First things first: download the game HERE.
In the beginning…
Since we’ve built the Zwoboter in 2014 I was hooked by electronics. It’s really easy if you take the first step and just start tinkering. It’s one of the vast territories that you maybe have to bring yourself to set foot in but once you’ve soldered *anything* (like, an assembly kit) and once it really works(!) you feel like a freaking magician -and that’s exactly what people 1000 years ago would have thought about that skill, probably.
The best thing to have for making an alternative game controller is a sensor board of any kind. You can take a look at the Raspberry Pi (it’s great because it has video output and you can run a whole Linux and Windows on it) or do the simple shit and get a MaKey MaKey (this one maps any conductive materials to keyboard inputs so you can play Donkey Kong on a real banana controller) …or you get an Arduino!
I love the Arduino for being an easily programmable, accessible platform and I worship it since I found out that you can read sensor data from Unity3D and therefore have unlimited possibilities for game controllers. Damn, you can even connect robots! to! your! games! (note to self: build personal robot army for taking over the world). But to get there I knew I needed some sensors!
So one day I was browsing Amazon and Ebay for electronic sensors and found this little fella:
This sensor (it’s called “QRD1114″) has two components: an infrared LED and a photo transistor (think of it as a switch that senses light and dark). It is usually attached to robots to make them follow black lines on a white floor (or the other way round). I ordered a bunch because I thought they could be useful some time. Well, some time later I thought I could build a RPM meter with it and I went to the DIY market and got a wheel and some free wood from the scrap wood box and a screw, used it with duct tape and soldering iron. Then I had a wheel controller that I hooked up to Unity3D to make a cube spin. Impressive.
A week later I attended the Berlin Hardware Jam. My plan was to build a second wheel controller so I can make a multiplayer game. The 12 hour jam was great and the games we made were huge fun.
Another week later, or two, Alt Ctrl Game Jam appoached on the schedule. 10 days of jamming?! You can do a LOT in 10 days! Lets to this! And this is where my kids come into play. I asked them if they want to make a game with me. Justus (8) and Luzie (near-5) said yes and I was giving them a list of the sensors we could use. I told them about the pressure sensor a kite magician once gave me and that we could try to make it work using a balloon. The kids wanted to see that but it didn’t work (today I know that was because we didn’t understand how the sensor works) so we tried something else. I sealed a cardboard roll with some duct tape so we had someting to blow into. Meanwhile Justus came up with the game idea to make a Zeppelin fly. So I asked him to draw the Zeppelin and showed him some reference images on the internet.
The blow-in-the-cardboard-roll controller didn’t work, either. It was very exhausting and after a little while the nausea got worse than 3 hours of VR rollercoasters. We needed an idea. And Luzie came up with the genious plan to use an air pump! I jumped down the stairs to the basement to get our bike floor pump. I attached the cardboard roll (+sensor) to the air pump and we had a clear signal and useful sensor data! I began to scan the drawings and build the Unity3D project. I also hooked up my two wheel controllers and a few hours later we had the first Zeppelin game prototype:
During the week we only had a few half-hours per day, because of school, daytime jobs, cooking and eating… But the afternoons were reserved for our project (eating was allowed as long as it wasn’t too wet). Justus and Luzie had a lot of fun thinking of new assets and drawing them. At night I was scanning and cropping the images, built the game world and began to plan the ‘cockpit’. At first I thought I’ll need to draw some things myself, but every time I told my kids what assets were missing they were keen to produce them (“We need some sounds, let’s grab the mike!” – “Yaay!” )
Sometimes I had to show them how to draw things, but every line you see in the game was drawn by one of my kids – my role was to filter and arrange the huge asset output of the two artists. And during the week the game world grew and grew. On Day 1 we had a single screen and now we have quite a big area to explore (I also plan to make a version with endless procedurally generated Child art landscapes. Well, we’ll see). The last weekend of the jam was dedicated to the controller. We planned to build a ‘cockpit’ to sit on with cranks on the sides and the air pump between your legs. I made some sketches, we went to the DIY market, got some cheap wood and began to build the box:
The kids were helping, of course:
We built the cockpit without major problems. We learned that wood is very forgiving. The kids continued to draw graphics for the game (although I was telling them I would probably not be able to add them before the deadline). I also had to implement some kind of main menu. To be able to have some english text on screen my son created a handwriting font using myscriptfont.com. The the start screen landscape panorama flight was the last thing I added.
We spent last few hours of the jam with testing, balancing and making the trailer video. I uploaded the game 10 minutes before deadline and was really tired. But we did it!
What we’ve learned
Today I asked my kids what they have learned during the jam:
The 5-year-old told me she didn’t know before that you can just draw video game graphics by hand and that you have to put some effort in drawing them, so it can be “processed” easily. Same goes for the 3rd grader: he was astounded to see me scanning the drawings, cropping them in Photoshop and putting them into a game just like that. And I was happy that I didn’t need to draw a single line for the game and could focus on controller and code. I was able to teach them about (photoshop) cropping tools like the ‘magic wand’. And I even explained some parts of the code to them.
As for the Arduino setup, the preschooler told me that she didn’t know that there is a sensor for air pressure, that can give us numbers we can use to make the game, but my son was not too surprised that sensors like this exist (he loves to watch technical documentaries, so that doesn’t surprise me!) – but still, it was his little sister who invented the pump controller.
The wood work on the cockpit was also fun for all of us. The two inventors helped me to saw, screw and sand the wood, they watched me using the heavier tools like the drill or the jack saw (and they loved the safety goggles I bought them for that purpose) and generally planned the construction with me (where should we put the crates, pump and lever? where do the LEDs belong and what colors should we use?)
Overall I think it has been a great experience for all of us. We’ve built a funny game along with an alternative controller. We had a game jam together as a family (which I think is something special), and I was able to show my children aspects of my daily work.
I like the idea that they maybe become some kind of engineers, inventors, but even if they want to have a rather non-technical job like florist or librarian, I believe that they’ve learned something for life. And I will try to continue doing game jams with (my) kids. Because kids are awesome when you ask them to think out of the box. Support that – early! They will solve your problems when you’re too old to find solutions yourself.
tl;dr: Make games with (your) kids! It’s great fun!