There’s just one man behind the madness of Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball, a game whose title reveals its entire hand. Erik Asmussen, the game’s sole developer, took some time to chat with us about the game’s development, a breakdown of its mechanics, and how the game evolved from a simple dodgeball game to a future-space tournament used to select the next president of the galaxy.
Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball is a mouthful. Every time I say it, I feel like I’m going to miss a crucial piece, so it comes out staccato, like a grocery list. It’s a concept that makes no sense until you play it for yourself, and then everything clicks into place immediately; it’s a first-person dodgeball game where you fight over every ball, each shot is a one-hit kill, and you can catch incoming balls. Those are the basics, but the “Robot Roller-Derby” part of Disco Dodgeball makes things a little more interesting. Asmussen explained that the concept evolved naturally as he played early prototypes.
“I made a little arena and was moving around and realized what I wanted to do was launch myself off this ramp I built so I could like spin around and do a helicopter or something,” Asmussen said. “So I just kinda slapped a wheel on it — and I had to tweak it a bit, right — but I don’t know, it just really clicked with everything else; and even though at that point it was just a prototype and I wasn’t even aiming at any [AI opponents], but just moving around the arena was fun. It felt like I was skating around.”
The wheel in particular is a difficult mechanic for new players to wrap their heads around at first. You have real momentum, so if you’re moving forward and let off of the movement button, unlike most first-person games, your inertia continues to carry you forward. But as Asmussen explained, it’s a pretty crucial mechanic.
“The really important thing about it, specifically with dodgeball [and] with projectile combat, is if somebody can move left and right on a dime like that, it becomes impossible to hit anyone at range,” he said. “What that does is it gives a little bit of an advantage back to the thrower because they get a little better prediction of where you’re going to wind up. If you could stutter-step at will, it would feel very random.”
From there, Asmussen said that he approached the game from the perspective of a potential player to figure out where it should go next, like turning the arenas into dance clubs — “naturally,” we both agreed. It’s his first game in the popular Unity engine, a tool that made it easy for Asmussen to quickly test out new concepts. The hard part was making sure the game would be fun for multiple players by himself.
“You can play a game from the mindset of a disinterested party to figure out, ‘Was that fun? Why wasn’t that fun?'” Asmussen said. He gave an example in the game’s Hoops mode that functions essentially like basketball and dodgeball mixed together. Two teams fight over a single golden dodgeball to score through the opposing team’s hoop, even as normal dodgeballs are still in play. Originally, the mode allowed any player to score using any dodgeball, but Asmussen quickly realized that that would be too chaotic and wouldn’t encourage enough interaction between players. That’s where the golden ball restriction came in, turning the mode from an exercise in player independence to an intense bloodbath as every player has a singular focus.
“It’s kind of just an attitude — and almost like a skill — you have to develop over time to take a look at your own work critically and know what to change and why.”
Direct interaction with players through Steam’s Early Access program has been vital to the game’s development, he explained, even if the program has gotten a bad reputation as of late as more developers give in to the temptation to charge money too early for games without enough payoff for players. He’s watched as players tweak settings like ball trajectory and gravity values to see what works and what players respond to; and since many of the game’s mechanics are quick tweaks, it makes it easy for Asmussen to change the game around those tweaks: the laser ball power-up, for instance, simply turns off the curved trajectory for thrown balls, instead hurtling forward in a perfect straight line like a railgun.
There are a lot of different elements in Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball that make it special, but it’s the game’s pounding soundtrack that functions as the driving force. Every track is a veritable club banger that never stops through death or menus. Equalizers painted across each stage pulsate and colorful disco lights turn on and off to keep up with the beats. It makes you feel like you can’t stop moving, or like you’ve taken one too many snorts of cocaine, not unlike the feeling inspired by Hotline: Miami‘s soundtrack. Even now, sitting by myself and listening to the game’s main theme, “Anthem” by Adhesive Wombat, is enough to give me a little buzz.
“It’s just this amazing song,” Asmussen said. “It doesn’t matter what game you put next to it, the game [seems more] awesome. It’s actually a really cool effect.”
Asmussen said that the soundtrack has gotten a fair amount of attention on its own from players and commenters online, and he credits that entirely to the talent of the artists. He mentions Kraedt, who did three songs on the soundtrack: “Pyromania,” “Isometric,” and “Syntax.”
“I’m like, how is this guy not already on the radio all the time? His music is so good,” Asmussen said. “I can’t believe that I’m the only one that’s picked this up and tried to bring this to a bunch of people. […] I hope that if the game does well, I can take some of these artists and bring them a bunch of extra attention because it’s so good. I feel really lucky that I got them.”
There’s less than a month away now before the game’s planned launch on February 19, and Asmussen chuckled when asked about what’s left to do. “It’s a lot,” he said, beginning to explain how he’s prioritizing his time. Before release, Asmussen wants to improve the game’s lag compensation, allow players to vote on match settings, and a multitude of little tweaks, like replacing the placeholder art for power-up icons, something Asmussen appears to have just completed.
For the long-term, Asmussen has big plans for Disco Dodgeball, including a level editor, local multiplayer, integration with Steam Workshop and dedicated servers. It was clear Asmussen cares about improving the player experience and wants to do everything he can to support the game over the long haul. “It’s the kind of game I want to evolve over time,” he said.
Near the end of the interview, I happen to glance at the first note I scrawled into my notebook as I played Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball the week preceding our interview: “Defeat all opponents to become president of the galaxy.” It introduces the game’s Arena mode, a pretty standard wave-based survival mode against the AI, and makes up the only written story in the game. It struck me as a funny throwaway line, and I hadn’t even originally planned on asking him about it, but decided I’d may as well.
Asmussen enthusiastically launched into an incredible tale of the accidental destruction of Earth, lost civilizations pieced together and a tournament that sounds like a futuristic version of Mortal Kombat. I would be doing Asmussen a disservice to describe it any further, so I highly encourage you to listen to the interview; story details start at 40:30.
Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball will be released on Steam on February 19 for $14.99. For more details about the game and about Erik Asmussen, you can listen to the entire interview below.