Noah J Nelson on Monday, Dec. 9th
When Psychic Bunny’s Jesse Vigil asked if I wanted to take part in a play test of their latest game I naturally said yes.
Psychic Bunny is the Los Angeles based design firm that released the audio-centric game “Freeq” earlier this year. Last week that game was back in the spotlight thanks to a feature by Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek on the studio’s efforts to make “Freeq” accessible to blind gamers.
The new project from the game studio side of Psychic Bunny is “Batonk!” and is a throw-back to the kind of couch-based multiplayer experience that gamers grew up with. In fact, anyone who has spent time at events like IndieCade will have seen a fair number of games in this genre, from “Hokra” to “Hidden In Plain Sight”.
Producer Diana Hughes took me through some of the development that went into “Batonk!” which is in the final days of a Kickstarter campaign.
Hughes told me that the inspiration for “Batonk!” came from the studio’s love of board and card games that relied on secret information. For instance, what you’re holding in your hand in a card game can tip the balance of play through the power of surprise. Remember, if you will, what it is like to hold two Wild cards, two reverses and a Draw Four Wild card in “Uno.” Feels good doesn’t it?
That’s part of what Psychic Bunny is chasing with “Batonk!” What makes the game interesting is that the studio is pursuing this experience with “second screen” devices in mind, and is melding the more turn-based like card-game play with results that play out in real-time.
These two design challenges represent the greatest triumph and the greatest challenge the studio has set for itself.
Let’s start with the triumph. Through the Unity programming environment, which now is supported on every major gaming platform, Psychic Bunny has managed to make a “device agnostic” controller scheme.
All that someone who wants to play “Batonk!” with friends will need to do is download the controller program to their device of choice: iPhone, Android tablet, cat–okay, cats aren’t supported on Unity, yet–and synch their device to the server. Right now the server is running on Ouya, but Hughes told me that because they’re coding this in Unity pretty much anything will be able to be used as the server.
This is the real trick though: not all of the players have to use the same devices. Whatever a person has in their pocket will work as a controller, no matter what the other people in the room are playing on. This is one of those little gaming grace notes that feel like a glimpse of the future.
“Of course,” I thought, “it will be perfectly normal to walk into a friend’s party, see a game on the big screen, and start playing with everyone else just by pulling out my phone. That’s what we’ve been running towards for five years.”
What I’m not sure about is whether or not that game will be “Batonk!”
The core idea: that four players battle for control over three robots is straightforward enough. So straightforward that a live action version was a hit at IndieCade this past October. The tricky part is splitting the player’s attention between the two screens involved in the game.
The “secret information” involved is the card-hand on the player’s own device. Players deal cards and card-combos to the various robots on screen. The robots execute the commands in the order they were received, and since the live-players don’t know who ordered what and when the robots start careening all over the place.
At times it is fun, a lot of laughter takes places as the robots can’t seem to make up their mind. Yet when you are desperately trying to issue commands and they don’t seem to be getting through the game quickly enters controller-throwing territory. Only the controller is a cellphone. Not so good, that impulse.
The real problem is the split attention. A player has to look at the second screen in order to influence the main screen. This creates a tension of attention. It is a problem that every game designer working in the second screen space faces. The team who cracks this design problem, if it can be cracked at all, are going to be heroes.
With an alpha prototype that is only a few weeks old, “Batonk!” is not yet that game. This doesn’t mean that it won’t be, but the challenge has been cut out for the team.
The potential here, especially around the “device agnostic” controller design, is enormous. With less than a third of the funding goal met and just a few days to go the project is looking like a long shot. Which would be somewhat of a shame, as Psychic Bunny has hit a rich development vein here, one worth exploring.