Disassembling custom game cabinets with The Behemoth
Why The Behemoth has spent four years perfecting the art of building custom arcade machines
The main hall of a large gaming expo is a surprisingly difficult place to make a lasting impression on people. The problem is competition: every square foot of floor space is occupied by things designed to grab attention, with giant screens showing cinematic trailers fighting for interest against seas of promotional banners that stretch into the rafters. It’s all a bit much for most attendees to process.
The Behemoth, the San Diegan studio responsible for Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theater, has found a clever way to stand out from the larger developers and publishers. Instead of simply setting up a handful of standard consoles and controllers, over the past few years it has built a series of increasingly elaborate custom arcade cabinets with novel control interfaces and eye-catching facades. The team does all the design and construction of these contraptions in-house, with everyone from QA leads to animators coming together to bolt and weld cabinets before every show.
The strategy seems to be working: at this year’s PAX Prime, the line to play the studio’s new game (simply called Game 4 for now) rivalled those for juggernauts such as Bloodborne and Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Creating these custom machines is far from an overnight process, and The Behemoth has been refining its method for quite some time. John Baez, one of the studio’s co-founders, is the mastermind behind its show-floor experience. He built the studio’s first custom cabinet in his garage back in 2010, and has designed all of the successive iterations ever since.
“I was totally amped up to make an arcade machine for Castle Crashers,” Baez says of that original machine from 2010, “but we only had, like, ten days before we had to ship to [PAX Prime.] So we built that thing in four days. It was unreal. It kind of burnt everybody out, but it showed us the way.”
It was a runaway success. After the popularity of that first machine, Baez and The Behemoth team endeavoured to replace their entire booth with similar machines, and dispense entirely with the notion of using normal controllers.
Baez expresses incredulity that more developers aren’t doing something similar for their game kiosks. “All you have to do,” he says, “is buy a Mad Catz fightstick and take it apart!”
Baez did exactly that, building a second generation of cabinet using scavenged fightstick hardware for PAX Prime 2011. The transition was complete, and The Behemoth showed off BattleBlock Theater on a full contingent of custom machines that year. There hasn’t been a regular console controller to be found in its booths ever since.
Meanwhile, Baez has continued to explore different control methods and cabinet designs. “Last year for PAX, I made a cabinet for Super Soviet Missile Mastar. It’s the third cabinet for that game that I’ve made, and for this version I used a gigantic bowling ball as the controller,” he says. “It has the bowling ball, a single button, and then it’s got a whole bunch of little five-inch HD DSLR screens that are all chained together. Some of them are
“If you only give the player what your game requires, you get such a better response”
running the game screen, and then some of them are just running Russian propaganda video that we cut together.” This experiment became an inspiration for Baez’s current Game 4 cabinet design, which debuted at this year’s PAX Prime. “Having this gigantic bowling ball as a controller really let us cut free from any idea that you need to have standard stuff for an arcade machine,” he says. “That’s why on this year’s version of the Game 4 cabinet we have a big lever to send your troops in, we have a gigantic A button, and just a little [joystick to move the] cursor… If you only give the player what your game requires, you get such a better response.”
While the result of all this custom engineering is an attention-grabbing booth that can easily compete with its bigger neighbours, that’s never been the primary motivation for putting so much work into these machines.
“When they come to PAX or ComicCon or any of the other shows we do, we want people to come to our booth and have an experience they can’t have at home,” Baez explains. “[They can] stand in front of this machine and have this feedback with the machine. We’re really interested in delving into that a little bit, scraping away at it and seeing what’s there, because it’s something that’s totally missing when all you have is a nondescript black box that’s plugged into your TV, and a generic controller.
“We’re doing this because we like to build stuff with out hands, and because I want to pull this gigantic lever and send these [troops] to their possible death. I want to feel that visceral feeling, and then bring it here and share it with everybody. That’s what it’s all about.”