How a pile of scrap and an unflinchingly DIY spirit helped put game maker Shawn McGrath and his psychedelic indie racer on the map.
As I strapped myself into the ominous mechanical device hacked together with duct tape, cables, scrap metal, projector parts, and cannibalized motors, several conflicting notions raced through my mind. My first thought: "This is freaking awesome." But as I buckled the clasps on the straightjacket-tight racing harness holding me locked in the automaton's embrace, my enthusiasm made an abrupt segue to "I hope I don't get disemboweled by this thing."
It was the final day of PAX East 2011, and I was spent after a long weekend of game demos, interview sessions, and hoofing it around the streets of Boston. But by the fourth or fifth time I heard other indie developers on the show floor make wild-eyed mention of "The Dyad Machine," I knew I couldn't pack it in and make the trek home until I hunted down this elusive beast and its curious master.
My quest led me through a dizzying maze of demo stations swarming with fellow nerd-folk until finally, tucked away in a back corner of the thunderous convention hall, I found Dyad creator Shawn McGrath and the crazy DIY contraption he built from scratch for the sole purpose of showcasing his new psychedelic indie racing game. Sporting a large cowboy hat, a long ponytail, and a thick crop of beard, McGrath eagerly fielded questions and encouraged the bewildered PAX East attendees flocking to his unusual setup to submit to his dark machinations.
On its own, Dyad's hyper-intense mix of swirling colorful chaos, dynamic musical fluctuations, and high-speed puzzle racing abstraction hits a hypnotic crescendo capable of transfixing you to the screen in awe. Traveling through a tube swirling with sharp undulating patterns, you latch onto colorful orb-like enemies to gain constant forward momentum, matching like-colored foes to gain an extra speed boost. New mechanics and crazier patterns layer on with each level — things substantially weirder and trippier the further you push into the experience, eventually reaching the point where it's hard to tell whether you're playing a video game or an LSD simulator.
When paired with The Machine — which violently tilts, vibrates, and jostles in real-time to amplify the gameplay projected in front of you on a cloth screen — the whole experience could easily be mistaken for a low-tech brainwashing session.
"No one has died yet," chuckled McGrath's friend and collaborator Jason DeGroot, in a totally non-reassuring way. I surveyed The Machine. Not entirely convinced of my own safety but intrigued nonetheless, I got in line to drink the mechanical Kool-Aid.
Spunky DIY spirit
Cobbling together a device like The Machine from scratch with no prior experience and managing not to kill anyone in the process might sound like a crazy feat, but McGrath's inquisitive nature and rebellious DIY attitude have served him well from the get-go.
Spurred by an instant obsession with Tetris for the NES, he picked up his first bits of coding knowledge by getting into trouble in middle school, sort of. "I had an extremely generous teacher in sixth or seventh grade that noticed I knew how to operate a computer," he says. In truth, the teacher caught him messing around on the school's computer when he wasn't supposed to be. "Instead of punishing me he taught me how to program in QBasic and later taught me C." That, it turns out, was a decision that would ultimately serve him well much later down the road.
McGrath left high school early and tried getting work with several big game companies like id, Valve, and Blizzard. That didn't pan out. "They didn't want some idiot kid without a proper high school diploma," he recalls. Dismayed and uninterested in pursuing school any further, he shelved his plans to make games and took up working as a computer programmer for a few years. However, that too quickly ran its course.
"I realized it was as bad as school, so I looked up an old high school rival, Jon Mak," says McGrath. "He showed me a game he was working on, Gate88, and showed me N, Kenta Cho games, Soldat, and a bunch of others. I was pretty amazed — these were all made by one or two people. It was like playing Tetris again."
It was enough to re-ignite some old fires and a few old habits too. "I decided I'd just make games instead of doing any work at my programming job. That worked for about a year until they caught on and fired me. I've been doing it full-time since, taking contract jobs here and there to survive."
In 2005, he founded his own indie studio, ][ (right square bracket left square bracket), and released several freeware games made for the GAMMA and Toronto Independent Game Jam competitions. He took paying contract work on the side for a Flash-based massively multiplayer role-playing game, but found that to be a drag and pay a lot less than expected. The company's owners were distracted, and things weren't going smoothly. He'd only taken on the gig to make enough money to fund his own game development ventures, and without the expected green coming, sticking around for much longer just wasn't an option.
It was time for something new. Something like tearing into another game to see what made it tick. McGrath set his sights on dissecting one of Kenta Cho's more reputable indie games, and it was on this chopping block that his biggest to project to date found its unusual beginning.
"I decided I'd just make games instead of doing any work at my programming job. That worked for about a year until they caught on and fired me."
