Steel Battalion was a game published for the original Xbox in 2002 by Capcom and Microsoft Game Studios. The game was unique for being bundled with a custom controller: Two joysticks attached to multiple “blocks” that included nearly 40 buttons, switches, knobs, a drive selector, and an additional block containing foot pedals that rests on the floor. The purpose of this single-player game is to operate a Vertical Tank, a bipedal mecha (think AT-ST walker). Several years after the game’s release, Steel Battalion’s Producer Atsushi Inaba reflected on the approach his studio took, wanting to show “what can be done in the game industry that can be done in no other.”
He never met David Shuff, who has done something with Steel Battalion that can only be done by a resolute maker, someone determined to remake a game in their own vision, as they want it.
Beginning with a simple idea – to play the game inside a box – the project grew to include custom circuits, hacked joysticks, carpentry and fabrication, audio elements, and theatrical components, culminating in what Shuff describes as “an immersion cockpit equipped with custom environmental stimuli” layered with “a cooperative metagame of communication for two players.”
Basically, one person sits in the light-tight cockpit while a coach outside communicates with the player, instructing them through the process of initiating the mecha and playing the game.
The end result is Big Steel Battalion Box (B.S.B.B.) Mk II, an immersive simpit that took two years to build and is still being modified and added to.
I sat down with David to ask some questions about his process and points of inspiration, going from concept to cockpit over many months and making his ideas manifest.
Make: You’ve worked on B.S.B.B. Mk II for more than two years. Did you set out with a grand plan to build what you have now, or did you slowly add, iterate, and modify along the way?
David Shuff: It was definitely a severe case of mission creep. The impulse that started it all was simply, “This game would be amazing to play inside a refrigerator box!” When I realized a refrigerator box wasn’t big enough, my plan became to build a foamcore box. But why stop there — let’s hack the thing and add a few more bells and whistles. But when my friend is inside the box playing, I can’t really talk to them. So I thought, “I’m going to need some way to see the screen and talk to the pilot from the outside.” You can see where this is going.
I unveiled the Box late last year and was tinkering with it and adding stuff right up the the day of the launch event. And I still am.
Make: Was there another version before this one? Is that the reason for the “Mk II” moniker?
Shuff: Absolutely! Unfortunately no documentation exists of the Mk I. When I realized a refrigerator box wasn’t going to be big enough, I tried combining it with the box from a gas range, but very quickly realized I should just be building with foamcore. So I scrapped the original build.
Make: Was there anything nixed from the current design you want to tell us about?
Shuff: Every step of the way I was focused on the next addition that would be reasonable, given my budget and my skills. So, for instance, I never gave hydraulics a second thought, nor force feedback. But because I was always focused on just the next step in front of me, and making what I wanted with what I had, I never got too daunted. If you’d showed me what I was going to make in the end, there’s no way I’d have thought it possible I could build it!
I originally wanted to use a CRT television for analog authenticity, but gave up due to weight, size, and heat generation. And I had a to ditch using a 4:3 computer monitor because the VGA-to-component converter I had would glitch out from the electromagnetic field whenever one of the rumble motors went off. Which was actually a neat effect, but the “no input signal” warning that would appear on the monitor screen was an unacceptable immersion breaker.
There’s a lot of things I have yet to add (who knows if I ever will). I have the hookup all ready to go for a smoke machine to fill the cab when you’re on ‘fire,’ but haven’t had the time to tweak that system to not be… risky.
The big lesson was, “Build it and they will help you improve/finish it.”
The big lesson was, “Build it and they will help you improve/finish it.”
Make: The “Box” is a combination of design elements, carpentry, fabrication, and custom circuits. Were there any skills you learned along the way you didn’t have before you began the endeavor to build B.S.B.B. Mk II?
Shuff: Ha! Pretty much everything. I felt confident enough to start each step, and either figured it out as I went along, or got a certain distance, and asked for help/advice.
I was amazed what a pliable and fun material foamcore could be to work with, and how sturdy a structure made with it could be.
But I got a lot of help with the build from my girlfriend, Sara McBeen — she’s a product designer and the daughter of a carpenter. My friend (and fellow Maker Faire alum) Chris Losee was tremendously helpful in plotting the plan for the first version of the circuity. And my electronics wizard/mad musical genius friend Leon Dewan really threw himself into the project and took the circuitry and audio wiring to the next level.
The big lesson was, “Build it and they will help you improve/finish it.” I honestly feel like my main contribution here was vision, and slow but steady tenacity. Well, and I paid for all the damn parts.
Make: Given the current design, what element of the build are you most proud of?
Shuff: I became obsessed with eradicating light leaks while building the box, especially around the door. One of my proudest ‘eureka!’ moments was when I first closed the door and it was so dark I literally couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. At all. Right after which I came back down to earth and realized I had neglected to install an interior door handle. “Hey sweetheart, can I get a little help down here?”
Make: Can you list some of the components and materials used to build B.S.B.B. Mk II?
Shuff: My general sense of what was ‘reasonable’ when I went about this build was that no part should cost more than $50. So a lot of time was put into sourcing parts in that ballpark. (What’s not reasonable is how many parts I eventually bought.)
The entire frame of the box is foamcore held together with approximately 100 finger-tight hex bolts (no glue rule). I bought the biggest pieces, but others were salvaged from presentations and pitches at my company. The seat is a fishing boat chair, with a rally car four-point seat belt and the guts of a Hitachi Magic Wand embedded in it. (TIL: the only difference between a vibrator and a rumbler is the amount of current.) The core of the console is an Ikea desk, the door is mounted on the longest drawer sliders available on Amazon, the exhaust is a bathroom ventilation fan deemed too loud by most reviewers, and the headsets are Chinese Air Force surplus.
The original circuit was on a breadboard and just used a couple standard ICs and 555 timing circuits connected to the LED lights on the game console for the logic inputs. There was some simple (and flakey) comparator logic filtering between, say, when all the lights were flashing at once (indicating the player was taking damage) and when just the Eject button is flashing (time to eject!).
The final logic circuit was rebuilt from scratch on custom etched boards by Leon Dewan, and is rock solid. He also figured out how to use use those aviation headsets with their original insanely low impedance mics — the sound quality really lends a magically authentic touch. The man is my hero.
Make: Were you already aware of simpit (simulation cockpit) projects and makers, or did you dive in without any advanced knowledge? Is there a simpit resource out there everyone should know about?
Shuff: I was inspired by Virtual World Entertainment’s BattleTech Centers, which were big in the 90s. I never actually got to play back in the day. The Facebook group for VWE is quite active and some members have amazing projects, refitting those pods to play modern mech games.
But I considered most other simpit projects to be out of my league from a technical standpoint. As the world’s foremost expert on the defunct 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride I was probably more inspired by the Disney theme park’s approach to atmosphere and detail and the part they play in immersion — which is also why I encourage players to tuck a photo of a loved one behind the frame of the monitor.
The current build will be on display this weekend at Maker Faire Bay Area in San Mateo, California. You can find Shuff and the B.S.B.B. Mk II in the middle of Expo Hall, the event’s darkroom building. Challenge yourself to control a Vertical Tank in a virtual game space inside a physical box in the middle of the World’s Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth!
Some of those bells and whistles David talked about can be seen in this demo video:
The documentation video of the launch event held at David’s apartment in mid-November, 2014: