This week I had a chance to talk to Jerry Belich, the creator of the Choosatron arcade machine. Jerry and the Choosatron just returned from the A Maze game festival, where the Choosatron won the audience award. The Choosatron is an innovative take on an older genre, and Jerry details the creation and funding in the Q&A below.
You can check out more at the Choosatron website.
Storycade [SC]: What is the Choosatron?
Jerry Belich [JB]: The Choosatron (Deluxe Adventure Matrix) is an interactive fiction arcade machine. It plays games as simple as the traditional choice based stories of Choose Your Own Adventure, to increasingly complex games including variable logic, dynamic text, and eventually multiplayer games.
SC: What led you to create the Choosatron?
JB: After working on a large scale installation project for a casino in Las Vegas, a member of the design team involved heard I was interested in Arduino (open source micro-controller). He sent me one, and it sat in a drawer for two months while I waited for inspiration. I always have a lot of disconnected ideas for projects in my head, looking for something to latch on to. I was perusing hardware websites so I had an idea on the kinds of hardware available, and as soon as I spotted the thermal printer and coin acceptor the entire concept formed instantly. I had wanted to work on an interactive fiction project, as well as something related to the arcade experience.
The original Choosatron was created using Arduino, but the latest kits are using the Spark Core, which is a far more powerful micro-controller that also includes Wi-Fi.
My love of game design, and increasing frustration with only getting to interact with touch screens, led me to a completely physical aesthetic.
SC: Why did you decide to create an “arcade machine” with thermal paper instead of a traditional screen?
JB: Up until recently, I was senior mobile developer for four years at an amazing agency, Clockwork Active Media. My love of game design, and increasing frustration with only getting to interact with touch screens, led me to a completely physical aesthetic. I wanted you to feel the buttons you pushed, and didn’t want the experience to disappear when the power switched off. A happy side-effect of this is that there are no distractions from the stories you play. No Twitter or email notifications, just you and the Choosatron playing together.
SC: What are your favorite pieces of interactive fiction?
JB: From my childhood, Forbidden Towers and Adventure in the Lost World - both published by Troll. As far as more recent, Depression Quest was a really amazing work.
SC: Do you have any favorite works from the Choosatron?
JB: My favorite Choosatron stories so far (of about 65 available) would include John Stamos by Wes Burdine where you play as the legend of the same name, Murphy’s Shorter Comprehensive Guide to Death and the Afterlife (Abridged), Third Edition by Kevin Murphy (of MST3K fame), and admittedly my own story The Spy Who Killed Me.
SC: What has been the best part of the experience in Kickstart-ing (and then launching) the Choosatron?
JB: Both the best and worst has been the crash course in hardware, electronics, and manufacturing. I’ve learned an incredible amount in a very short time period, but did pay a very personal price for that. The best experiences have been getting to know so many amazing writers, and getting the opportunity to attend so many game related conventions and get to know a lot of my favorite names in indie gaming face to face. Define “indie” however you like. It hasn’t been an easy run, and isn’t over by any stretch, but the opportunities this has opened up for future game design projects is very exciting.
The best experiences have been in getting to know so many amazing writers…
SC: What has the international response to Choosatron been? What was it like attending A Maze in Berlin?
JB: GDC was fun and very productive, but also extremely stressful and hard work. A Maze in Berlin was much more about the community interested in play games and unique interactive experiences. The international response has been incredible. Storytelling is a universal thing, and the fact that there aren’t the usual barriers to writing an interactive story (graphics, sound, a big team), it is a really accessible way to be creative and design a game of your own. Of course, playing it is the primary experience, which is even simpler. You just make choices, and enjoy the result.
SC: What do you see as the next step? More iterations of the Choosatron or you moving to a new progject?
JB: First, it’s fulfilling the Kickstarter. From there, hopefully we’ll have a reseller so the device can continue to be available. The writing platform we’ve been developing for the Choosatron is the component I really want to keep going. After initial release, hopefully we can get support and funding so I’m able to devote some of my development time to advancing it. Twine is great, but it’s buggy, old, and frankly doesn’t function very well as a writers tool. That isn’t to say people haven’t been making incredible work with it, so please don’t crucify me for criticizing. I’ve written many stories using it, but I’m hoping to making writing interactive fiction easier and more fun!
I also have other interactive fiction related projects in the works, including a location based mobile game that will take place over a single evening in Minneapolis, MN at the Northern Spark festival June 14th. It’s called MysteryPhone: Art of Darkness and is an initial experiment into some bigger areas of storytelling games I’m interested in trying. I’ve done a lot of prototyping with Bluetooth Low Energy modules for use in real space storytelling as well. There are a lot of concepts on paper, but we’ll see how Choosatron and MysteryPhone shake out!
You can check out more at the Choosatron website.