Mixing the lo-fi console gaming of yesteryear with a contemporary physics engine and a mandate to delight, DOBOTONE is a multiplayer game system by the Argentinian duo VIDEOGAMEO. It has (up to) four players wield a simple two button controller and cycle through a selection of Atari/ColecoVision-style games with tweakable meta-parameters that make play chaotic and unpredictable. The VIDEOGAMO team, Hernán Sáez (game design) and Máximo Balestrini (programmer/engineer) gave CAN a guided tour of their console last week at the HSBC Gallery at the TIFF Lightbox, where it is currently installed as part of TIFF Kids International Film Festival’s yearly digiPlaySpace. Enjoyed in the context of that interactive playground, DOBOTONE makes perfect sense; beyond being riotously fun, it’s a marvel with clever interaction paradigms and really smart (basically elastic) level design.
DOBOTONE is a party game that hearkens back to the era of 100-In-1 NES cartridges. Players jump into a multiplayer ruckus that involves simple scenarios like guiding jet pack riders to a target platforms or assembling implausibly large artery clogging sandwiches (egregious BurgerTime reference anyone?). In isolation any one of these games couldn’t command a group’s attention for long, but that’s a non-issue as a session is all about players frantically flipping between games – there are six available on the digiPlaySpace version of the console. Beyond changing what is played, the parameters defining how play happens are also tuneable.
Zoom in on DOBOTONE’s interface and you’ll find buttons that reset the console and randomize game selection, and a slider that defines how many wins are needed for a player to claim victory (“it goes from three to infinite,” the duo write in a follow-up email ). Things get funky with the knobs, they: increase or decrease the gravity or speed, glitch the graphics (“it is basically meant to annoy players, but can also be used strategically to obscure what is going on”), dramatically expand or shrink the objects onscreen (“in some games it is a zoom lens but in others it changes the size of sprites”), and tweak the volume of music or sound effects. These interface elements are bounded by arrows that cycle through the available games (“selection basically works like changing channels on TV”) and sit above the buttons that let each of the players jump into (or out of) the fun.
This all sounds straightforward enough but it is total chaos once a group starts button mashing. Not liking the way a game is working out for you? Change it! Getting your butt kicked by somebody that is on a roll? Kill their momentum by making it 50 times harder. Things a bit too frantic for you? Slow them down. A weird rhythm emerges, participants are not so much playing the game as navigating its parameters.
During our session playing DOBOTONE Sáez mentions the reason they only have six of the ten games they’ve made available at digiPlaySpace is due to demographics: the other four are not so ‘kid appropriate’; “there’s a fighting one; another where you have to crush skulls; one where you have to fill giant toilets with skeletons – that kind of stuff.” Sáez and Balestrini’s goal is to design thirty games for the console, to keep the surprises and discoveries coming.
While DOBOTONE’s gameplay is wildly unpredictable it’s aesthetics are narrowly (albeit effectively) dialed into the 1983-1987 spectrum. It features dead-simple four colour graphics, and lo-fi resolution to match. Sáez and Balestrini point out this decision is not entirely fueled by nostalgia. “Before DOBOTONE, we made another project called NAVE Arcade, an oldschool arcade cabinet space shooting game with a few twists … it was made in low-res black and white because we wanted to focus on gameplay, so that saved us a lot of time in the making of the graphics.” Designing in Unity, they continue to focus on how things play rather than what they look like. They describe DOBOTONE as having a “pre- 8-bit aesthetic … but one capitalizing on the possibilities of contemporary physic engines and memory capabilities.”
↑ Evolution of a party machine: DOBOTONE’s console was conceived and play-tested in cardboard, perfected (and protected) in much more durable MDF
Unsurprisingly the emphasis on gameplay guided the design process. “We first made a two or three games that were played on Maximo’s laptop using some trashy two button controllers he had built,” says Sáez. “We were only focusing on two button games.” This begat a cardboard prototype with early versions of the knobs to change-up paramaters. “It used a couple of hidden smartphones instead of LCD screens for the scoring system and we still connected it to Maximo’s laptop through USB.” The duo describe this early prototype as helping them “build an identity for the concept” which was later migrated to a lasercut MDF console outfitted with acrylic controllers – all of which were clad in custom vinyl. This second generation of the console, which is sardonically labelled the “mega super ultra infra pre-alpha prototipo-fiesto-resistente version” contains a number of components: “a Parallax Propeller Quickstart board that works as the link between the game and the LCD screen, knobs, buttons and lights; a custom made board that functions as a keyboard, which is used just for the player controllers; and some etched PCBs that make it more modular and stable, separating things like the controller, centralized I/O, control panel, player on/off buttons.”
DOBOTONE was featured at the 2016 edition of Alt.Ctrl.GDC, the annual showcase of ‘alternative control schemes and interactions in games’ at GDC and now its eminent playability is being showcased in Toronto — through late April. When asked about the console’s success in bustling social settings, VIDEOGAMO are succinct: “at a party, there’s no time for tutorials or guessing who is who or what does what – that was the main reason why we built the console; we wanted the players to understand what was going on and have every possibility within reach.”