Smooth Operator, the GDC’s Make Out Darling

Smooth Operator is the first full release from Beardo Games. It made a splash at both the GDC 2015 and SXSW 2015. It was not necessarily well received, but indeed, it was received. It was the most memorable game launched at the GDC’s Big Indie Pitch this year, and possibly the most interesting game at SXSW as well. Mechanically, it’s a cooperative two-player game (in which the chosen two characters make out). Smooth Operator includes over 16 unique, selectable characters.  It combines the absolute powers of hilarity and discomfort. Pay attention to Beardo Games! More is to come.

Beardo Games’  website offers the following short description of Smooth Operator

This co-op kissing game is an ice breaker (or ice maker :/ ) at gatherings. Two people squish together to play on a single device–not by network–to create an awkward faux-intimacy in the physical world, matching the theme of the game. Eye-popping art and tongue action, with more than 16 selectable characters make it memorable, whether you love it or hate it. It was originally inspired by our Ludum Dare 27 Entry, Second Base. We had so much fun making it, and that we wanted to polish it up and bring it to iOS and Android.

We caught up with Beardo Games a few weeks ago and asked them a few questions. See interview transcribed below.

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Motion Media: How was SXSW?

Kate (Beardo Games’ marketing and PR manager and idea person) It was really, really good. It was kind of overwhelming. The game section is sort of open to the public and there’s no admission fee, so you get all sorts of people who you’d never think of coming to a game convention. It was a really, really huge audience.

Motion Media: I read that the game part of SXSW is less chaotic than the rest of it. It’s on the fringes of the rest of the festival.

Chris (programmer): Yeah. You don’t need a badge. There’s no fee. It’s not in the middle of everything. It still took me about 45 minutes to get into the parking garage one day because we timed it wrong.

Motion Media: So not as well organized as the GDC?

Chris: Well, the GDC is a totally different thing. People come to take sessions and learn things. At the game expo, we were kind of just standing there, showing the game over and over and over. We were just standing there saying, “hey, we have a weird two-player kissing game!” and people would look at us like we said something really gross whereas if we had said, “hey, we have a game where you can cut someone’s liver out!” they would’ve been like, “YEAH!!”

Motion Media: I recently tweeted at you to ask if you named Smooth Operator after the Sade song. You gave a cryptic response. Could you tell me a bit about the origins of the name and the style of the game?

Miles Nielsen (the artist): Chris came up with the name. As far as the style of the game, it was sort of a collaborative process. We went through 80’s references, 80’s action references, and music. The name just sort of fit the vibe overall.

Chris: I can’t say that the Sade song was an explicit reference. It’s there, and it’s purposeful, but it’s not the entire name.

Kate: It wasn’t playing in the background, but it’s out of that whole mix of early MTV and videos that got shown over and over and over again. So it’s out of that whole 80’s vibe that comes through in the effects of the game. If I sounded cryptic on twitter it’s because I didn’t want Sade to see it. But if she got excited about the game, I guess that would be great publicity!

Chris: This is a bit of a departure, but we did the game originally for the game jam, Ludum Dare.  They do it four times a year. It’s a huge, huge game jam that they do worldwide and it is a 48 hour event. We did this game originally for Ludum Dare and the theme was “10 seconds”. We like to be contrary about things so we tried to get away from the time constraint. The original title was “10 Second Bases”. How do you get to second base? You get to be an expert at first base.

Kate: And thinking about, when you’re younger, and you use that baseball metaphor – so a slightly juvenile twist.

Chris: But outside of that, it [10 Second Bases] doesn’t really make sense as a name – so we started digging around for something else.

Motion Media: I thought it was interesting, because I did read that the game originates from a second base goal, how there is a conversation about consent embedded in the premise.

Kate: I agree with that. We actually had that conversation because we came up with the twist on the jam game first. You know- how 10 seconds would not reference time, but instead, second base.

But with both player’s tongues moving in the game, they’re both into it, it’s really clear. Also, it is a two player game, you choose your character, the other person chooses their character. There are quite a few layers of consent going on.

