The ins and outs of Uncle Slam

Uncle Slam has been a concept for more than a year and a half.It all began at WWDC (Worldwide Developer's Conference) 2010 when Pete Parisi (then of Apple, now of made an off-hand comment in a game development session. He said, simply:

"If you're designing a history-based game starring Abraham Lincoln you probably don't want to render him looking like an anime character with a bazooka. You're going to alienate a large portion.. well maybe that's the greatest idea ever."

Anime? Let's try cartoon-painterly with a mohawk.

Bazooka? Maybe not, but only because we think we can do better.

Winners Don't Use Drugs


And so began the journey towards tomorrow, December 16th, 2011 and the official launch of Uncle Slam. But despite the journey having started - what exactly was Uncle Slam to become? We knew we wanted to use all the presidents and it was this idea that led us to the concept of a fighting game. In fairly short order, we settled on the somewhat obtuse name of "Presidential Pugilism" and began prototyping.

The fabulous early art tests from Brittney really began to inform what the game was to become. When you think "fighting game" (at least when I do), the first two that come to mind are Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter. But as fun as those games are, the feel of Uncle Slam was to be a bit less severe. For one, Mortal Kombat fights end with the death of your opponent, so codified in the infamous "Fatality". This was clearly out of bounds for our subject matter.

Leaning away from mixed-martial-murder, we settled on "Gentleman's Boxing". This immediately narrowed the fighting itself (no kicks to worry about) and gave us a much more "Presidential" feel. What presidents would want to bare-knuckle box in the streets after all? A chief executive rises above such vulgarity. But one thing we didn't want to lose was the idea of "special moves". Everyone knows Sub-Zero's ice ball and Scorpion's "Get Over Here!" and we felt we wanted something similar. And so each president has a special move based on their history or folklore that can help to change the tide of a match in seconds. (We won't spoil them here as half the fun is seeing them for yourself).


The other really big challenge was control. Traditional fighting games all use simple button presses and distinct moves like high kick, low kick, high punch, low punch, block, etc. Looking at other fighting games for iOS, almost all of them have attempted to simply bring this idea directly over by using virtual buttons on screen. If you've spent any time at all using a multi-touch device, you know that this new interaction model can provide direct manipulation in a way that simple button presses simply can't, yet most fighting games seem to have taken the easy way out. The problem is that "virtual buttons" don't simply repeat what works with a physical controller, they are usually worse. Without a tactile sense of a button actually being pressed, it can be confusing whether you are doing what you want and your fingers can easily drift off them while playing.

Given this challenge, we decided to throw out and completely rethink the fighting game control model. Punches in Uncle Slam take their power and direction from a swipe gesture. No more high or low punch. No more fast-but-weak or slow-but strong punch. Punch anywhere, in any direction (but if you like the heavy punches, watch your stamina). The same goes for blocking. A drag-and-hold puts you in block mode but now, instead of a simple high or low block, you can directly manipulate your blocking gloves to anywhere you want.

All of this was made possible by building Uncle Slam with Cocos2D and Box2D. By using an easy to use framework with a robust physics engine, this helped us discover the "rock 'em, sock 'em" animation style we settled on. This was another departure from traditional 2D fighting games which are mostly sprite based. Some of our favorite moments while playing Uncle Slam arise from the times the gestural controls and physics-engine conspire to put our fighters in amusing positions. For instance, have you ever seen Richard Nixon standing on George Washington's head? What about Harry Truman giving Howard Taft a big bear-hug? We have, and soon you may too!

But is it hardcore?

You probably remember that we showed off Uncle Slam at PAX back in August. The response to the game was incredibly helpful to us. Who is the perfect Uncle Slam player?

We found that almost everyone who saw the art and heard the concept got an immediate smile on their face. This told us that our concept was a winner. Then people would sit down to play and this is where the opinions began to split. The problem with a huge show like PAX is that your  gameplay must be so simple to pick up and play that it can be hard to convey any depth and this is where we put most of our efforts following the show. How do we make sure we don't lose the simplicity but still have enough depth to keep people playing after the "gee-whiz" factor wears off? This problem was compounded by the fact that many fighting game fans were immediately faced with a complete re-imagining of how a fighting game is controlled.

But you know who got it right away? Gamers in their early teens. Unlike "core" gamers (among which I count myself), these young gamers don't have 20 years of controller-based gaming burned into their consciousness as "the one true way". In the immortal words of Yoda, "You must unlearn what you have learned". For those willing to "go with it" and work with the game, instead of against it, Uncle Slam offers more depth than I initially thought possible and you will really need to master it to beat the higher levels.

All in all, we couldn't be more excited right now. Uncle Slam is less than a day away and we can't wait for you to play it. Please don't hesitate to let us know what you think!

How do you solve a problem like a touch screen?

