New York City's Babycastles collective, devoted to DIY arcades and independent game exhibits all over the city's coolest places, has fast become an important hub for community and culture in the city's rapidly-growing indie scene. Last month, Babycastles undertook perhaps its most ambitious project yet: A multiplayer installation that used New York's famous Hayden Planetarium as a stage.
After a series of installations at well-known party spots in Brooklyn and Manhattan (full disclosure: I curated one exhibit myself
and am a big supporter of the group's efforts), the Babycastles crew sold out the planetarium with Ivan Safrin's Space Cruiser
, which tasks up to two hundred players with navigating a ship through asteroid-fraught space by group commands.
Although I wasn't able to attend the event, which also featured space-y indie titles like Hemisphere Games' Osmos
and Zach Gage's Bit Pilot
, I caught up with Babycastles head Syed Salahuddin to find out how indies hijacked the planetarium.
Next up for Babycastles: A return to a permanent home
at Brooklyn's popular Death By Audio venue, starting with a "Sports and Circles" exhibit showcasing games like Bennett Foddy's Pole Riders
and Ramiro Corbetta's Hokra
Did you design the game with the planetarium space in mind from the beginning? How did it come about that you hooked up with them?
The game was completely designed with the Rose Planetarium in mind -- at first, we wanted to create a whole rocket launch sequence from Earth, but decided against it, as a crashing space craft could cause people to puke.
I ended up being hooked up with the American Museum of Natural History through a panel I spoke on at the Games for Change Festival [held annually in New York]. Ruth Cohen [senior director, Education Strategic Initiatives and director, Center for Lifelong Learning at AMNH] was interested in Babycastles, and invited me to come check out the museum. After a few meetings they offered the dome to us, and we jumped on it.
Can you describe the idea genesis and early development? How did you have to adapt along the way?
The game wasn't really a game at first. We just wanted to make something that could enable you to explore the universe, more of an experience. It slowly developed into a multiplayer game with distributed controls. The museum was concerned that only one person would be able to play the game at a time, so we purposely made each controller do something very specific ( like control the roll or the yaw only) and made it impossible to fly the ship without cooperation.
This was a huge departure from how Babycastles presents games, usually in a traditional arcade cabinet with a controller sticking out of it (or sometimes a trackpad or something). But in this instance, people actually got to play the game inside the arcade. We are definitely going to being trying similar installations in the future.
What tools did you guys use?
Ivan developed the entire game on his open source creative coding platform, Polycode
. He was given 8 really short lines of text, and had to figure out the rest himself.
How did you playtest it ahead of the planetarium showing?
We would get about 3-4 hours of "dome time" each week where we invited everyone one we knew to come hang out with us and play the game. it certainly helped, since we only had 3 weeks to finish and it was certainly rough around the edges when we first showed it to people.
What was the coolest thing about having done this game, and what was the biggest challenge?
The coolest thing was having your "office" be the planetarium for a few hours -- and getting to record Stephin Merritt
[of the Magnetic Fields] as the voice over.
The biggest challenge is having to work with a large institution and its bureaucracies (though everyone we worked with directly was totally awesome).
How do you guys feel the planetarium night went? You mentioned you might end up doing further collaborations with them -- what was their response like, and what are some possibilities for the future?
It went incredibly well! We sold out all our tickets, and the entire Babycastles crew felt like it was one the most special nights ever. There is a possibility of doing something else in the future, but we have no idea what that would be yet.