Jonatan van Hove (henceforth going by his nickname Joon) was an outdoor high-altitude team building instructor for five years, but it was never full-time. The job is secure only so long as the weather lasts, but it’s something he was able to enjoy and took great pleasure in. It was during this time that he realized the correlation between games and climbing while playing Trackmania Nations Unlimited. Reaching the top of a climbing wall, he says, matches the feeling of beating the time of the developers on a track – seeing that green ring appear around the gold medal takes lots of practice and your entire concentration. After serving drinks for three years and graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering, he eventually managed to open his own bar in Antwerp. The effort was a failure due to neighborhood bullying, mostly. He then moved to Iceland to be with his girlfriend.
Up until this point in his life, Joon had never made a game, but upon finding out about the Games program at ITU in Copenhagen, he believed that he had discovered a new wall to climb. As a result, he took the leap by moving to Copenhagen in September of 2011, and nine months later, the first game he co-developed, LAZA KNITEZ!!, was given the Indie Sensation Award 2012 at the Nordic Game Conference. With that first step conquered, he’s now looking at scaling the next development project as the designer and programmer.
“In Blind Monk you turn around with your phone and headphones, and you are listening for a ninja. When you hear him, you have to slash at him wielding your phone as a sword. That’s when I first discovered the potential of mobile devices.”
Blind Monk was made by some friends of Joon’s at the Nordic Game Jam, and its gameplay that revolves around a blind victim using sounds to defend themselves with a cellphone in a physical space, ignited a passion inside Jonaten. As such, he started to create his own physical game, using a phone as the center point, called DRONEFUCK. There were two droning sounds that rotate in opposite directions around you, and you need to strike them when they cross each other. Joon calls it a “very obvious Blind Monk ripoff.” He never released it.
“Games in physical space have been around way longer than computer games. So I’m one of those people who sees technology as a tool, just like a ball or stick.”
Not satisfied with his efforts so far, Joon started making a game of a similar ilk, but drew inspiration from the a physical team building game which is called The Coaching Bridge, which he often used as a team building exercise during his five years as an instructor. In The Coaching Bridge, the player is suspended on a rope about 10 meters above the ground and tasked with crossing a bridge, much like the one pictured to the right. Joon, as the coach, would belay them as they attempt to make it across.
“A more intense version of this, which I used to do with groups that wanted to go a bit deeper than just superficial thrills, is where the player that goes up on the bridge is blindfolded and takes instructions from another player who is on the ground. They need to communicate about this abstract problem, that neither of them is experienced in – how do you communicate distances in a very stressful, immediate environment, and so on. So I wanted to recreate that feeling and see if I could make a digital teambuilding game.”
The result of these influences is Zumbie: Blind Rage. The game requires one Shooter and a Spotter (or Spotters) to play. The phone that the Shooter holds acts as a gun that can be fired by tapping on the touchscreen and reloaded by shaking it vertically, with a rather satisfying sound upon doing so. The Spotters can see the game’s graphical interface with the Shooter represented by a limp and blind character in the middle, while a number of enemies approach from all sides. The idea is that the Spotters shout out the directions of the closest enemies, and the Shooter turns in physical space to shoot them.
“The idea to make it a zombie game came while I was already in development. There was a bug that, if you restarted the game without exiting properly, didn’t reset the increasing number of enemies spawned. So after I had died and the game restarted, 1000 white circles appeared at the edge of the screen, all slowly closing in on me. My ‘Coach’ or ‘Spotter’ just went “OH, FUUUUUUUCK”… that’s when I knew that we were on to something, and zombies was just a logical step. It also gave birth to the signature reload mechanic.”
Zumbie is all about communication within the physical space, and while having more players act as Spotters may be more fun, it’s usually more effective to have as few as possible. The game itself has no way of detecting how well the communication is being relayed, so it can’t actually punish or otherwise react to the most vital part of the gameplay. Defining factors aren’t set by the game, then, but in fact by how it is being played – if it’s in a noisy room or if you have someone who’s not very good at communicating to the Shooter, then it’s going to be more challenging.
