Episode 16: Executive Golf DX

Christa Mrgan: Your illustrious career at Tower Corp starts in the basement mail room. But don’t worry, you can work your way up as long as you get the hang of golfing your way through an office building with funny power ups and weird physics, in Executive Golf DX.

Welcome to the Playdate Podcast, bringing you stories from game designers, developers, and the team behind Playdate, the little yellow game console with a crank! I’m Christa Mrgan. Today I’m talking with Dave Hoffman, who created Executive Golf DX for Playdate.

Slight spoiler alert: we talk about the overall gist of the game, some of the gameplay, mechanics, and power ups, and hint at something big that happens. Okay, you’ve been warned. Let’s meet Dave.

Dave Hoffman: My name’s Dave. I go by davemakes online, and I’m a game developer and a graphic designer and some other things. I made a game called Mixolumia and I made a game for the Playdate called Executive Golf DX, and I’m working on another one with the code name Robot Fishing Village subject to change.

Golf and corporate culture are two things I don’t know a lot about, which is, you know, sometimes to explore a topic, you have to make a a game about it. And that’s, that’s sort of what I wanted to tackle with Executive Golf DX.

Executive Golf DX is a game where you golf your way up a office building. And that is how you earn promotions and eventually become the chief executive golfer. And I don’t know, there’s kind of spoilers. Something happens midway through.

Christa Mrgan: Shh! No major spoilers on this podcast! Just very minor ones, but okay. Let’s back up to how Dave first heard about Playdate and how they came to make a game for it in the first place.

Dave Hoffman: The first time I heard about Playdate it was at Bit Summit in Kyoto in 2017. Cabel was there showing Firewatch.

Christa Mrgan: Bit Summit is an indie games festival held annually in Kyoto, Japan, and Firewatch is an adventure game where you play a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest. It was developed by Campo Sano and published by Panic, which is why Cabel was there.

Dave Hoffman: I’ve been kind of like a big internet nerd for awhile. So like Cabel is just sort of a person who exists in that space who I thought was neat. But you know, I didn’t want to like bug him as a total stranger.

So I like tweeted, “oh, I just spotted, you know, @Cabel at Bit Summit, but I’m too afraid to approach him,” and he tweeted back to me like, “don’t do that! Come on.” So I like went up to him and introduced myself. It was him and a couple of the Japanese Panic people. And I told him I was working on this game at the time about trains and space, that was very silly.

I just, I think I started rambling to them about it. And I guess he thought it sounded cool. Cause he was like, you want to see something neat? And I told him that I would sign an NDA in blood for anything he’d show me. And he didn’t make me do that, but he pulled out a Playdate out of his breast pocket.

And I just flipped out because it’s like exactly the kind of thing that you know, I’m into. I love little rectangles. I’m big on any electronic device that is just a rectangle. And, you know, the fact that it’s yellow and you know, once I saw the crank I was very excited about it. But yeah, he just pulled this thing out and like this was in 2017, so it was a while ago and it immediately crashed, but I was like, I saw the screen for that brief moment, you know, and, and I think the menu was working and, you know, he flipped through these different things and I was just like immediately enamored with it.

And yeah, so, he was like, “would you want to make a game for this?” And I was like, you know, absolutely. I would drop everything to do that. And so I was like still super nervous because, you know, Cabel’s extremely friendly. But I have this sort of a fear that I’m bugging people who I don’t know, which I think is fair, you know when you’re just approaching a stranger and you don’t know if they’re just being nice or not, but yeah, I followed up with Cabel and he continued to be nice to me.

I had asked Cabel off the bat, like what games aren’t other people making you know, I wanted to, I wanted to fill some kind of niche in the first season that wasn’t being filled. And he said there were no sports games. And I’m not a very sporty person, which I think is a part of the fun of game design, is taking something you either don’t like or don’t know about, and making it something that you find fun and entertaining.

So I picked golf. My dad’s big into golf and he’s like “you made a game about a thing I like!”, I was like, yeah. I don’t know, wait until you play it. It’s not quite golf. But yeah, I was like, what can I do with golf that is weird that I haven’t seen before.