But if it was really a game about groping? We brainstormed that a little and we thought, “what’s really happening there?” So unless we elevated it to a really abstract level, we weren’t sure how to make a game that was fun and eye-catching and not have anything weird possibly interpreted in it that were weren’t going for, that was non-consensual.

Motion Media: A couple weeks ago, I saw an article that was written about you around the time SXSW was going on. I saw a comment from you, Kate, it was,“With an intention of inclusiveness, you’re naturally doing something bigger than helping middle schoolers laugh about tongues. I don’t want to overplay our hand. This is a juvenile goofy game, but at the same time we’re from Portland, Oregon, so we naturally try to do things a little mindfully, if you will.” Could you elaborate on that statement a bit?

Kate: Absolutely! And I’ll let Miles talk about that a little bit as well, since the character design is largely his creation. But you don’t have to have a checklist and say, “I have to represent everyone”, but if you think about differences between people, and what makes people interesting, or what makes someone stand out in a crowd, and what draws people to other people, and you’re just creating really interesting characters, I think you’re going to get a lot of variety – even if that’s not necessarily the way mainstream Hollywood typically develops characters.

I think Smooth Operator’s diversity derives from having little back-stories to each character, or particular characters are real-life references. We find these references personally interesting.  And certainly, I’ll let Miles speak to this, we were trying to make them hot!

Miles: As hot as I could make them.

Motion Media: I love that the only two characters who can’t make out are two brothers. 

Miles: Yeah. Anyone can play the game however they want – and we wanted people to make decisions however they wanted. We, ourselves, are completely open to however anyone wants to look at life – but obviously, incest was the one thing we couldn’t do.

Kate: And also, that sort of adds to my comment about the texture of the characters, and their backstories, these two happen to be brothers!

Miles: A lot of our characters come from other games we’ve made. One of our characters has been in every game we’ve made so far.

Chris: Also, I think, a little bit of our aesthetic is going for – averageness. Every character has a little bit of oddity to them, but they’re also average in a way. None of them are space marines, or fashion models. No zombies! They’re average oddities.

Miles: I also think, even with the last game we were working on, all of our games have an element of crudeness to them. Crude themes. When I say crude, I mean the style of art, in a manner of the lowbrow art movement. Not everything has to be a beautiful 3d render.

In so many games, the point is to be beautiful, and the beauty and style of the game invoke a certain emotional response. Our game is trying to invoke an emotional response, but it’s an awkward response. The style of art speaks to the awkwardness of the game. Feeling awkward is a fraught emotional experience.

Getting middle schoolers to laugh, or getting GDC attendees to laugh, that’s good. It’s a good goal!

Chris: I didn’t go to GDC or SXSW, but I did attend a local Portland thing, Portland Retro Gaming Expo. And it’s awkward sometimes! You’re standing there trying to get people into playing the game, and they’re not socially into it! They’re awkward. And it’s awkward trying to get them to play the game.

Kate: It is kind of funny. We all three show the game. But it’s funny to stand back and watch the other two show the game. There are definitely people who would play the game with me, who wouldn’t play it with Miles – and then there’s definitely people who are more comfortable playing it with Miles. They’re like, oh, clearly this is abstract, and weird and silly – so we’re just doing this. It definitely depends on the dynamic of the individual.

But Miles was definitely out there saying, “do you wanna make out?” to everyone who walked by him.

Motion Media: Do you think that reaction will become intensified once people have to actually touch thumbs in the next version? 

Miles: I think that’s going to elevate the whole thing, the whole response.

Chris: There’s weirdness involved with trying to coordinate your fingers moving around on a screen with someone else. Even playing the prototype this afternoon with just myself, I was like “yeah… this is … strange”. So, fingers crossed, hopefully there will be that reaction (no pun intended).

Kate: We’ve had a lot of feedback on the current version, so we kind of know what’s going on with that. So keep trying to think of ways to make it more fun, and ways to push that awkward dynamic even more! Expect great things!

Motion Media: I am! Can customers expect updates beyond what you’ve already announced? Do you want to take the game further?

