We’re team Audio Talk: John Corn, Vinit Shah, and Alec Galambos. John and Vinit co-operate Cheap Ramen Games, a new indie studio focused on straightforward satisfying game mechanics, bright and colorful aesthetics and rewarding, juicy UX. I was lucky enough to work with them on Meow Pow, a frantic couch multiplayer “sports” game (“sports” in the absurd, Rocket League sense) that has been enjoyed by (let’s say) thousands on Steam and in arcade cabinet form at Wonderville in Brooklyn, NY. Cheap Ramen Games is in the alpha phase on their new title, so this seemed like the perfect time to distract them with the prospect of making a game with Dolby’s Atmos plugin for Wwise.
I turned to John and Vinit because previous experiences with game jams have taught me that it’s best to stay focused on something simple and accessible that will leave the developers plenty of time for polish and iteration—John and Vinit have built their studio on those core concepts. They’re also wonderful to work with; willing to “yes-and” any and all new ideas, and to wade together in that abstract, hazy place called “design” until some blend of order and chaos spawns a good idea and a great experience for the player.
Before the jam started, we brainstormed on those same principles: what can we make in a week that’s fun and coherent, that would also benefit from the surround-sound experience that Dolby’s plugin offers? We started with pinball, a game that should feel tactile, visceral, and hooked into our deepest dopamine centers. To take it further: spatial audio (and, more broadly, game development!) helps us create spaces and situations that wouldn’t exist in our own lives, so—why not surround the player with three pinball machines that they have to continually juggle?
Of course, playing three pinball machines simultaneously would be absolute madness. This prompted some deep thoughts: we wanted to strike the perfect balance between motivating the player and not stressing them out, and also to remind them that time and attention are precious resources that we all must wield responsibly. …in this case, to play triple-pinball. In our game, “Okay Pinball” (read however you prefer, but we’re thinking about it in the pleasantly-surprised sense, as in …Okay..!, Pinball!!”), the two machines you’re not currently playing are slowed down to an almost frozen state. Each machine has a “slow-time” meter that can run out; the player must switch to a machine, play it, and score points to fill its meter back up, juggling all three meters.
This is where spatial audio and Wwise factor in. Armed with a heightened sense of where sounds are coming from, the player can receive hyper-specific audio information about the machines whose slow-time meters are running low. In Wwise, it’s easy to create “blend tracks” such that multiple layers of one “piece” of music crossfade between each other in response to a change in a Real Time Parameter Control (RTPC). In our case, that RTPC is “urgency”, defined on a per-machine basis; as a machine’s slow-time meter runs out, urgency increases, and the layers in the music change, get louder, and appear closer to the player, all but begging them to turn their attention to that machine.
Good audio design is all about balance. If you want something to sound loud, there needs to be something soft to compare it to. Same goes for the other dichotomies here: close+far, urgent+calm, in front+behind, high+low. We attempted to create a sense of space (and therefore, a sense of contrast with the close-up pinball machines) by filling the environment with soft, but omnipresent reminders that you’re in a pinball arcade, or something like it: beeps, whirrs, and mechanical sounds. In the foreground, we wanted the shifting musical layers to draw your ear to the pinball machine that needed playing most. Each pinball machine features a somewhat different piece of music, each broken up into two layers. The three pieces interlock such that they can all play at the same time without causing a horrifying cacophony. Different instruments and flourishes in each (matching three rough “themes”: western, retro sci-fi, and baseball) allow the ear to differentiate between them.
But — spatial audio can easily be overwhelming. The challenge I thought we’d face is the exact one we did: balancing all the information that comes to the player requires a lot of testing and nuance, two luxuries not often afforded by a time-delimited jam. We did our best, though—after tens of Wwise bank commits to source control, we arrived at a minimum-viable product in which it is clear (we hope!) which pinball machine is emitting which music track, how urgently that machine needs to be addressed, and where it is (which is to say: which direction you need to swipe in to play it.)
Meanwhile, the machine right in front of you also needs to sound and feel like a great mechanical pinball machine would: various bumpers, each with different sounds, flippers that respond to your touch, and a physical ball that triggers all sorts of spectacular effects upon collision. Vinit focused on building the architectural framework for our game, the three machines, and the foundation that would allow the game to work on multiple platforms, while John zoomed in on specific features, not least of which is the juice; the visual feedback that prompts the player to feel that their actions have weight and significance.
The result is a game that’s challenging, a little hectic, and filled with color. The music does indeed let you know when that slow-time meter is running low, but I’d want to turn even more attention to the difference between the three distinct pieces of music coming from the pinball machines. If they were more unique, and each slightly rearranged using instruments that represent a broader frequency spectrum (which give them the best hope of spatializing accurately (go ahead and google “HRTF”!)), they might better draw attention to the increasing urgency of the relevant machine. This is as much a composition challenge as an implementation one.
The next steps for us here are all about enriching the player’s experience: refining the music so that it feels both dynamic, fun, and true to its design purpose (a tall order!), refining game mechanics so that they’re just challenging enough, and adding some (more) dazzling art, to build on the tremendous progress that John and Vinit have made. Currently, the player is compelled only by themselves: they should want to avoid losing and, like a classic arcade game, rack up the highest score they can. With that basic principle in mind, and given the endless tweakability of our level of difficulty, there are plenty of level design options ahead of us!
I’ve only been working with John and Vinit together for a little over a year, but it feels like so much longer (in a good way). Their collective imagination manifests in so many ways— creative problem-solving, bold aesthetics, their self-deprecating humor, and more. Our baseline empathy for each other makes working with each other feel seamless, and hopefully also translates into some kind of personal connection with the player, which prompts us to make games that feel great to engage with, and that reward the player for investing their most valuable resource: time.
To hear more from Audio Talk about Okay Pinball, check out their video.