There’s this great game Desert Golfing, which I’m sure everybody knows. And it’s got a great sequel now, Golf on Mars, I believe it’s called.

Christa Mrgan: Yes! Desert Golfing and Golfing on Mars are both minimalist golf games created by Captain Games.

Dave Hoffman: And it’s very minimalistic you know, you, you’re just going forward the whole time. And you’re just hitting this ball.

And some holes will just be like you just hit it over into the hole and then others are just maddeningly weird and difficult and frustrating, which is, I think it’s great. But there’s very little to it, you know, there’s no, there’s no judgment.

There’s no par. There’s no points really. There’s no like experience or unlockables or battle pass or like various currencies or whatever. It’s very minimal. And you know, that’s like in line with the kind of game design that I enjoy. But you know, also I like when things get a little silly, so I, I do have kind of questionably- usable power ups in Executive Golf DX, which is a little bit of a joke. Some of them are legitimately useful and some of them are just kind of silly. And I don’t really tell you what they’re good for. And I think part of the fun is figuring that out, but that might just be my bizarre idea of what fun is.

And I was thinking about urban golf and I Googled “urban golf” and it’s a real thing in Portland. And I was like, of course it is like these people, they take like tennis balls. And they go to like alleys and like parking lots and I don’t know, just wherever and they have actual golf clubs and they hit tennis balls. And I’m not sure. It seems to be just for kicks. I don’t know. it’s like a very Portland thing, it seems. So I was like, okay, I can’t do that. But I liked the idea of taking golf out of nature. And putting it somewhere that would just be irresponsible to do golf. And so I was thinking a lot about Downwell. How elegant the world of Downwell is in that it’s vertical

Christa Mrgan: Created by Ojiro Fumoto, Downwell is a vertically scrolling shooter slash platformer game with a minimalist art style and limited color palette.

Dave Hoffman: And I thought that verticality would work so well with the crank in being able to like crank up and down and like move your camera on that one axis. So the idea of golfing within a tower was really appealing to me. And then, you know, I was like, who golfs in a tower? And this, this idea of like a corporate executive sort of making their way up the corporate ladder through, you know, golf, which is sort of my perception of these things, was appealing to me. And I, I like this idea of starting out in the mail room and like literally golfing your way to the top of the company.

[When I pitched a Cabel, I was a little nervous cause Cabel, you know, like actually owns a real company. And my pitch was extremely tongue in cheek aimed at like corporate culture and whatnot. And Cabel immediately was like, I love this. And that’s sort of, when I knew, I was like, okay, like we’re going to have fun.

Christa Mrgan: And, are you wondering where the DX in the name came from? Because I was!

Dave Hoffman: I had originally pitched it as Executive Golf Pro. And Cabel said, what if we call it Executive Golf DX? Because he buys these like weird Japanese old toys and stuff, or I don’t know if he buys them, but he tracks them on eBay. And at some point it was very trendy to put DX at the end of your name in your like weird little game product.

And he thought that was just very funny and I agreed. It was very funny, but also it’s like, you know, you’re writing the checks. So I will put DX at the end of my game name. But yeah, I thought it was unique and appropriately tongue in cheek for the title. I think it makes it a little bit more searchable too than Executive Golf Pro, so yeah, Executive Golf DX. It sounds goofy. And like, it’s trying to be a little self-important, which is exactly the tone. So I love it.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, it’s great. How could executive golfing be anything but deluxe? And somehow the “DX” in the name immediately conjured up this image of like an Nintendo Game Boy box design for me.

So, I looked it up and sure enough, there was a series of games that were remastered for the GameBoy Color that all had the DX suffix, which ends up making the name even better, given the Playdate’s one- bit black and white screen.

Anyway, Dave was the sole developer of the game, which means they did everything from the game design to the visual design, the programming, and they even created the music and sound design.