“Games in physical space have been around way longer than computer games. So I’m one of those people who sees technology as a tool, just like a ball or stick. There’s a great talk by Lau, from Knapnok (I worked for them, and probably will again in the future) about the Kinect, in which he compares it to a trash can. Because of LAZA KNITEZ!!, and the installation(s) we’ve made for that, as well as being friends with Doug Wilson and the Copenhagen Game Collective, we’ve learned to imagine the situation you would play a game in, and not just the game itself.”
Extending The Vision
Zumbie is the type of game you’d expect from somebody involved with the Copenhagen Game Collective, who Joon admits have a bit of a fetish for party and performance games – just look to Johann Sebastien Joust, Fingle and B.U.T.T.O.N. for a few of the most well-known examples of their work. It is because of this effervescent collective of developers that Copenhagen is becoming known as one of the most exciting cities to watch for game design that feels fresh and different. It’s why Joon is hoping that his application for a concept development grant from the city will pass, which will allow him to elaborate on Zumbie’s core mechanics. It’s actually existed as a prototype for a number of months now, but many of those have seen no development time being invested. Only recently has Joon picked it up again with an new enthusiasm, and that’s because it has been nominated for an International Mobile Game Award in the Most Innovative category. More recently, it was selected for Chartboost University, in which Chartboost gives out up to $6,000 for flights and accommodation for developers to travel to Silicon Valley the week before GDC.
With this new prestige and attention, Joon hopes to have something worthy in mind for the future development of Zumbie. Of course, he’d like for the game itself to be good enough to sell for a dollar or two as an app. And like Spaceteam before it, any device with a decent screen can be plugged in for the Spotter to use for the visual part of game for free. In mind are some new modes that include different information that the Spotter would need to relay, such as objects that the Shooter would need to pick up or weapons for them to switch between. If the funding doesn’t come, then the game in its current state would be polished up and released. But Joon doesn’t expect for Zumbie to pay off. In fact, his ambitions are far beyond that; he’s got to find his next climbing wall to conquer, after all.
“One dream is to work out a license agreement with teambuilding facilities, where they buy it as an installation. I’m not sure if that’s going to be possible, but if they charge $1000 for a teambuilding day, and spend 30 mins playing Zumbie (which would make sense, as Zumbie is already better than some classic teambuilding exercises), then I don’t think they should be just paying the two dollars. If they buy another installation, or physical object, there’s no way it would cost them two dollars. The same goes for classrooms, although they can just get it for free, as they’re not making any money from it either. But I think this game could totally work in high-schools as a 5 or 10 minute break.”
Joon refers to the following video to demonstrate that last point. It was created by people he has no connection with, and therefore he’s hoping that the classroom is a natural play space for Zumbie to become part of.
With an action such as this – bringing a game like Zumbie into the classroom – Joon hopes to create a dialogue. He shares an anecdote to illustrate what he means:
He was at Global Game Jam in Antwerp, when met a professor from the University of Brussels. She was in a think tank to develop a serious game about cyberbullying, and so Joon asked her who was on the team, and she mentioned several psychologists, therapists and pedagogues. But no game designers. He argued with her for quite some time as he feels that the omitting of experienced game designers in projects such as this is entirely the wrong approach, and he believes that it is also the reason that we so seldom hear success stories from the results.
The money spent on that think tank, Joon says, will most likely produce a game that nobody will play if they are not forced to, and he imagines the players who do will be frustrated so much that whatever message it holds is blurred. He’s of the opinion that the money should be spent on looking at games that already exist and how they can be utilized or appropriated. He imagines a class of 12-year-olds that need education in cyberbullying. So have them play Minecraft for a week, and let the “psycho-therapy-pedagogues” work out a set of goals and rules for their Minecraft world, such as “build a pyramid” or “if you get 1000 diamonds, we will take you out for ice cream.” What he expects is that the players would start griefing each other, as it’s a very common occurence in Minecraft, and so there’s your link to cyberbullying. He also points out that there is also in-game chat, so you can discuss and analyze the word usage and conversations if desired. Afterwards he would have class discussions about key events during the play sessions. Joon reckons this approach would be so much more valuable and effective.
“I hope that Zumbie (while obviously very distant from this) can give me a screwdriver that I can wedge between the door of serious games…”