In a windowless room in downtown Syracuse, a fierce battle is about to erupt. A muscular warrior stands facing a dragon with…a unibrow? Trogdor, the infamous Burninator of HomestarRunner.com, is about to be slain by none other than Grotolo, a social media warrior – with the body of a He-Man action figure, the head of Syracuse University’s own Anthony Rotolo, and armed with Social Media. Literally. Welcome to GraFighters.
After getting multiple recommendations to meet with the Syracuse-based game startup, I checked out some of their stuff online. It struck me that the game had a few things in common with my own team capstone from RIT, SketchBox, and I knew I had to meet with them. GraFighters is an online game where users can upload their own doodles, let a bit of code figure out the stats of the doodle, and then get started kicking butt! It’s a fun and personal way to relive the margins of your middle school math homework, pitting your sketched out warriors against those of your friends and strangers. I braved a veritable blizzard (a.k.a. just another winter day in Syracuse) to meet with Dave Chenell and chat about the game.
This time, I brought along something a bit different. Rather than the usual Chemex setup, I opted for the glitz and glamor of my trusty vacuum pot. What a terrible idea. Vac pots look cool, brew some pretty tasty coffee, but man, they’re a pain to clean, even if you have a sink right next to you. I usually don’t, so I made sure Dave got the first brew, and I took the second, which was fairly clearly tainted by the remnants of the first batch. Protip: make sure you consider all the factors of a brewing device before bringing it along somewhere like this. I totally overlooked the clean up/reset part, and kinda regretted it.
A show stopping PITA, but a PITA nonetheless. The brewer, not Dave…
Luckily, Stumptown’s Ethiopia Yukro is a very tasty, sweet, lemony brew, that’s robust enough to take a little bit of a beating. I was still able to finish off my mug, and Dave seemed to enjoy his as well. Thank goodness for good coffee, making up for botched brews from time to time!
So, down to brass tacks. GraFighters started in the most likely place: in the notebooks of two college students during class. Dave and co-founder Eric Cleckner were doodling in class, when the challenge was issued: “I bet my guy could beat yours in a fight.” The concept eventually left the realm of paper, and went digital, as the two began to try to build a game where users could bring their doodles to life, and pit them against one another to determine a winner. Of course, given limited resources, the game struggled to make significant progress, and the duo turned to Kickstarter for funding.
Such tasty coffee, such messy cleanup.
With a modest goal of $20k, the hope was to get enough money to finish something playable, which would probably be built onto later. Unfortunately, the crowdfunding site didn’t pay off, and Dave and Eric were dead in the water. That is, until they were approached by a European venture capitalist, who took an interest in the project, and ended up contributing $200k, ten times the original goal. With coffers full, and a certifiable interest in the game, the two set to work - building, coding, and crafting a world in a web site. They were now located in their current space in the Syracuse Tech Garden, a small hub in the city that fosters other small tech businesses. They managed to snag an additional team member, Dave Benmen (formerly of Macromedia), through an ad on craigslist, who helped them build the heart of the site. But more on that part in a bit.
Live on the web since September of 2011, GraFighters is a fairly simple site. Users can log in with Facebook, scan or photograph their doodle fighter of choice, and import it into the character builder. From there, they’ll give the doodle some bones, designating the torso, head, arms, legs, with bounding boxes and joints. The process is coached with visual prompts, making it easy enough to follow along, though there’s an element of goofiness to misplaced clicks, or a sub-optimal doodle. If your doodle is drawn with foreshortened limbs, or a strange perspective, or even –at this point- if it’s a quadruped, the software will have more of a silly effect on the character than a realistic bones rig. But that’s really just part of the charm; it’s a doodle for crying out loud, who cares if his arm moves oddly? Once the parts are all sorted out and labeled, Cornelius takes over.
The Burninator himself, rigged and ready to fight.
Cornelius is the aforementioned heart of the system. It’s an algorithm that checks out the drawing you’ve submitted, takes a good hard look, and figures out how to assign the fighting stats. Is your monster a big top-heavy brute? Cornelius will give him good strength, but his intelligence will be lacking. A wiry sneaky fellow will be agile, but not too strong, and so on. Cornelius is constantly under revision, getting tweak to make sure the playing field is level enough to be enjoyable, and the results better match the characters he judges. But again, there’s some charm to the bugs that may still be around, as Dave showed me with a bipedal hamburger character. He imported it as normal, and Cornelius buffed the strength off the chart (it was something like 274, if I recall correctly). Clearly, the burger would have been an intense opponent!
Dave discussing upcoming features for the game. Stay tuned and keep battling!
GraFighters, as it exists today, is a fun and playable work in progress. It’s populated by far more than a handful of users (especially now that CNN and Kotaku have picked up the story), so there’s plenty of opportunity to interact and battle. Rather than go too far into the dynamics of gameplay, I really think the site should speak for itself (honestly, I’m not being a lazy writer!), and you all should go check it out. Make a doodle, import it, invite your Facebook friends, and play around a bit. Make some mistakes, and just have fun with the game. Then, in the future, watch for some of the cool planned updates, like collaborative drawing, territory battles, and more social and discovery tools. The game feels really promising to me, so I’d love to see more folks taking part and getting into fights!