Kate: Well, I think one thing that we’ve talked about is kind of like, the ultimate tool for diversity in any game, is a really well-crafted build your own character mode. But that’s really hard to do, so we are not promising it yet. But, potentially, if there is enough interest there to sustain it, there could be a new version or another update with a character builder.

Miles: What about three player mode?

[everyone laughs]

Chris: We’ve also talked about seasonal updates – like adding a creepy Santa Claus character with a facial scar and a Band-Aid on his face, the Easter bunny, you know.

Kate: We’ve also had some interest in the broader indie developer community for some cross-overs. We’ve been hanging out a lot at the GDC and SXSW – and they tell us that they want their characters in our game.

Chris: So there may be some guest characters.

Motion Media: Seeing your trailers and other promotional material, I notice a couple different control schemes, what is the ultimate goal for controlling your characters tongues in Smooth Operator? Swipe, buttons, etc?

Miles: The end goal right now is swipe controls. I think it makes it more intimate between the players, and also it feels better. It makes it less like two separate games on either side of the screen, and more like you’re collaborating.

Kate: We think the physicality of the swipe fits the feel of the game and the artwork better than button tapping.

Motion Media: Do you think if someone is jiving well with another person, they’re going to be able to play the game better?

Chris: Oh, without question. As you get more familiar with each other, you definitely play the game better. I think that’s the goal.

Kate: I don’t think it’s perfectly correlated (although we would like it to be) but if you’re afraid of touching or holding the other person’s hand, you’re not going to be able to play well.

Motion Media: How did you decide which tongue moves the players can execute? Was there a motion capture session involved? 

Chris: As much as I would like to say that there was, it came down to frame vitality. there are only so many tongue moves that you can represent. There are only so many tongue moves you can represent in this very stark kind of 2d. It doesn’t have a whole lot of depth to it in terms of the art.

Now that you say it, that would’ve been perfect. Maybe we have to go back to the drawing board.

Miles: Animating the tongue was awkward. All the way along. There’s been a lot of art that got pulled at the end. There was actually stuff that I animated that I was very uncomfortable with.

Kate: There were some super moves discussed, like mortal combat super moves, but with tongues. We would still love to be able to incorporate. It would not be an all ages update!

Motion Media: What about a Smooth Operator blooper real?

Motion Media: What tools did you use in the design and development of Smooth Operator? What was the most important tool? Which did you rely on most?

Miles: For the art I kind of go about by doing graphic art. I use Flash. I am actually a 3d artist – I do sculptures. I am used to making flash animation pages for my website, so it is kind of what I am used to using. The way I use these tools kind of feels like sculpting, which I like. I don’t have the steadiest hand.

Chris: On my end, once Miles gets all the art done, I then take it and chop everything up out of flash into individual frames of animation. On the development side, I use a package called Spritebuilder – which is kind of a graphical interface for cocos2d. It is a library designed for making games for ios, for ipad and iphone, but it can also publish for android.

Motion Media: One last question. Beyond Smooth Operator, what is next for Beardo Games?

Kate: There’s so many ideas swirling right now. There are a lot of ideas. We are really into transforming the jam game into a mobile game.

Chris: We are working on something called “cheap shot” – more crude subject matter. Basically, it’s a punching simulator. It sounds simplistic, but we wanted to take it in an art direction. It got overwhelming. We’re taking a break from that right now.

Kate: And then, also, we are really inspired by every day life (in addition to games, music, comic books, etc). …

Miles: So, we are all of us, Chihuahua people. We all have small dogs.

Motion Media: I have noticed that Chihuahua people flock together!

Miles: It’s very true! We are playing around with a multi-player arena game where you play as a Chihuahua. And Chihuahuas have bad habits! So basically, the game is, you’re eating poop and puking it up with other Chihuahuas.

Kate: This could evolve! In the final cut, it could be that everything is made of rainbows and sparkles!

Motion Media: Like Chihuahua drag queen barf?

[We all laugh]

Kate: We have some other ideas too! But we can’t share too much because we don’t want others to beat us to the punch!

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