PAX Prime was a wonderful learning experience. Before Uncle Slam, the only "gaming" experience we had was the slight gamification in GAME.minder so in many ways, we were flying blind. And the lessons we learned at PAX were several fold:

The Game Itself

The feedback on the game itself was fairly evenly split between:

  • The concept and look - Pretty universally positive. It seems lots of people like the idea of punching a president.
  • The gameplay - Totally un-universal. Some people loved it, others hated it, and everywhere in between.

Some of the best feedback is constructive criticism and one thing we did throughout the show was to analyze the feedback daily. We then incorporated it, and headed to the show floor with a whole new build the following day. If you were one of our big fans who stopped by everyday, you probably noticed that Uncle Slam played a bit differently Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

One big issue we observed on Friday was that the stamina mechanic was causing problems. The way it worked on Friday was that your stamina would get lower the more you moved or punched. If it got low enough, your punches would essentially become useless until you allowed your stamina to build back up. However, the way most people were playing the game meant that stamina wouldn't ever build back up. Most players were just punching and punching and punching which would stretch out the end game as punches became less and less powerful and stayed there.

For Saturday, we significantly changed how much stamina would deplete as you punched and moved which had two effects:

  1. there were far fewer knockdowns and TKOs (as being knocked over is directly tied to stamina)
  2. people seemed to be enjoying the game a lot more

This was really helpful to see in the hands of actual gamers. You never know how people will play a game until you just put it in front of them and watch. And our watching on Friday told us that we needed stamina to work differently. Once we made that tweak, the game worked a little better but more importantly, it became more fun for the players. We did it again on Saturday night and had a similar experience on Sunday. We even had someone stay in the booth for a good 45 minutes and declare Uncle Slam his "Favorite game of the show". That felt really good.


So who is the ideal gamer for a touchscreen boxing game with a cartoon/painterly art style? One thing we discovered is that, despite games like Angry Birds selling approximately 17 copies to every single human on the planet, touchscreen gaming is still a moving target. At Handelabra, we tend towards the idea that buttons should be few and far between. If you have the option of direct manipulation, you'll probably do better to embrace that option. So with Uncle Slam, we went with as much gestural control as was technically possible.

We settled on swiping to punch, swipe and hold to block, and really big tap areas to move.

The most interesting thing about watching people learn this control scheme was who took to it and how quickly. Many PAX attendees are people who have spent years (maybe even decades) using controllers with buttons. So it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that our two biggest fans (one who made a point to come back at least once a day and the other, previously mentioned, who hung out for 45 minutes) were both under the age 12. Now I'm not going to get into a debate about whether touch screens or buttons are more effective game controls. But one position I will take is that buttons on a touch screen are often worse than either one.

Without years of muscle memory, the younger gamers took to the gestural controls naturally. A lot of "core gamers" either didn't like the game, didn't like the controls or were just plain frustrated.

The important point is that fighting games tend to be very twitchy. Gamers have learned to expect complete and utter control down to the frame from their fighting games. Gestural controls and a physics based fighting system turn several of these expectations on their heads. When faced with this, many experienced gamers simply started moving more quickly and punching more often while younger gamers tended to work with the engine a bit more.

There's clearly still work to do tightening up the engine but the lessons we learned about how people play and more importantly, who is likely to play, have already proven invaluable.


Handelabra as a company strives to sit right in between two worlds. On the one hand, we are an indie developer. The majority of indies wouldn't have taken the time (or the money) to build the booth we did. But on the other side, you have the Firefalls and Skyrims of the show- The companies who spent more on their PAX presence than our entire team makes in a year. Our goal with the Oval Office was to create an eye-catching, compelling, but most of all, fun experience for the PAX crowd. We wanted as many people as possible to play the game so that we could see what was working, and what wasn't.

On this front, PAX Prime was a resounding success. At least 2000 people (but probably closer to 2500) got their hands on the game, put it through its paces, and gave us a wealth of information with which to refine it before release.

Just a couple things that surprised us:

  • Another exhibitor was a preschool teacher and asked us about using Uncle Slam as a bona fide teaching tool!
  • Nearly 400 people signed up to be notified about Uncle Slam, and more than half did so after the iPad had already been given away. In other words, it wasn't just cause we were bribing them. :-)
  • People really enjoyed watching the Get Slammed! tournament on Saturday. There was cheering and everything!
  • Abraham Lincoln clearly needs to be nerfed.

In Conclusion

More so than anything, the biggest takeaway from PAX Prime is this - Gamers are a fun bunch of folks to hang out with. We met so many great people over the weekend. And whether they liked it or not, almost every one of them had good things to say. If they liked it, they gave us words of encouragement. If they didn't like it, they almost universally offered us ideas and directions that might make our game better. And the reason for that is clear. As gamers, we are ALL interested in fun games and PAX is a really great place to meet up and pursue that goal.

Thanks for everything, and we can't wait to get Uncle Slam into your hands, hopefully by Thanksgiving.