You’ve got to press the buttons on the gamepad in the right order. There’s no other way of putting it. Button Frenzy doesn’t hide its reflex game behind any kind of abstraction. Nobody on screen is playing a guitar, or landing a spaceship. It’s just you and the controller; nothing between you and your mistakes. A, A, B, Y, X, Y, B. Naked.
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It’s a simple game. But there’s a strange thing that happens when something simple moves too quickly for you to process. Either you muck it up, or let go. The only way to succeed is to let your fingers take over.
“I really like that feeling of just trusting your hands to do what they’ve gotta do,” says Button Frenzy creator Ben Wilson.
Wilson grew up with dyspraxia, the disorder that affects motor coordination. That feeling of being at the mercy of muscle memory? It’s one he knows all too well.
“I have that a lot in day to day stuff, especially when playing videogames,” he explains. “But it’s not something that a lot of people know about.”
Showing Button Frenzy at game shows, however, Wilson has often found players describing a familiar loss of control. “I don’t like it,” they’d say, “but I’ve got to keep playing.”
That feedback and validation has propelled Wilson onwards, two years after he started making “dumb projects” to learn Unreal Engine 4.
“I’m not really that much of a programmer, and Unreal Engine has a really powerful visual scripting language called Blueprint,” he recalls. “So when that came out I was like, ‘This is perfect.’”
What started as a release from a stressful management consultancy job became a full-time gig a year ago – when Wilson realised he could “do this indie game thing just even for a little while and see how it shakes out”. Then a two-week Idle Thumbs game jam in December yielded the basics of Button Frenzy.
A couple of days before Christmas, he threw the nascent game up on Steam Greenlight, where it was promptly approved.
“Oh,” thought Wilson. “Guess I’ve got to make a game then.”
“I don’t like working on games for a long time,” he elaborates. “I’m a solo developer, and since I’m only holding myself accountable I’m terrified of one day just losing passion for a project and ditching it and losing all that work. I try and minimise that by having smaller projects.”
Button Frenzy claimed a little over six months in total – evolving from a memory game into a more fast-paced, Super Hexagon style battle of concentration.
“There is a greater acceptance of [arcade minimalism] now,” Wilson believes. “People have seen Super Hexagon and are aware that this type of game exists. ‘This is hard, but it’s really quick, so I’ll play it again.’”
It’s still unusual to bring up a Steam page, though, and be told a game requires a controller. Why build a PC game around one?
“I just like novel ways of using the inputs that we use every day,” muses Wilson, who once built an FPS in which the player was chased by letters of the alphabet; the only way they could fire their keyboard-shaped gun was by pressing the matching key.
“I like the idea of a game that asks you to use a controller but doesn’t map those inputs to an action your character does on screen. The 3D controller on screen is there to cement, ‘No, I’m just asking you to do the thing you have in front of you.’”
Wilson draws, too, on non-digital games. He’s keen on Johann Sebastian Joust, the screenless playground game that just happens to use Move controllers. For Button Frenzy, he looked to Simon Says.
“I love the idea of bringing in non-digital influences,” says Wilson. “I think with a lot of game ideas, the inspirations are other games. And I feel like there’s only so much you can do when your reference material is other games.”
Since Button Frenzy’s release in July, Wilson has concluded that “promotion is hard”.
“People who play the game like it, but most people don’t know it exists,” he admits. “Me being a single, invisible indie person, the sales have been what I’d expect, which is quite low.”
But he’s content. Wilson’s happy with the part he can control – how the game plays and feels – and willing to let go of the rest.
“I would say I’m most proud of the fact that not so long ago releasing a game on Steam would have just been an impossible thing for me,” he says. “I would never have thought that I would have had that in me to knuckle down and keep on it and not give up. I’m proud whenever I see someone’s reaction after playing.”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and zerofiftyone.