PAX East: ClusterTruck is ‘Way, Way, Way Too Hard’

Sometimes it’s the simplest, silliest concepts that grab you.

That was the case with ClusterTruck, a ridiculous game from Landfall Games being published by tinyBuild. ClusterTruck is a play on the old “the floor is lava” game you might’ve played as a kid, where to get from one end of the room to the other, you’d have to jump on couches, pillows or anything else to avoid touching the floor; it just so happens that in ClusterTruck, instead of couches and pillows, you’re jumping on the backs of moving trucks.

It’s a one-note concept by design, but it’s a unique one and it’s been getting a lot of attention. More than any game tinyBuild had in its booth at PAX East, ClusterTruck was the one that drew the biggest crowd as people laughed and cheered for each player as he bounded across a tumultuous sea of metal and rubber. The game has a stark look that draws the eye easily, with clean, smooth textures and desaturated colors that make the points of vibrance stand out even more. It’s not unlike the aesthetic to Superhot, which hasn’t gone lost on Landfall Games.

For April Fool’s Day, the developer teased a joke Superhot mode for the game where “the trucks only move when you do” and according to tinyBuild publisher Mike Rose, players ate it up to such a degree that Landfall made it for real. “They weren’t going to make it,” Rose said, “and then they decided, ‘You know what? F*ck it, let’s do it.'” The free, standalone Superhot mode was downloaded a quarter of a million times, according to Rose, so the team could only conclude, “‘Ah, well, that’s clearly going in the final game.'”

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Rose said that Landfall hasn’t needed help with developing the game, so tinyBuild’s role as publisher has mostly been promotion and getting it out in front of fans at events. In doing so, tinyBuild has been able to come up with some sage advice for Landfall.

“It was already a ridiculous game, but we basically showed them, ‘Hey, the levels people respond to the best when we show them at PAX are the absolutely crazy ones,'” Rose said. “‘You should focus on that.'”

“Ridiculous” is the name of the game here, and Rose said the team is constantly looking to up the ante to get more of a reaction out of players. The design philosophy, he said, can basically be summed up as “what is the stupidest f*cking thing we can do with this game?”

Rose recognized that game design has been fundamentally changed since the rise of streaming Let’s Plays on Twitch and YouTube. He says that the reaction he wants tinyBuild’s games to inspire from players who see a video in passing is, “Holy sh*t, what is this?” But for ClusterTruck, he doesn’t feel like that’s compromising the game’s design in any way since it was already shooting for that reaction.

“You’re seeing a lot more of these games now, these kind of like ‘spectacle games,’ just because that’s what works,” Rose said. “You can bring out a game which is not a spectacle, is a hardcore something-or-other, it can do fine and it can find its niche, but the fact of the matter is, if you make a game like this—” Rose points behind him to the small crowd huddled around a ClusterTruck station “—well, you’ve seen it already: the game’s not out for another four months or something, and already the hype is like, something ridiculous like 100,000 people have wishlisted it on Steam.”

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Part of the reason games like this provoke a strong reaction from players, Rose said, is also because they’re really difficult. Streamers thrive on extreme reactions, so impossible, masochistic games become perfect fodder for rage and laughter in equal measure. I asked Rose how hard ClusterTruck is, and he’s quick to answer.

“Oh, it’s way too hard. It’s way, way, way too hard. People are watching it and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is way easy. Why is this person so sh*t at this game?’ And then they sit down, and they’re like, ‘Ohhh.'”

A common problem with “streamer games” is that they’re fun to watch someone else play, but not so much fun to sit down by yourself without an audience and a chatroom. Rose said he completely understands that problem and doesn’t think ClusterTruck will suffer from that problem at all.

“So a lot of people have been questioning, ‘If you’re gonna make games for Twitch, should you make it for the base, like should the base of the game be Twitch?’ And I don’t think it should be. Because when you do that, you get the problem you just described. You get this problem where when you stream it, great fun, but when you play it by yourself, maybe not so fun.”

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ClusterTruck borrows from games like Super Meat Boy that combine short levels, brutal difficulty and instant restarts for a winning formula that keeps players coming back over and over again to keep playing until they finish a level. Rose credits the quickness of the experience and a smooth difficulty ramp for making the game’s intense and varied challenge a fun experience.

I asked Rose whether or not the game will ever come to virtual reality, and it’s a question he said he’s been asked a million times over already. Rose said he doesn’t know if it’ll come to virtual reality yet because there are some obvious problems to solve. “The worry for me is that people would need a bucket when they play this because they’d need to throw up over and over again while they’re playing it because it’s so fast-moving.”

Whether or not ClusterTruck will have any real staying power with players or if it’ll end up just being a game that’s fun to watch other people play, we’ll find out soon enough. ClusterTruck will be out on Steam in a few months with planned console versions coming afterward.