Beardo Games is making one of the most unusual fighting games you’ll likely to ever see. It’s a battle of tongues: people making out in intimate, awkward, and perhaps disgusting displays of tonsil tennis. Yes, a fighting game about kissing.
Siliconera caught up with the three members of Beardo Games to find out how they came up with this idea, how they’ve developed it over the months, and to talk about how people have reacted to the game, as well as how they’ve catered to as many different sexualities and identities as they could. Oh, and Smooth Operator should be out on iOS in July.
In describing the studio, you say that Beardo Games aims to create "weird games." Why is that? And how do your games fit in with the "low brow art scene" that you mention?
Chris Harback, programmer: I think we’re interested in making weird games because it never felt right to try and attempt something that was straightforward and… not weird. Our influences are this huge weird stew of comics, Japanese toys and giant robots, heavy metal, crappy 70s and 80s movies, good 70s and 8’s movies, and all kinds of video games of course. I think, given who we are, we could never do anything except weird games.
Beardo Games started out very specifically as a collaboration between me, as a programmer and Miles, a ceramic artist whose existing ceramics work with Munktiki is already part of the lowbrow scene. Lowbrow often involves an edge of humor, and art not taking itself too seriously– we love injecting oddball humor into our work, even if it’s things that only we end up finding funny.
Miles Nielsen, artist: Lowbrow generally to me isn’t thought provoking, it’s just some cool thing to look at that makes you happy. That’s not to say it can’t also have some meaning behind it. If it has that goal it’s doing it in a way fine art wouldn’t. Typically crudely. There’s some emotion behind each of our games, though typically not beautiful or in Smooth Operator’s case, a normal beautiful interaction shown in an extreme and uncomfortable way.
Chris: Also, I love the idea of the ‘unlovely’ art game. The art world (and especially the lowbrow art world) is filled with rougher, more expressive, not necessarily classically beautiful stuff, but when a game focuses heavily on its art, it’s almost always something trying to be breathtaking and slick.
A lot of game developers take a game that they love (Mega Man for example) and write a love letter to it by making a game that expresses that love in its gameplay. We would be more likely to express that very real love (in our case let’s say for Street Fighter) by including a dumpy, pot-bellied Ryu cosplayer with an overbite as a bit character in a game about secretly punching people.
Could you explain the thought process that went into originally coming up with Second Base?
Miles: The short answer is…. numerous beers and our usual need to make something “different." We knew the competition would be full of literal interpretations of "ten seconds." I’m pretty sure Kate is the one that came up with Second Base. It stuck on the paper and by the end of the night it seemed to jump out the most for us.
Kate Thomas, producer: Yeah, we knew we could absolutely not do a time-based game. It was too obvious, so we spent a ton of time writing down all the other uses of the term “second” until I said “Second Base,” suggesting the baseball analogy a lot of kids grow up using to describe sexual progression…
Miles: That could have basically been a groping game — which we didn’t find as promising. So, we decided on making the gameplay be "First Base" and "Second Base" would be what you won when mastering First. You’d just have to use your imagination after you won.
What aspects of Second Base encouraged you to continue developing it? What potential did you see in it that you wanted to explore?
Chris: It seemed like a pretty engaging game to the people who played it via Ludum Dare, and a game about a subject matter you don’t see represented in games as often. It seemed pretty natural to develop it further. We also wanted to add in more characters and more opportunities for matchups. Unlike the project we were stuck on, it was fun to work on.
Miles: Smooth Operator felt like it had lots of potential. A nice break from the other game we have been working. It didn’t end up being quick, but it did prove to be entertaining. The original concept was to be some weird Street Fighter inspired co-op, Super moves and all. Being big Street Fighter fans I believe that direction pushed the need to continue the project.
Kate: Jam games are always hasty – that’s the definition! In addition to adding more art and bringing back in super moves, we just thought there was more we could do with it, including recasting it as a two player game. Also, the mechanics and feedback were almost non-existent in the original. You had to kind of match tongue movements and have faith it was possible to win if you did that long enough. In comments, feedback was almost universally requested for doing it right, and we thought adding huge, flashy video game flourishes for success and a scoring system would be hilarious. There was some commentary, for us, in taking it from one extreme to another.