Evolution in design
Dyad began as an exploration into what McGrath felt was wrong with Torus Trooper — a Tempest-like arcade racing shooter. "Pekko Koskinen, a friend of mine, and I were doing a bunch of prototypes together, and I was like: 'Fuck this. Lets just fix Torus Trooper.' So we cloned it and tried to figure out what was wrong with it, why, and fix those problems."
Fixing the problems turned out to be more difficult than anticipated, but the attempt sent them down the game design rabbit hole, leading far off the beaten path. Soon their little deconstruction project turned into something very different.
Starting with a basic racing concept, Dyad was born as a tube with a line painted along the side. Simple as that. "We were like: 'OK ... normally you have brake and gas in a game; let's get rid of those and figure out how you can move,'" remembers McGrath on the locomotive design for the game. "So the game was: stay on the line, speed up, get off the line, slow down. [It was] pretty straightforward, but that taught us a bunch of stuff."
The most important lesson, he realized, is a racing game should get progressively harder as you get better at it. This key concept became the central idea moving forward. But rather than arbitrarily ratcheting up the difficulty, he opted to focus on having players always teetering on the edge of control and keeping them overwhelmed by constantly throwing new mechanics at them to juggle. Every level of Dyad's warped audio-visual assault on the senses introduces a unique gameplay mechanic, adding new layers of craziness to the recipe.
"I get bored by games pretty easily; I rarely finish them. I play a lot, but end up quitting a few hours in because once I'm doing something I've already done I get bored," McGrath explains. To ensure that he wouldn't easily tire of playing Dyad, he decided to keep everything changing all the time. "I wanted to make sure I explored the core game design ideas as thoroughly as possible. Presenting a deep, mechanically-complex game in a coherent way is surprisingly, to me at least, very difficult. Eventually it was found through play testing that the most efficient way to present all the ideas is through lots of short levels that vary a lot."
Adding and subtracting ideas was a natural, fluid process, he says. McGrath would play the game, constantly to testing out mechanics, keeping what worked, and scrapping anything that didn't. As such, the game drove itself in the direction it wound up heading, taking on a life of its own, though other contributing team members would also play an important role in working on Dyad at different stages of its progress, coming and going as-needed to help shape the project.
Koskinen co-designed with McGrath for the first year before moving on to other projects. And while the finished game is very different from what it was when he was participating in development, many of his ideas remain intact. DeGroot did the first revision in music design and also helped out behind-the-scenes for the first two years of development. Derek Tong helped get Dyad running on PS3 and did a ton of optimization and additional programming elements. David Kanaga took over the musical direction after PAX East 2011, which would become a crucial component of Dyad's mind-altering experience.
But somewhere around the mid-point of Dyad's development cycle, when most of the core gameplay was intact, McGrath suddenly hit the wall. Rather than let it become a major stumbling block, he turned it into a rare opportunity to generate some much-needed buzz about his game.
"I spent two weeks 'working' where I basically just stared at the screen unable to do something," he says. "The game was good at this point, but not great. I had zero press coverage. I had worked over two years on it and dumped half my life savings. I needed a way to make it known publicly and to actually see if it was good so I could feel more comfortable dedicating the next two years on it and spending the rest of my savings."
That's when The Machine was born.
Hail to the machine
"I was completely burnt out on development, but I didn't want to stop working," recalls McGrath. "I needed a big change, but I also needed to keep Dyad moving forward."
Being "pretty good" at building things, he settled on slapping together a bunch of scrap materials to form the Voltron of all gaming accessories. The general idea: craft a huge mega chair that rumbles like hell and tilts sharply at varying degrees to match on-screen steering. With no prior engineering experience, he just decided to wing it.
"I had no plans for it," says McGrath, who built The Machine in his parents' basement in the suburbs of Toronto. "I just made shit up as I went — pretty much the same thing I did with Dyad."
"I bought a racing car seat for like $200 or something, then bought some shelving brackets and stuck all that together. I Googled some other peoples' designs to figure out what they did. I'm not the first person to do this; a lot of people do it in the racing sim community. I don't think anyone else used shelving brackets though."
Bed sheets, plywood, scrap metal, a projector, hacked computer parts, and a windshield wiper motor ripped off an old freightliner round out The Machine's ingredient list. But with minimal welding and metal sawing, there wasn't anything complex about the project, aside from the tension spring system.
"I had no plans for [making the machine]. I just made shit up as I went — pretty much the same thing I did with Dyad."
Taking time off to build the device was a nice break from the frustrations of the 24/7 programming grind, notes McGrath's wife, Kuini. "It was interesting to watch Shawn build this giant 500 lb. machine," she says. "I was very impressed that he managed to build a functioning machine from scratch in only a few weeks, and it got me pondering all the other fun stuff I could perhaps convince him to build for me."
