What We’re Playing: Robot Unicorn Attack

When someone in SCAD Atlanta’s ITGM (that’s Interactive Design and Game Development) department comes up to me and says “I have a game you need to play”, I sit up and take notice. When the whole department is playing a game between classes, during breaks in classes, during classes, I take even more note. That’s what this new section of the blog is for.

For the longest time, the game of the hour around the third floor has been Spelunky. It’s well-deserved, but I’ve never been able to really get into it for a number of reasons—the largest of those being the time commitment. Spelunky requires too much time for a busy student to get sessions in easily. And we’re all very, very busy around the third floor, even if I’m not sure anyone that isn’t in the department would realize it.

This is the primary reason in my mind that Spelunky’s been supplanted recently. Many games have tried, but it’s taken Robot Unicorn Attack to actually pull off the feat. Now the question of interest is… why?

The major reason that seems to be going around is that the time requirement for Robot Unicorn is minimal. You can be buried in your projects, come up for two minutes of air and game, feel like you had enough time to enjoy yourself, and then bury back down into work. That’s a big bonus for us.

“So why not Canabalt?” I hear people demand. Fair question—after all, they’re practically the same game. Well, We have played Canabalt, but it’s a question of staying power, I think. There isn’t enough there to pull our attention for long enough to really take deep root. It’s something Raph Koster goes into in A Theory of Fun for Game Design, which ties in with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In essence, eventually any game reaches the point where we have mastered it, and pause to ask “is this all there is?”. When it happens quickly, we tend to set a game aside as not being deep enough. When it takes longer, we play less after that point, but we’re more likely to come back to it.

Canabalt reaches this point very quickly. So, in fact, does Robot Unicorn, though it takes a little bit longer. What separates the two in my mind is Robot Unicorn has more to offer than the experience of the mechanics, and that’s where the attachment lies. It has this ridiculous, over-the-top aesthetic in its presentation that gives it a lot of charm. The mechanics aren’t perfect but are polished enough to feel good. There is, more than anything, a sort of smooth motion to the game that turns into a bit of a trance-like state when playing. these things all help push it into a fore-runner position.

The kicker, for ITGM, is that it fits well into our culture. Robot Unicorn is as much about peer socialization as the game itself. At almost any time(except for classes), one can walk into a room with a group of ITGM students, log into one of the machines, bring up Robot Unicorn, and within seconds three more people will fire it up. It’s the song, you see. It’s the siren song of Always that really pushes this game over the edge and turns it from an amusing single-player diversion into a departmental social glue. You haven’t played Robot Unicorn Attack until you’ve played it in a room with five other people with the volume up, a sixth running the YouTube clip on his iPhone, and maybe one or two people singing along badly.

Games are ultimately socializing elements in our lives. the best of them promote that aspect well.

And remember: Always, I will believe in you…

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