Our incredibly dedicated developer, Bob Wylie, immediately set to work installing an Asterisk server and programming the game logic. Asterisk is an open-source PBX. The software is normally used to set up office voicemail systems or create phone trees. But with a lot of work and some incredibly rapid development it turns out you can use Asterisk to control a game as well.
Ranjit Bhatnagar developed the front-end client to display the neighborhoods on the flat screens. For this he used the Java-based Processing framework. Ranjit’s front-end application displayed the game state to the players so they didn’t need any fancy application on the phone. Instead everyone playing the game could see all of the other player’s moves played out in real-time on one big screen.
Development of the game was tricky. It required cobbling together a number of different technologies and protocols, from Asterisk to handle the phone call, to a Java backend to run the game logic, to a MySQL database for storing player data. Then this part of the application had to communicate with the front-end client on three different laptops through a Jabber conduit. All of this had to be made to run in an environment at the Moscone center which we could not predict, from cellphone coverage to firewall issues.
To bring the game to life and make it immediately attractive we needed some great art. We turned to Jacqueline Yue and Kyron Ramsey to make the game look and feel cool. Jac designed an incredible set of game materials, from postcards to posters for each game, as well as the coolest temporary tattoo you’ve ever seen. Kyron made the onscreen effects and characters, using an 8-bit aesthetic that really brought the game to life. Using bright colors and iconic game references Jac and Kyron brought the game to life and gave it a wonderful “candy-coated” feel that drew in passer-bys.
How did the game go?
Given all of the possible technical problems, the game went extremely well and people really seemed to enjoy it. Gangs of GDC ran for two days around the GDC during which time we had over 300 players making several thousand phone calls.
There would often be small crowds gathered around the screens in the highly trafficked main hall. Each fight was extremely fast, taking no more than 25 seconds. Players would jump in and play a round or two on their way to and from sessions. Our system of individual ranks – with players progressing from Hood to the super-secret top rank Cyrus (think The Warriors) – combined well with the quick game play and made the experience extremely addictive to a number of players. In fact players got so into the game that they blew through our individual rankings much faster than we anticipated.
The game really seemed to work as a wonderful little gumdrop of fun at the GDC, attracting a wide audience that included everyone from executives to game designers to CAs. Even passer-bys enjoyed watching the game and trying figure out who was winning and losing based on people’s expressions.
However, we were a little disappointed that we did not see much grouping and concerted team play. It seems that most players were more interested in their individual ranks. We believe we could address this issue and inspire team interaction by providing more team information and score on each display. In addition, creating a character class system of overlapping dependencies could force grouping and team play.
Big games are always risky. Predicting how one player will behave is hard enough. Predicting how hundreds of them in combination will behave is even harder. But we learned a lot from Gangs of GDC, both about mobile technologies and player motivations. Using the phone as a wireless controller opens up a really interesting space to explore. In fact, the game and feedback we got from our players has already inspired some exciting ideas for next year.