Spin Me Right Round

Our old friend, prolific programmer and custom controller king, Alex Johansson, never ceases to amaze us with his creative spark. Since launching Narcissus -- his two-player movement mirroring masterpiece -- and stone-skimming shoot-em-up, Deathlection he’s been running custom controller workshops (and proudly flying the Makey Makey flag). We caught up with him to hear all about his new game, Flotate.

Soooo...what have you been up to, young man? It's been a busy old year! I’ve built a plethora of controllers: including boxing puppets for a game called Space Ragers and I’ve upgraded the design of Deathlection’s GUNtrollers! I've also been running custom controller workshops all over the world and seen some really amazing stuff come out of these sessions.

As for Narcissus, the computer version is live and the phone version’s in its final stages. Then of course there’s Flotate!

Aha! So, how would you describe Flotate? Well, essentially it’s a competitive pool tube wrestling game for 2-4 players. The objective is to paddle frantically in order to beat your opponent to the inflatable pool tube bobbing around the middle of the screen, and stay on it long enough to avoid being overturned/submerged by other swimmers!

The inspiration came from capsizing my brother -- and stealing his tube -- on holiday in Portugal. Once the idea had struck, I used my downtime around the pool to design the game, using Stencyl (software that lets you build games without code) to flesh it out.

It didn't take too long to plonk the basics together! Once I got back home, I spent a week or so polishing up the final game and quickly fashioned a few controller prototypes using Makey Makeys.

Did you always intend to use Makey Makey with Flotate? The game wouldn't be complete without the physical component and I wanted to put something together for an upcoming game jam in Dijon, France: Oujevipo.

The theme was “Kids” and participants were given a month to build a game and submit it online before the event. There was a list of constraints to make it a little harder. The one I chose involved creating a game with an alternative controller.

I’ve used Makey Makeys a lot over the past couple of years, so it just made sense. When I first created the game, I fashioned together a few circular controllers using rolls of sticky tape whilst co-running a controller workshop at the V&A Museum in London. After that I drew up some blueprints of how to build the game at a larger scale, so that the team in France could construct the final pieces (and I also made a French version of the game to sweeten the pill!).

What did you want the final controller to look like? What was your vision?
I wanted players to sit on/wear tires. To make this work, you’d need four tires -- one for each player. Once each one’s painted or colour-coded to match the on-screen characters, you’d glue two A5 conductive foil panels on either side of each tire before attaching Makey Makeys to each section. You’d then tap the front panels with your fingers to ‘paddle’ on screen, keeping the lower part of your hands on the back panels to ‘ground’ the connection.

I’ve put together a step-by-step guide on the Flotate website (scroll down towards the bottom of the page) so anyone can build them.

How did you fare in the competition?
The top 10 games won exhibiting space at Oujevipo and saw their game constructed into a full arcade cabinet, which toured France. I won a spot in the final selection and was able to see Flotate come to life during the game jam. Motorcycle tire tubes were used at the event, worn around players’ waists; kinda funny to see!

How many people have played it now?
I'd say the physical version has had about 500 people play it, and the online version a couple of thousand. UK gaming magazine, PCgamer, covered it in best free games of the week shortly after the launch, which was super nice.

Do you find that you tend to build controllers before games?
Not the case with Flotate, but there have been many games where I've designed the input first, which has led to some interesting innovations -- such as Morse. Whilst digging through some resources for a workshop, I came across a clothes peg and built a simple telegraph key. As a result, I designed a bunch of different games that used Morse Code as an input method, eventually coming up with a battleship-esque prototype.

What’s next?
Currently I'm very busy with work, but trying my hand at writing class content for future controller workshops, along with tinkering with other small projects. Later this month I'll be showing a game called Corporate Salmon in the North of England. Should be a blast.

Excellent work, Alex! Keep us in the loop on future developments.