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!