Dave Hoffman: Yeah, I, did the design. I did the art. I did the music. I did the sound effects, which was the hardest part that I didn’t realize. ’ Cause this was like a pretty low budget affair for me. I thought for sure, I could find a free, like a library of golf samples, but a golf ball, hitting like.

a file cabinet. Like that’s not a normal sound.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, in the game, you’re literally golfing your way through the different levels of the building. So you’re contending with a lot of typical office furniture as obstacles.

Dave Hoffman: So like I did find a free golf swing and the initial hit sound effect, that worked really well, but for like everything else, I was going around my apartment and like hitting things to get various surfaces, you know, I needed like carpet and cardboard and you know, wood and metal and rock and glass.

And oh, I needed an elevator door opening because in the game you go up floors. You know, there’s no hole, you get your ball in the elevator and the elevator doors, like slide open and close. And luckily. Japanese homes have lots of sliding doors. So I actually recorded the doors in my house and then like pitched it down and remixed it the bit.

And I think it sounds like a pretty good elevator door. But yeah, I’m proud of the sound effect work. But that was one of those things that I left to the very end and figured I would just like throw in some side effects and it turned into this whole thing.

There’s some fun stuff in the game. On one of the floors there’s arcade cabinets. And I made it so every time you hit an arcade cabinet, it makes like a little bleep bloop. I made like chip tune, you know a little bleep bloops that’s different every time you hit it. And then when you get to the executive floor there are pianos. Like grand pianos, and whenever you hit a grand piano, it plays like a different just mess of notes.

It’s fun. I had a lot of fun. I don’t know, sound design is something I’m like super into as a hobbyist sort of, but it, it it’s a little under appreciated. I feel like a lot of people just sort of accept that these things make these sounds, but when you’re in your apartment, like stomping on cabbage or something ridiculous with, like, a microphone or you know, going outside and finding materials to like hit you know, it’s, it’s pretty labor intensive.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, sound design does get overlooked because when it’s done well, it just feels natural. But sound design does so much to create the world of a game. It’s a craft that requires a lot of skill and attention to detail, and it’s definitely a key aspect of game. Which is part of why it’s so impressive to me that Dave created all of these different sound elements to make the game feel immersive while also doing everything else, including creating the music and the visual design.

Dave Hoffman: So I went to school for graphic design and I was a graphic designer for awhile. And most of my career has been in like UX and UI, art, and design. And so, yeah I’ve done pixel art. I’m, I’m not like the person you call to get, to get like, you know, the best pixel art for your game, but you know, not bad at it.

But yeah the limitations of the playdate screen are so freeing and I think Neven’s talked about this a lot.

Christa Mrgan: Neven Mrgan is a designer at Panic. He designed the Playdate operating system, and several play date games.

Dave Hoffman: Just like you have a set resolution and you have black and white and, you know, there’s all sorts of stuff that you can do with you know, halftones and whatnot.

In this game, I was looking at like woodcuts. A lot of the shading is, is these horizontal lines that are sort of inspired by old wood cut art and things like that.

And I think that that sort of, instead of a digital feel, it gives it sort of a classy, like something that would, you know, be like embossed on a plaque or something in an executive office, which like kind of ties into the theme a little bit. But if I were to do it again, I’m not sure if I would do so many different floors and environments because there’s a lot of objects in this game.

And maybe I would focus a little bit more on game mechanics if I were to do it over, but I am happy with the the vibe of each separate floor. You know, there’s, there’s unique art in each one. And yeah, as for the design of the like the actual layout of the floors, I took kind of the Spelunky model and mixed it up to work with like an office building.

Christa Mrgan: Spelunky is a platformer game where the elements in each level are randomized, so you get a slightly different experience every time you play.

Dave Hoffman: So like in Spelunky, there’s like a grid. I think it’s like three by three. I forget. Of these sort of rooms. And then they get sort of stitched together depending on what works. And there’s little bits of it that are randomly turned on and off to give it that extra flavor. And that sort of combo of pre-prepared assets stuck together it gives you something fresh each time. So I was inspired by that. So each section of the building has its own templates of floors that are like pre authored. And there are certain objects and pieces of furniture that have like a random chance of appearing or not. And then those get stitched together and flipped into a section of the building.

