Tuesday 29 November 2016

The Mega Cooperator - a Teamwork-Fuelled Custom Controller

The Mega Cooperator is a custom controller I built for Sega Mega Drive consoles. It plugs into the console's controller port and mimics the actions of four buttons. One button is randomly assigned to each of the four players. Every 30 seconds the actions switch around, so players need to communicate to figure out who has what, and to operate the game.

I’ve been excited for a long time about re-interpreting classic games in new ways, seeing them as a canvas to be explored rather than as finished products. I’ve also been inspired by the amount of teamwork that was present in Codex Bash.

By adapting the 4-button custom controller I made for that game, I found I could take existing single-player games and turn them into comedic teamwork experiences.

The video above shows the buttons being mapped to Left, Right, Down and A on a Mega Drive controller, to play Sonic the Hedgehog 2. No player knows what their button does and can only find out by pressing it. To keep players on their toes, every 30 seconds a loud buzz sounds and the buttons' roles switch around.

Sonic is a game about swift flowing movement, and designed to make the player feel empowered. Basic motion should be easy, but now even simple obstacles require a lot of communication and forethought.

The team needs to be in sync to time actions such as a running jump or to avoid projectiles. They must listen to each other, perhaps forming a leadership structure.

The Mega Cooperator prototype connected to a Sega Mega Drive console
To find out what your button does you need to press it, but everyone pressing at once creates misleading information.  Because players need to listen to each other as well as act as individuals, it naturally creates a situation where players need to resist their impatient urges!

The regular shuffling of the buttons is a moment where the whole team needs to reconfigure. The team is given only enough time to get into a flow momentarily, producing an ebb-and-flow of drama. Peaks and troughs form as players go from rapid back-and-forth chatter to their plan coming together for a short period.

The accompanying buzzing gives the sense of panic, and the tension of knowing that change is going to come any moment. Much like designing a game, creating custom hardware is an opportunity to engineer drama!

Because of the need for teamwork, simple obstacles become complex communication tasks almost by accident. The stand-out challenges of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, for example, were not the same ones put there by the designers. So these challenges feel organic rather than being designed learning goals.

The team gets to feel they have overcome adversity entirely by their own merits - not because they had been trained to.

The controller also creates a kind of comedy, with what should be simple suddenly becoming very hard. Watching Sonic casually stroll into a spike pit, for example, is funny because it is an action that would be ridiculous in real life.

Sonic becomes the unwitting foil of a Numbskulls-like farce, where four different pilots struggle to operate a single character.

Indeed, one of the unique features of the control system is that it’s perfectly possible for a player to press the wrong button. When the team usually wants to move right, for example, one player may be pressing Left. Unless they can work together as a team they're liable to sabotage themselves! 

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 works particularly well because of its forgiving level design and recovery mechanics. It means these tests of teamwork need not be damningly hard - the team can get by operating a clumsy Sonic until more complex hazards (such as Dr Robotnik) appear later in the stage.

Nevertheless the kit is not limited to one game - it can be reprogrammed to suit all games in the Sega Mega Drive library, and can even have extra buttons attached to it.

The racing game Micro Machines 2 works really well with a setup using six buttons. In this version of the game, three out of six buttons are randomly mapped to the red car - for Left, Right and Accelerate - and the other three are mapped to the blue car. Two teams of players must climb over each other to get to the buttons they need. It takes a game about driving and turns it into a physically-intense, Twister-like experience.

The Mega Cooperator works on an official Sega Mega Drive console, by plugging directly into one more more controller ports.

The video below shows this in action. I wasn't able to get friends round to show this in action, so for the meantime the best demonstrator is me playing with my feet!

In the current prototype there are are two Arduino boards - one to interpret the input from the buttons, and another to send signals to the Mega Drive controller ports. This is a useful tool for the prototyping phase, as it allows me to use a computer as an intermediary.

With the computer in-between I’ve been able to experiment by adding other input sources including microphones and barcode scanners. In the upcoming versions the kit will run off of a single board.

As well as putting everything on a single board, the next version will allow the user to configure exactly which Mega Drive buttons are activated using a set of switches on the hardware. In the current prototype a different script must be loaded onto the Arduino board for each unit, which obviously needs to change. It would also be great to give it a nice black-plastic casing to match the original Sega console.

The whole process is a lot of fun to do. It’s allowed me to find new modes of interaction in games that are almost 25 years old. I like the idea that the controller used to play a game can completely change what that game is about, and I’m excited to explore this further with more projects.