ALT.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Mouse & the Billionaires Buy! Sell!

The 2020 Game Developers Conference will feature an exhibition called Alt.Ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase.

Buy! Sell! puts players in the complex world of a (satirical) New York Stock Exchange, using their phones to buy or sell stock in order to rake in those profits.

Gamasutra sat down with Lisa Bethancourt of Mouse & the Billionaire to learn more about creating a game of playing the stocks, the themes behind a game that looks at parsing simple answers out of huge amounts of data, and the silliness involved in taking a phone and turning it into a controller that still basically works as a phone.

My name is Lisa Bethancourt, I made Buy! Sell! with my partner, Matt Bethancourt, and Danny Rankin, our good friend and Matt’s colleague at the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder. The three of us have collaborated on a few projects, and the way we usually work is that one of us comes to the others with something we think could be fun (in this case, screaming into a phone) and we work together to come up with a concept and basic outline for the game.

Then, we divide and conquer. I usually work on writing and visual design, Matt does the programming and Danny is in charge of hardware. We have weekly meetings to talk about ideas and overall game design, and then we each go off and do our work. Our biggest challenge is finishing things. We have a great time working together and there’s always a way to make something funnier or more satisfying. But eventually, we just have to call it done and move on to other things.

Our art and design collective, Mouse & the Billionaire, is always working on projects in all sorts of mediums. Lately, we’ve been really excited about games in particular, which is where projects like Buy! Sell! have found a home. My background is in the visual arts and my work explores the long-term impacts of individual choice. I feel strongly about using visual media that can match the fractured attention span of our time. Games are so engaging and really excel at this. Alt.ctrl.GDC has exposed us to so many talented developers who are pushing this medium to really fascinating places.

Matt and Danny teach game design and development at the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder, and we all co-produce the Whaaat!? Festival, which is a showcase and symposium on experimental games. We started this festival to be a place where our community can get together and explore the boundaries of the medium. It feels like we are just at the beginning of understanding games as cultural objects and the many ways that people want to use them. It will be fascinating to see where we are a decade from now.

Our controllers are analog touchtone phones that operate, for the most part, like regular phones. Users input information with the keypad, speak/yell into the handset, and get audio feedback from the receiver. Our dilemma is taking a very familiar interface and modifying it in such a way that people intuitively know how to use it, but it also accomplishes our purposes. We want to stay true to the nostalgia of the interface, and at the same time deliver a completely novel experience. If I were to describe the overall experience of the game to someone who has never played it, I would ask them to imagine the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in the 1980’s. All that frenetic energy and chaotic yelling; that’s what we’re going for.

Nothing fancy here  – the game was programed in Unity and the hardware is Teensy/Arduino. We went down the path of using the Watson API for voice recognition when we started making the game, but we quickly realized this game is mostly about shouting at the right times. Actual high-fidelity voice recognition didn’t add anything to the game. It’s just about speed and decibels.

As for the physical element, Danny has a breathtaking penchant for sniffing out weird and wonderful obsolete hardware. He’s like an obsessed bloodhound for old phones. His wife, René, recently had to ask him to move his phones to the Whaaat!? Lab, where we work at CU, because she said they were taking over their house, and she was not wrong. At a flea market, the main draw for me and Matt would probably be the weird food, but Danny, on the other hand, would be on high alert for brittle plastic, grime encrusted keypads, and tangled cords.

The simple answer to this question is that we used old phones and electronic components to make this game, but it’s more than that. There’s a little something extra there. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but I want to say it’s love, specifically Danny’s love of old hardware. 

We’ve made a couple of projects with phones – Busy Work (2017) and Please Hold (2018) – and we really enjoy them as controllers. This type of phone was so ubiquitous in our culture for decades that everyone has a visceral understanding of them, but they are no longer an integral part of our daily lives. This makes phones especially rich as a design element. They become a proxy for something else and we can easily leverage all the tropes that they are known for: inconvenient interruptions in Busy Work or a labyrinth of computer-voiced menu options in Please Hold. Frantically yelling into a phone was territory we hadn’t explored yet, and it seemed like it had a lot of potential for being fun. 

For many years, I worked on the trading floor of a hedge fund in New York City. I had absolutely nothing to do with the investing side of the business, but I sat with all the people making trades and doing deals. It was an incredible experience to be elbow to elbow with some very brilliant and lovely people who were totally absorbed in a very specific thing. They all sat in front of these terminals, which are the inspiration for the visual design of the game, and made difficult choices with huge consequences in real-time.

It was a wonderful place to be a fly on the wall. When they made decisions, they always returned to “the fundamentals.” Over and over again they asked each other “what has to be true?” or “what do you have to believe?” in order for the action they were considering to make any sense. Since I had no stake in what was going on around me, just the philosophical nature of these questions resonated. On the surface, everything looked so complex, but in reality, the only decisions they could make at any given moment were fairly simple. They could 1. do nothing, 2. buy or 3. sell. Realizing that felt pretty profound because I think that extends more broadly past stock trading and into how it feels to be a human being. We’re all wading through a morass of astonishing complexity, but there are only a few real paths forward at any given time.

This game is a caricature of stock trading and a gross oversimplification of something that is obviously very complicated. We want the game to feel ridiculously overwhelming, but also highly abstracted and child-like. Instead of deciding to buy or sell the equity of real companies, our players choose to invest in things like candy, gold, or pizza. This emphasizes the allegorical nature of the game and hopefully helps people understand that this is a hypothetical situation standing in for a broader concept.

In the moment, we want to create an experience that players feel is quite difficult, but upon reflection was actually pretty simple. If players walk away thinking that was an intense few minutes and later think it was strangely easy, we’ve succeeded. That is exactly the point we’re trying to make. We are presented with convoluted data, images, and soundbites all the time and we have to make sense of it as best we can. 

Matt is the kind of person who moves through life 10,000 feet off the ground. He has an expansive perspective and he zeros in on implications in everything. He always tries to find meaning in the mundane and is particularly fascinated with making games out of pre-existing situations. Discovering ways that ordinary physical systems can be fun and also deeply significant is really important to him.

His go-to method for achieving this is immersing people in playfulness and absurdity. In the case of Buy! Sell!, we did this two ways. Due to the performative and social nature of installation games, we were able to design two experiences that happen simultaneously – one experience for the players and one for the people watching. For the audience, we were going for an amusing spectacle where it is fairly obvious what is going on. You really can’t miss what the players are doing because they are shouting out nearly every move they make. Players, on the other hand, have no time for observation. During gameplay, they are 100% focused on keeping up. Only upon later reflection does it become obvious that they were making very simple choices amidst complexity.

To make our point, we wanted to create an experience that looks preposterous to the observer and feels silly to the player. This level of absurdity creates an accessible metaphor for deeper truths. It creates a tension that indicates there is more going on here than what we see on the surface.  

So, I asked Danny this question, since this is really his area of expertise. True to form, he answered the question and then waxed poetic about something tangentially related, funny, and thought-provoking.

The challenge in turning old phones into controllers is that, even though they all look similar from the outside, they vary widely on the inside. Each one operates differently and requires distinct wiring and code to output the information we need. He went on to say that it feels quixotic to take a phone that already performs a set of functions and augment its guts to make a computer simulate exactly the same set of functions. He said that “it’s as if I were trying to make a hamburger by taking a hamburger, feeding it to a cow and taking that hamburger-fattened cow to make a hamburger.” Which is to say, I think, that it is a surreal experience to make a phone do phone things in a non-phone way by using phone parts.

So, we should probably start calling him Dan Quixote because, when he puts it that way, it does indeed sound like he’s trying to slay some ludicrous imaginary windmills.