For a person who mostly subsists on spinach, egg whites and almonds, Action Button Entertainment's founder Tim Rogers spends a lot of time thinking about food.
"It's sort of like an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares," he says, explaining his studio's approach to its forthcoming game, Videoball. "Gordon Ramsay goes into a restaurant and there's 200 items on the menu, and the restaurant is failing, right? And they're like, 'We don't know ... we've got this beautiful building in the countryside of England, and monks used to live here, and we've got 400 kinds of sausages on the menu,' and they're hemorrhaging £10,000 a month.
"They're like, 'We don't know what to do with this restaurant,' and Gordon Ramsay says, 'You should probably have a menu that's one page that has four things on it, and one of them is interesting.'"
"...Sometimes it feels like its own thing — just a bit too fast, or too slow, or too weird to be any recognizable sport."
If Rogers were to open his own restaurant, he already knows what form it will take. It will be located in the Temescal District of Oakland, CA. It will only serve corn dogs, popcorn, french fries and fresh root beer. And the gimmick — the one interesting thing from the Gordon Ramsay menu — will be that you can see the corn dog sausages being made at the front of the restaurant.
Rogers thinks about these things partly because they're fun to think about. But he also thinks about them because, when it comes to making video games, it makes sense to take the Gordon Ramsay approach.
The studio has a core team of four developers: Rogers himself, Brent Porter, Michael Kerwin and Nicholas Wasilewski. The four have together built all of Action Button Entertainment's games, from the mobile action title Ziggurat, to the tennis-inspired TNNS, to the PS Vita puzzler 10x8 and now Videoball. A common thread between these four games, different as they may be, is how simple they look. In Ziggurat, players touch the screen on their mobile device to fire a bullet. In TNNS, players move a little paddle across the screen to block a ball from entering their goal. In 10x8, players use a finger to trace an arrangement of blocks that are connected. And in Videoball, players control little triangles that fire projectiles at a ball. Videoball requires only one stick to maneuver the triangle, and one button to fire the projectile.
Rogers often talks about minimalist eSports. He talks about one-button fighting games. He likes the idea of Divekick, a minimalist game where players can either press the "dive" button to dive or the "kick" button to kick. When asked why he's drawn to simple games, at first he says they're easier to think about in terms of design. "There's a lot less work," he says. Then he comes back to the restaurant analogy. "If you're a small group of people making a game, why not think in terms of a small business?" he says. "Gordon Ramsay would say just put four-five items on the menu, have four-five flavors on the plate. Start with that. But there's more than just simplification. There's this nobility in just having a couple things available to the person and, if they're all great, if they're all selected and arranged with taste, then theoretically it should be a very good game."
Action Button Entertainment is chasing a certain purity with Videoball. It's not meant to be big or bloated. The triangles aren't "ships" and the projectiles aren't "bullets." There's no fantasy, no story, no characters. It can be thought of as a sport, where the objective is to maneuver a ball into the opponent's "goal" by firing projectiles at it. Sometimes it feels a bit like basketball. Sometimes it feels like football. Sometimes it feels like hockey. And sometimes it feels like its own thing — just a bit too fast, or too slow, or too weird to be any recognizable sport.
"...every single little polish element just immediately becomes essential to the game."
The game started out as Action Button's answer to StarCraft, with its many, many layers peeled back. The close-to-final product obviously looks nothing like Blizzard's real-time strategy title set in space, but if the studio's demos of Videoball are anything to go by, strategy is a key component of the game. When you hold down the game's one button, you're making a projectile, or a "unit." When you release the unit, you're sending it out where it will either cancel other units or push the ball or stun an opponent. In a way, the projectiles are your army. Players can fire an arrangement of projectiles from a specific position, and their teammates can do the same, and then it feels like a football play.
As simple as a game like Videoball might look on the surface, Rogers says it gets extremely hard past a certain point. Having, say, four-five items on your restaurant's menu may be an easy thing to accomplish, but when you have so few items, there's no room for error. There are no distractions, there's no possibility that maybe your dish is sub-par because you just so happened to order the wrong thing from a phone book-sized menu. There can be no "wrong thing," no matter how small. And so every detail counts.
"We made a really big change to the game — a fundamental change to the rules of the game — and I asked this room of six people who were playing it, 'What's different about the game?' There was a guy there who's played the game for 100 hours and he didn't even notice it. It took him about 20 games before he was like, 'Is it... uh...' he didn't say it out loud. He said, 'I'm going to do the thing that's changed — tell me if that's the thing,' and I said that's it."
On Twitch, where Rogers streams Videoball's play sessions, regular viewers pointed out other elements that they thought were "the thing" he'd changed. "So people are in the Twitch chat and they're like, 'Is it this thing? Is it that the triangle kind of shrinks a tiny bit, and then the projectile grows out of it?' And I'm like, 'Oh no, that's been like that for six months.'
"So past a certain point, you're making a minimalist electronic sport, and what this tells me is that every single little polish element just immediately becomes essential to the game," he says. "It immediately becomes something people can't divorce from their perception of the game. They know if it weren't in there, it wouldn't look as finished, and they wouldn't know why. That's why making a game that looks like this ... you have to be really careful with it."
Videoball is due to launch later this year, and Rogers has teased cross-platform multiplayer support for the game, although these details have not been officially confirmed. Over the next few months, Rogers, Porter, Kerwin and Wasilewski will finalize their four-five items on the menu and perfect the four-five flavors on their plate. And if they're all great — if the design, the numbers, the shapes, the colors are all selected and arranged with taste — then theoretically, Videoball should be a very good game.