Why did you choose to move Smooth Operator over to a touchscreen experience? Will it appear on other platforms as well?
Chris: For a two player game, we felt like it’s essential that the co-players had to squeeze together to use a single device to maximize the awkwardness. I won’t entirely dismiss the possibility of it coming to other platforms, but for now we’re keeping it mobile.
Kate: We have been through many false starts on the final mechanics and controls for the game, but the movement has been toward integrating that theme of awkwardness and a physical, real world interaction that has some connection to the goofy intimacy of the game. This has culminated in the co-op swiping mechanics we are working on now.
Miles: Touchscreen with swiping adds more awkwardness. Now on top of being shoulder to shoulder on the same device and crudely making out, you most definitely will touch fingers too.
Kate: Mobile also has the advantage of going where you want to play a make out game: at a bar, at a gathering, where your friends are.
What other additions and changes have you made to the game idea in Smooth Operator?
Miles: The super moves. Each round of tongue lashing will end with a harder combination of finger swipes which if done in completion will result in a unique animation of disturbing tongue twisting.
Kate: We have some really cool crossovers we will be announcing soon. Other devs we’ve met and and hung out with who have said, “You have to put my character in your game.”
Miles: Another addition I’m personally looking forward to is the whole social media posting on Facebook and Twitter. I look forward to seeing the chaos that may cause. "Miles just made out with **insert your girlfriend of boyfriend’s name here** …. And got 100% compatibility.” People will have some explaining to do.
What kind of interactions does Smooth Operator involve and how does this manifest as awkwardness and intimacy?
Chris: Since you’re both using a single device, and because the gestures the game asks you to do involve the whole screen, you have to come to terms with this other person who you’re playing with. It’s a sort of meta-game in itself, possibly negotiating with your co-player not just over who does their moves when (and how), but also down to which character you both choose. We’ve seen all kinds of awkward questions come up while people are playing. Then it’s this whole intimate (and often by extension awkward) experience of playing the game shoulder to shoulder.
Kate: Some people will feel it more than others. For some people even looking at the screen is disturbing, but in other cases I’ve seen a brother and sister play the game together with no hesitation.
As the game is about kissing it touches on themes of sexuality. Did you feel a responsibility to cater to as many sexualities as possible? And if so how did you achieve this?
Chris: We’ve been through several iterations since Second Base while trying to best approach this subject. The original jam game was based on a single playable character who was male, but almost immediately into development of Smooth Operator we made all the characters playable and added a ton of characters. At first, we wanted to have a story mode where the player could embark on a Street Fighter-ish adventure of love, but there was never a good way we could introduce the subject of sexuality and even gender in a way that felt right to us, without messing up the idea of being inclusive. The very act of telling a story for any of the characters inevitably commented on those characters’ gender and sexuality. So we threw the story mode out. In the end, the player has nearly complete agency (at the moment you can’t play against yourself) over who they choose to play against, so the character’s gender and sexuality is a decision that the player makes, and they can remake that as often as they want to.
Kate: Yeah, throwing out story mode has let us basically remove language about identity and orientation from the game. As a result, people project what they want to see within the characters and the match ups without us having to hang a bunch of overbearing labeling around it. We hope to some day take a cut at something like this that is based on building your own characters, so that it can be completely open ended, but we don’t know if that’s a new version of this game or something totally different.
What range of reactions have you seen to Second Base and Smooth Operator so far?
Chris: Nervous laughter, caution, disgust, Beavis & Butthead-style laughter, curiosity, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me, no thank yous, genuine delight, and pretty much everything in between. We’ve had people bring their family members back to play, and we’ve had people get weird after their partner plays against someone else and does well. And best of all we had a person at an event brush us off, and then stop 20 feet away to process the information, come back and play a quick round, and subsequently bring two sets of friends by later to play.
Kate: Miles’s dad is one of those people who said he couldn’t even look at it. But he has since become pretty desensitized and likes it now. The circumstances where someone sees it seem to matter. Middle-schoolers are fascinated—unless they see it with their mom. If their mom plays the game, then they hate it.
When can we expect Smooth Operator to be available? And will you be charging for it?
Kate: We’re hoping to put the finishing touches on for release initially in the App Store this summer. It will have a small fee to fund future game development. But it will have no ads and you will get the whole game with all the characters and stages for that price.