April 8, 2014 4:30 PM | John Polson
Protecting the planet from alien invasion gets more complicated when you have to know which knobs, buttons, sliders, switches, and jacks to alter, but such is the challenge that Droqen and Patrick Dinnen's alt.ctrl.gdc showpiece, Analog Defender, presents.
Made originally for The Peripherals Initiative in Toronto where indie game creators and hardware hackers were paired together, Analog Defender is a new take on Space Invaders where you control a ship on its mission to blast through waves of aliens. While the premise might sound familiar, the console, full of patch cables and knobs, makes for a thrilling experience, as players try to discern just how to defend, without hitting the game-ending kill-switch, too.
The event brought together Starseed Pilgrim creator Droqen and creative technologist Patrick Dinnen, who decided to redesign the console for the trip to GDC in San Francisco last month. Together, they discuss how the analog console was created and the overhaul it went through before it appeared at the first alt.ctrl.gdc exhibit.
Could you walk me through how to play Analog Defender, using all these inputs?
The game is basically about working through a series of steps that eventually allow you to fire your weapons. Along the top you have a series of sockets and a patch cable. To get information about the state of each of sub-system you patch it into the input socket - that gives you some extra HUD type data up on the screen.
So first you select a stance (peace sounds nice, but the alien baddies aren't in a peacemaking mood, so we'd suggest attack or defend). Next pick a mode - different weapon types with their own pros and cons. Patch into your power display and lock the powerbanks in at nice high levels. Jack into the wave system and fiddle with your wave to get it matched closely to the enemy's. Finally you are ready to fire! Plus there are some extra special, one time use switches under the fail-safe flip covers.
How did you build the controller?
The mk1 design was 20-odd pounds of awkwardly shaped machine with a spaghetti nest of wiring inside - not a good candidate for flying from Toronto to California and remaining in working order:
So, Patrick took our acceptance into alt.ctrl as an opportunity to test the strength of his marriage and miss a lot of sleep while rebuilding the hardware from the ground up. With the exception of dropping the internal screen that the original console had, the layout is pretty much unchanged. The goal for the rebuild was portability, robustness and a much easier setup. The original had network cables, power cables, a USB hub, network router a pair of laptops... The new design needs one USB cable and a laptop.
Mk2 was designed to fit inside an aluminum flight case (usefully kept "because you never know..." by Patrick's Father-in-law). Inside the case was a plywood framework to support the control panels. The panel is actually two layers - 1/4" plywood for sturdiness and 1/8" clear acrylic on top to provide a nice space-age surface. On the reverse of the acrylic are the sticky vinyl labels.
The electronic heart of Analog Defender is an Arduino Leonardo. The Arduino keeps track of the state of all the knobs, buttons, sliders and jacks and keeps the laptop running the game informed about state. A nice feature of the Leonardo is that it can pretend to be a standard USB keyboard, so it simply sends state changes as keypresses.
Why did you build the controller?
We wanted to explore what we thought would be a fun idea: taking a relatively simple game and plugging it into a plausibly complex controller that might be used to control the game's systems if it were real life (or at least good Sci-Fi).
Who built it, and when and where was the first exhibition?
The concept for the game was dreamed up by Patrick Dinnen and Droqen. Early on we got some valuable input from Jonathan Guberman, David Bouchard, Aesthetec, Superbrothers and others (see Superbrothers' brilliant concept drawing for the control panel):
Mostly when it came to the building side of things the hardware was handled by Patrick and the game development by Droqen.
We showed Analog Defender first in 2011 at an event hosted by TIFF. Along with the Hand Eye Society, they put together the Peripherals Initiative, pairing indie game devs with hardware hacker types and providing support to see what they'd come up with.
Speaking of this hacker pairing, can you expand on that?
Indie game folks and hardware hacker types have a fair amount of overlap in outlook - they like tinkering with new ideas and don't want to be told what's interesting or possible by 'the man'. Yet they have quite different sets of skills and inspirations so the possibilities that come out of working together can be pretty interesting and novel.
Buttons, knobs, and jacks... have these existed in game hardware ever?
An early inspiration was Illucia, which makes Analog Defender's panel look simple. It isn't exactly a game, but it has game-ish elements.
Do you think the controller is limited to just this one game? If not, care to discuss some of the possible games you can make, and have made?
Nope, it isn't limited to the existing game. We're interested in exploring other games with the same inputs. We're both particularly fond of the idea of building a game that involves no exploding or slaughtering whatsoever. It'd be great to come up with a game that ties more tightly back to the controls, something that respects the analog synth roots of this thing.
What are your thoughts on the standard controllers for all current game systems?
They're fine. They have buttons and stuff. The last time Patrick spent any serious time with a console he was playing Katamari Damacy on the PS2, so his views on the subject may not be super valuable. Katamari Damacy is probably one of few games that uses the standard controller in a really interesting way!
Why is it important for the industry to highlight these hardware experiments?
Slow-moving giant that the industry is, it only gets a chance to perform its own hardware experiments occasionally and at great risk, while small independent groups have the freedom to do whatever they want. It's the same answer as it's ever been to this question, really: why pay attention to the unproven and the unpolished and the utterly miniscule? Because they might be treading new ground, and one of them might become your foundation.
Also perhaps, because of the recent mobile touchscreen trend, everyone needs a little reminder that touching physical stuff is awesome.