Not only did she track his progress; she also volunteered to be one of the first test subjects. "I thought it was very cool the first time I tried it out," she says. "It didn't have seat belts yet, but I was willing to be the crash test dummy. Clearly the machine worked out and I didn't die."
McGrath was exhausted when he finally finished the project: "I was like: 'OK cool. I can sleep now."
Looking back at The Machine's debut at PAX East 2011, he recalls getting the contraption to the convention was no easy feat, since he and DeGroot had to disassemble it and pack all the parts into a Chevy Impala so he could drive it from Toronto to Boston. That's more than a nine-hour trek. It was the first time the machine had been rolled out for the gaming public, but judging by the enthralled responses of those brave enough to give it a try, the effort was worthwhile.
"People really liked it. It was really fucking ghetto, looked like scrap metal and duct tape — mostly cause that's what it was made of — but that gave it a certain charm," he says. "Booths at these things cost AAA games substantially more than the entire budget of Dyad, so being able to attract people with similar flair with a $3,000 ... thing was nice."
The extra press coverage and positive gamer feedback from PAX East helped, but McGrath was concerned about the allure and excitement of his DIY machine overshadowing the game itself. He spoke very carefully about it in conversation, making sure it was clear the device was only designed to augment Dyad at public events. It was the game he cared about. The Machine was just a conduit to help his cause and a necessary distraction from a crazy work schedule.
An audiophile's delight
For the first two years of its existence, Dyad didn't have any music in it at all. No big shocker, considering the game was early in development. Then Jason DeGroot, who makes electronic tunes under the name 6955, contributed two tracks that held down the fort for a period of time around the PAX demo sessions. Like most games, the musical soundtrack was initially planned as a background component in Dyad — something to help set the right vibe to complement gameplay. But things changed when David Kanaga came on board. The music became an important component of the project linked the gameplay itself.
"I showed David the game at GDC 2011, and he asked to try doing the music, I said 'Sure, what the hell,'" McGrath recalls. "A few weeks later he sends me like 50 wav files and was like: 'Here ya go.' I had no idea what to do with them … they were the raw unmixed tracks that would go into a mixer to produce a song."
Some of the files sported names like "bass_iv.wave" and "bass_VII.wave." McGrath didn't have a clue, so he asked about them. "[David] was like, 'Oh, that's standard notation for minor forth and major seventh' or something," he says, "and I'm like 'Yeah ... I don't know what any of those words mean.'"
It took four months of working collaboratively on a single level to figure out a rule system for how the different pieces of the musical puzzle would be mixed within the game, since the on-screen actions shape chord changes and trigger melodic sound effects that weave together into a soundtrack that shifts as you play. Eventually the duo came up with the first track it was happy with, the music for level seven, but it was clear that McGrath didn't have that kind of time to devote to putting the music together for each level. It was up to Kanaga, who tackled each of the game's 27 musical tracks and 26 additional trophy levels that used different music.
All of the musical elements for each track are broken down into branching sounds and sound effects that are mixed dynamically by the game depending on the way you play. "The insane part is I thought we had the rule system for the music figured out after the first four months," says McGrath. "Turns out since each level has different gameplay rules, each level needs different music rules too. The music was a stupid amount of work for both of us."
Racing towards the future
For McGrath, the last two years were a steady run of 14-hour work days and seven-day work weeks. It was a grueling schedule, but he says the freedom of creative control and the ability to shape his own destiny was worth the sacrifice.
"I will never complain about it," he says. "I get to make video games. I get to make the video games that I want to make without anyone telling me what to do. I have zero complaints about the effort and time commitment."
Dyad is finished and available now on PSN in the U.S. McGrath says the European release is taking longer than expected to finalize, and he's not quite set to close the book on that one just yet. Getting the proper translations down has been a challenging and time consuming process. He put a lot of work into making the text in Dyad as concise and easy-to-understand as possible, and prepping it for other countries means a extra time and legwork. "It's also a very big leap of faith for me to put something in the game that I am not 100% responsible for," he says. "I didn't make the music, but I put it in the game, and if I didn't think it was the greatest music possible it wouldn't be there. I can't do that for the translations, and it's very scary to me, so it's taking a little longer than I expected."
Though McGrath still has a ways to go to finish up on the European version of Dyad, he's already working on some of the tech and programming for his next project. And just like with Dyad, he's not ready to pin it down just yet, preferring to see what bizarre pathways the game leads him down over time. "As of right now it's an RPG with no text, no hit points, one life, and no solid shapes or coherent environment," he teases. "We'll see what it actually ends up being in five years or however long it'll take me to finish it."
Shawn McGrath, The Tetris Company, Atari, Metanet Software, Soldat