So yeah, it has this sort of roguelike Inspiration to it in order to keep the game fresh-ish, each time you play it, but it also has that you know, each floor is technically authored content which I think is an, a nice balance between like total randomness and end up pre-planned course.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah, so if you haven’t heard the term before, “roguelike” refers to a subgenre of role playing games that’s named after Rogue, a procedurally generated top down dungeon crawler released in 1980. spelunky is considered by some people to be a Roguelike game. You can definitely see the Roguelike inspiration in Executive Golf Dx, with its partially procedurally generated levels, but instead of a top- down dungeon crawl, the perspective is vertically scrolling. And unlike some other Roguelike games, you mercifully don’t have to start over from the beginning if you fail.

You start near the garbage cans and cleaning supplies and just keep golfing your way up, no matter how many strokes it takes. And there’s an element of pool or billiards here, where you have to think about getting the right angle to bounce off other objects while also timing your A button press to use the right amount of force. It took me an embarrassingly long time to get out of the mail room.

Dave Hoffman: It’s fine that the gameplay’s a little obnoxious. I think that’s part of the point. I guess I can give like little tips. I mean, part of it is just sort of fun. There are a lot of games where things are very tightly designed. And, and I do appreciate those a lot. I also kind of wanted a childlike wonder you know, I want a kid to just pick the super ball because it’s fun to have the ball be extra bouncy, but it is like, if you can get a super ball shot, if you’re going down, which spoilers, I think it’s not really spoiler. You can choose to go down from the start. If you are going down the super bounce can be really helpful. If you hit it right, you can bypass like whole floors if you, cause it’ll just keep bouncing. I think the moon ball is the one that I might revise if I were to take another crack at it, but I do think it’s funny to have a low gravity moon ball.

Christa Mrgan: I love the moon ball! It’s one of the things that helps ease the frustration you might be feeling and keeps the game light. I guess, literally.

Dave Hoffman: I feel like a lot of my goals in game design are informed by, or at least influenced by the work of Bennett Foddy, which is it’s very strange for me that Bennett Foddy also has a Playdate game.

Christa Mrgan: Yes. You can find a link to Bennett’s interview about his Playdate game Zipper in the show notes.

Dave Hoffman: There’s a genre called fumble core, that’s sort of the the genre that’s been retroactively applied to things like QWOP you know, I think of stuff like I Am Bread or Surgeon Simulator or whatever.

Christa Mrgan: QWOP is a weird, goofy, difficult game by Bennett Foddy, where you control an Olympic runner’s legs using only the Q W O and P keys on a keyboard. I Am Bread is a game by Bossa Studios, and it’s similar in terms of the awkwardness of the controls and resulting hilarity because you maneuver a piece of bread with a keyboard’s, arrow, keys, or a control stick.

And likewise, Surgeon Simulator also from Bossa Studios is a goofy, dark comedy take on surgery where you might operate on a patient with a hammer or an axe, and with very limited precision.

Dave Hoffman: And I don’t go quite that far, I think. But I do like a bit of funkiness in trying to master a control scheme or a physical interaction that is different from what you’re used to. And I think a lot about all these games that I find really interesting in, in digging into physics and whatnot that that are just kind of wonky. But if you play it, you get a handle on it. And I think that feels really good. I know there’s a lot of games that demand a high cognitive load. And I, you know, I, listen, I if you put me on like an island with like a thousand puzzles and I’m forced to take out a notebook and write in it, like I am in my happy place.

I love games where you have to like pay attention to every step of the way and learn and stuff. But also I do really appreciate like the video game equivalent of knitting. I do like something that you can just sort of zone out, once you’ve got the hang of it and just golf.

That to me is golf. You know, you play a course and you sort of know it, but like it’s really about your physical ability to like perform the action of hitting the ball correctly, the way you want it. And that’s like more of a low level brain situation.

I dunno. I dunno how to describe it. It’s not like puzzle solving, right? You have to train your subconscious to do it for you. And then when you get that going, you get into this sort of zone and that’s the experience that I really like you know, or at least I like to design for.

