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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.”

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