Expanding on Making Custom Game Platforms and Badges

Last week I gave a talk at CrowdSupply’s Teardown Conference that expanded on the Thotcon 0x9 and 0x8 game platform work that my creative partner, Rudy Ristich, and I have been working on together for the last couple years. As a design talk, it focused on the affordances of developing interconnected, embedded game systems. It also expanded on my ideas of where I hope some games (particularly, computer games), and game developers, move toward in the near future with developing custom platform hardware. I wanted to expand on a few of the ideas briefly here:

As I stated in my talk, custom platform hardware has the potential to change how game designers make games, and how players experience games, by giving both groups newfound ways to interact and communicate with each other. By no longer having game experiences mediated through consoles under tight control of large corporations, game developers could have the ability to express themselves in ways that have been, up until now, limited by things like market demands, terms of service, and guidelines on allowed speech.

While we currently see some of this in showcases like GDC’s alt-ctrl, the games represented here are kitschy at best: one-off experiences tenuously wired together with prototyping platforms that are not meant for broader consumption. This brings me to my second point, which is that in order to represent a true change in the gaming landscape, custom game platforms must have the ability to be more accessible and affordable. This is, in essence, an issue of scale.

Up until recently, scale challenges have plagued the development of game platforms (and other hardware platforms) due to the cost of expertise (engineering time) and rapid advances in technology. For anyone breaking into the hardware market, a substantial amount of capital is necessary to prototype, test, and ultimately manufacture a mass-quantity of product.

Yet hardware continues to become more accessible through prototyping platforms like the Arduino, ESP8266, and other microcontroller devices. This makes engineering expertise less necessary and costly. Furthermore, as Moore’s Law slows and the cost of components continues to drive downward, more advanced, inexpensive technology is being made accessible to developers.

The Thotcon 0x8 and 0x9 badges are a great example of this. Badges for both conferences cost under $30/unit to fabricate, and were manufactured at a scale of 1,500 and up — fairly inexpensive and large scale for a custom game platform. The games were initially prototyped on an Arduino and ESP8266, respectively, and subsequent test units were created at a minimal cost. Conceivably, this kind of operation could be scaled up with additional units, and cost (per unit) could be driven down as a result, creating a template one could follow for mass-manufacturing custom game platforms.

Additionally, the game on the 0x8 badge in particular represented a dramatic shift from traditional game consoles. Instead of using a screen, it used four RGB LEDs, and instead of using a traditional game input (a d-pad and buttons), it used three potentiometers to control directionality. Conference-goers have commented on the playful, toy-like experience that the interactions driven by these simple inputs and outputs created. As an aside, I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the badge didn’t have an LCD screen on it, therefore didn’t resemble a game experience they’d seen before, and therefore eliminated the baggage of expectations set by prior experiences.

The shift in accessibility for developing custom game platforms, as well as doing so at cost, portends a possible shift where more people will not only have the ability to create, but to distribute, large quantities of their own devices. What that possibly looks like could take many forms, but my own personal preference would be a device dramatically divergent from what’s currently on the market. Perhaps something that requires less of our senses and breaks down the walls that video games have erected to shut us off from the external world while we retreat into our screens. Computer game platforms can be devices that exist more harmoniously in an integrated environment.

Anyway, a future in games where we have the control to make and edit not only the software, but the hardware, that our work is mediated through is interesting. If you’d like to watch what else I have to say about this, check out my Teardown talk.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

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