Christa Mrgan: Yeah. So how did it go when it came to executing that game design using the Playdate Software Development Kit?

Dave Hoffman: In 2018 I got the SDK and it was in an early state, but it was really solid.

Like I was really surprised. The documentation even then was better than most documentation for engines that I use now. And it was just like off to the races. I pitched Executive Golf to him and it went really quick because Playdate is just a joy to develop for. But uh, It was like a while before I had an actual Playdate unit to test on, cause this was pretty early. And, and I was going pretty fast, like right off the bat, as soon as I got the SDK. And so I was really concerned that like, none of this stuff that I was doing would work on it.

Like, I didn’t know if the way I was using the crank would feel good. And I tried to make the crank optional.

Christa Mrgan: Yes, you can aim your shot using either the crank or the D pad.

Dave Hoffman: I just wanted to make it as accessible as possible. And so I wanted to make the crank optional just in this case, with the 12 games in the first season, or I guess it’s 24 now. I wanted to have mine be one that was as accessible as possible because you kind of get what you get in that first season.

Christa Mrgan: So what about making more games for play date?

Dave Hoffman: I have so many ideas for Playdate games and it’s such a joy to develop for. You know, it, it comes down to time. you know, I hope that everyone on earth buys a Playdate so that there’s just a gigantic market for games on it. So I can justify making all the games that I want to make.

But yeah, I have several secret Playdate projects in various folders you know, little prototypes and whatnot. But yeah, I have so many ideas. It’s just, it’s just finding the time to do them.

And we were planning on getting another game going, which turned into Robot Fishing.

Christa Mrgan: You can see a very short sneak peek of Robot Fishing in the Playdate Update video from June, 2021.

Dave Hoffman: But there was like a weird two week period of time when I didn’t have any clients lined up. And like this thing with the next Playdate game was kind of tied up. And I kind of had this weird idea for this game. And I prototyped it and I really, really liked it. And I was like, Cabel, I think I have to go make this. Cause I, I had just posted some GIFs to Twitter and people like really responded to it in a way that was really surprising. And so Cabel was nice enough to give me the leeway to go off and do this weird thing.

So yeah. I definitely would not have been able to do Mixolumia without Playdate and the support of Panic indirectly. It’s a falling block puzzle game in the same vein as Tetris or Luminous. And it’s got a dynamic music system that is open on the backend. Like fans and people in the community can make their own like sound packs that dynamically respond to play your input and like progression through the game.

Christa Mrgan: Mixolumia is available on itch, Steam, and most recently Nintendo Switch! And hopefully we’ll see Robot Fishing and other games for Playdate from Dave soon. But what kind of experience do they hope that people will have with Executive Golf DX?

Dave Hoffman: I think the experience I want people to have with Executive Golf DX is to think it’s a joke and be a bit frustrated with it. And then sort of get the hang of like how to put, spin on the ball, exactly how hard to hit it, how to bounce it off things. You know, how it bounces, the best time to use power ups. And then just to sort of chill out with it.

Christa Mrgan: Nice! Well, I hope you promote yourself out of the mail room faster than I did And that you get into the zone and golf and laugh your way to the top of the tower in Executive Golf DX! Dave Hoffman goes by davemakes online, and you can find links to their Twitter, website and games in the show notes. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more episodes coming soon to the Playdate Podcast feed. The Playdate Podcast was written, produced, and edited by me, Christa Mrgan. Cabel Sasser and Simon Panrucker composed the theme song. Additional Music and Sound Effects were composed by Dave Hoffman and come from Executive Golf DX.

Huge thanks to Tim Coulter and Ashur Cabrera for wrangling the podcast feed and working on the website, James Moore for making me an awesome Playdate audio extraction app. And Neven Mrgan who created the podcast artwork and site design. And thanks as always to everyone at Panic. Playdate is shipping now and available for pre-order at play.date.

Dave Hoffman: I think we covered a lot. I didn’t talk about capitalism at all. I live in fear that I did not make the game as apparently satirical as it’s supposed to be, but hopefully, hopefully it gets across that it’s very, very silly.