips and invented the story and characters: main characters are the two children Mimo and Leva who serve as guides through the whole app.

We created a game concept about village life and traditions a few thousand years ago, when the sky disk existed for quite some time already and was now worshipped and sacrificed. Thus our game does not really cover the disk (other than using a picture of it here and there), but the Unetice culture, which came around 1,000 years afterwards. This way, our game could reuse graphic assets from the rest of the app, as the animations followed a Unetice family trying to prevent their people’s demise.

Primary goal was writing a concept that would not be yet another color matching game, with bronze stars and moons in place of the jelly beans maybe. Instead we eventually envisioned a survival game on a small grid-based world, strongly inspired by board games, and this level would change constantly both through actions by the player (e.g. uncovering the board tiles, cutting trees, hunting animals) and by random events (e.g. forest fires, flooded lands). The player would walk around to gather resources like wood, meat and fur, and trade these against tools and - most importantly - bronze jewellery. Starting as a pauper, with this bronze players achieve higher and higher ranks: becoming the chieftain is the ultimate goal of the game. Such a high-score system was fitting, as hierarchical structures were established during the bronze age.

The hardest part of the game was to make the workload manageable. For example, we planned to have several mini games which would simulate the gathering of each resource. Only after creating a few prototypes for them it became clear that the amount of mini games had to be cut down to one. Instead of hunting animals with arrows in a “Angry Birds”-like fashion and similar gameplays, we settled for an abstract Minesweeper-inspired game that we could reskin for each activity (fishing, rabbit hunting, tree cutting, etc). Although this sounds like we betrayed our original goal, make no mistake: the mini games are only one part of the sky disk game. The player has to explore the world, plan their path, interact with various traders, sacrifice items to the gods, and so on - all before running out of time.

Just like in the app’s animated movies the protagonists are the Unetice children Mimo and Leva. The player plays one of them, and during the game, every few rounds a randomly chosen event happens. This was done via “collectible” cards featuring short stories describing the world and life back then. To some extent the cards also help to give the player a sense of progress, as they follow the four seasons over the span of one year - the game starts with spring and ends with winter.

Apart from being a cool project overall, it was nice that the app was showcased a bit more officially than usual. Because it has a regional impact (i.e. relevance to the region) it was funded by the county Saxony-Anhalt and by the Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung, and thus it was presented at the state chancellery in Magdeburg (the capital of our county) and later again at the Ark of Nebra. The Ark is a modern-looking museum serving as starting point for a walking tour to the look-out at the top of the ancient Holy Mountain - where the sky disk was dug out in 1999.

The Ark of Nebra

When the app was completed it was uploaded on Apple’s AppStore and Google’s PlayStore. We'd like to thank MotionWorks for the opportunity to work on this project - it was very interesting to learn about the sky disk after having seen it (or rather a copy of it) in the Landesmuseum already, and a joy to create something meaningful yet fun.

If you want to talk with us (and other enthusiasts) about our games and/or game development in general, visit us at our Discord!

Mondar at the A MAZE 2019

We visited the A MAZE this year, and it was relaxing and fun. After missing it in 2018 (we went to the Reboot in Croatia instead), we were eager to meet fellow German and international developers in Berlin again. For those who don't know the A MAZE, it's a games festival with exhibition, talks, live music and workshops (and probably more). The focus is on art/games, and not on the business side or even the development of games. It's all about personal stories, crazy, mesmerizing and/or glitchy visuals, VR/AR/MR/XR/PR and generally digital weirdness. So, we had a good time.

The A MAZE happened at a new location this year, at the SEZ, a big building reminding Friedrich of his former school which was built in the 70s. While the Urban Spree was always very fitting for the AMAZE in our opinion, the SEZ brought the event together well and was also better suited for this year's cold weather. The venue change was good!

In order to justify our visit a bit, we also brought Mondar's Dungeon with us and showcased it for a few hours at the Open Screens (right next to Sos' Open Sound System). Some people eagerly played the game and gave feedback, and overall we are stoked by the positive reception. Mondar's Dungeon was originally meant as our entry for the 7-Day-Roguelike-Challenge (yes, the same event Pitman Krumb was part of, back in 2011!), but we didn't finish in time and instead worked a bit more on it until it felt complete. The elevator pitch: "Mondar's Dungeon is a roguelike, but with cards." While future updates might still come, it is mostly finished and can be played on itch.io for free!

Our friend Björn was also at the A MAZE. He released his game Murder Machine Mini on Steam two days before, and Friedrich lent his laptop so he could present the game at the Open Screens too. He did, and quite a few people had a good look at this retro shooter.

As mentioned before, the A MAZE also offers talks and workshops, and we attended some of these. For example, while Jana took part in a workshop by Anita Sarkeesian about diversity and representation in games, Friedrich was more interested in the technical side of game creation and attended workshops about ray marching shaders and about stage design in Unity. But our personal highlight were the Hyper Talks, where nine creators each had five minutes for talking about everything, from playing with dogs to creativity burn-out.

It goes without saying - we also talked to friends and friendly people at the venue all the time, discussing games, game design and the weather. Jana took part in a podcast (about game difficulty), over at the Saftladen.

Now what does the future hold for Rat King? Sadly, Behind Stars and Under Hills is on hiatus with an unknown fate. But to keep going, we accept commissioned work - the second half of 2018 was dedicated to the game for an app about the sky disk of Nebra, commissioned by MotionWorks GmbH. This sky disk is probably the oldest still existing depiction of the cosmos - we will write a bit more detailed blog post about the game soon.

Of course Rat King is still indie, thus we create concepts and prototypes for different game ideas floating in our collective rat hive mind. This blog will hopefully be more active again soon!