Almost Every Thing You Want To Know About Clockwork & GameShell
1. Please introduce the members of clockworkPi team.
Our team is small and we come from a variety of backgrounds, including the Internet, communications, mobile phone, industrial design, and advertising industries. We currently have a staff of seven, plus two part-time employees.
If you ask what we have in common, the answer is simple: We’re all geeks with a deep love of gaming. If you talk with us about games, you’ll see we are not the stereotypical silent engineers.
Another thing we have in common is our love of open-source software and coding. Programming is not just our job. It’s what we do for fun. Just like some people like basketball, soccer, or ping-pong, we like coding.
2. What kind of motivation led you to create this product?
In fact, the reasons were somewhat complicated. Firstly, many engineers, and even many gamers, dream of creating their own handhelds. This is a very common fantasy of ours.
Before we created GameShell, we had seen some geeks trying to make their own handhelds using Raspberry Pi and 3D printers. Of course, there are very few full stack developers, so for most engineers or gamers, this remains only a dream.
Also, Raspberry Pi products have sold extremely well in recent years, so from a business standpoint, this was a potential opportunity. It just so happened that we knew some engineers (in hardware, software, structure, industrial design, and Internet) who loved gaming, so we started to conceive of this product.
In terms of emotions, Murakami Haruki wrote a novel called Pinball, 1973. The novel is set in a city in winter and the protagonist goes searching for a pinball machine called “Spaceship” that he played when he was young. Our happy childhood memories are fleeting. Maybe Murakami wanted to give them some permanence in the form of a novel. I remember, during crowdfunding for GameShell, one of our backers from Belgium left us this message: “I missed my original 1st Edition Gameboy so much… the moment I saw it, I knew I had to get one!” That was also on a cold winter night, and it made me think about the part in Pinball, 1973 where this guy puts on his coat and goes out in the cold night to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city, where he finds the old pinball machine.
Some things can transcend time, place, and culture. I think a large part of our motivation, like that of many gamers and maybe Murakami as well, is to try to catch hold of this spark which is intangible, but still real. These are the things that hold our memories. They can be even more than that, even more profound. They can be the things that create meaning in a meaningless universe.
I should mention that, before the advent of the modern computer, difference engines, typewriters, power looms, player pianos, and other machines were run by complex clockwork mechanisms. We hope that users will extend their understanding to all the sources of our modern digital technology. We believe that the greatest technologies usually have a simple, essential, interesting, and inspiring beginning and are invented through the goodwill of the creator.
3. Is there some sort of geeky spirit that influences developers like you? Some sort of origin story, like for Raspberry Pi?
We are deeply influenced by open-source culture and look up to idols like Richard Stallman (RMS) and Linus Torvalds. RMS created a far-reaching movement that produced our modern infrastructure. The thing that surprises people is that a group of people is able to create a powerful operating system and amazing tools through completely open collaboration. If you are fortunate enough to understand the whole event, you will be astounded. It seems to violate common sense.
Behind this open-source culture, there is a long and amazing history. It is hard to sum up in a few words. Maybe it is best to understand this history through the biographies of RMS and Linus.
You can say open-source culture had a major influence on GameShell. We use the Debian Linux distribution and have opened up most of software code, hardware schematics, and designs.
We naturally want GameShell to become a fun tool that spreads the open-source culture.
Raspberry Pi also is an interesting story. It is the story of the success of a group of techies from the UK who wanted to bring back the days of the “bedroom programmer”.
Essentially, whether it’s Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or the open-source movement, the core aim is to give the people certain rights. With the advance of digital technology, these rights might become necessities, like literacy in the modern world.
When it comes to games, the classic indie game Cave Story was an important motivation for us to create GameShell. In the beginning, we used this game to test our hardware and software. The story behind Cave Story and the quality of the game itself were really inspiring to us. I believe it also influences other game developers.
4. Before you made GameShell, did you consider its target users? Was it more for retro game enthusiasts or independent game developers?
We defined three types of users, and our publicity video on Kickstarter was produced with these three types of users in mind.
We initially considered our user base to be the Raspberry PI and dev board user base, basically geeks that like DIY. However, we thought that the learning curve of Raspberry Pi was too steep. We wanted to do something interesting, not something that looks cool but is difficult for most people, even kids. Consequently, we started to think about making a game console. This is actually the dream of geeks all over the world: your own DIY handheld. A lot of people started working on this early on, but there are very few full stack developers.
Also, these people are usually video game enthusiasts, so our second group of target users was gamers who love retro games.
Our third group of target users was people learning to code. We hope that open and transparent products will bring more fun and freedom to novice programmers.
5. How did you design the GameShell? How did you decide upon the exterior design? What did you go to for inspiration?
When you think of handhelds, the classic models automatically come to mind. We tried to abstract the most iconic features and then improve on them. In fact, the entire design process took a lot longer than expected. We went through at least 500 iterations. It was really difficult to agree on a final design.
On the GameShell, you can see plenty of languages used in old devices, including handhelds, game cartridges, cassettes, MD, stickers, oscilloscopes, monitors and plastic assembly models. We also deliberately use a popular battery in the “90s and a larger number of transparent materials. By doing this, we hope users can enjoy the rich culture behind the technology, rather than sealing it up in the black box.
6. During crowdfunding on Kickstarter, your original fundraising goal was 50,000 USD, but you actually raised 290,000 USD. Were you surprised by this result?
Actually, we were more surprised when we saw that our project reached the first page of the Kickstarter Tech section just two days after it was launched. This meant that our idea resonated with a lot of people. That was the most memorable moment.
The most incredible thing was to discover that users from more than 60 countries and regions, some we had never even heard of, were supporting us. Their faith proved that we had an idea that transcended geography and culture. We were really proud of that.
7. Why did you decide to let users assemble the device themselves? Wouldn’t a preassembled handheld lower the barriers to use?
We were inspired by dev boards, so we wanted users to be able to independently use our modules. That gave us our idea for the design. At the same time, we wanted to make the DIY aspect part of the fun. We wanted to provide the unique joy of toys like Legos, Gundam models, and Tamiya Mini 4WD models.
Since our products were quite easy to assemble, this would not be a difficulty for the users.
8. Many video reviews mention that GameShell looks and feels high quality, including the packaging. Also, many of the parts are assembled just like toy models (such as Gunpla). Was this something you decided from the beginning or was it the result of trying different things?
We all used Legos, Gundam, and Mini 4WD models and really admired the experience created by these products ( except for IKEA, which makes DIY a physical activity ;D ). Therefore, the assembly process and modular design were something we really wanted to include. Actually, this increased our costs.
9. How do you ensure that users can assemble the device completely and correctly? If they accidentally break a piece, the whole device may be useless.
That is possible, but I believe our users are smarter than we are. This seems to be borne out in fact. Before they receive our product, our users research the materials we have published, including the schematics, 3D printing manual, and OS image.
In addition, we sell all the parts on our website, down to the last cable.
10. I see that GameShell currently uses the Clockwork Pi v3.1 (CPI 3.1) mainboard. Has this been upgraded since the crowdfunding stage? Will there be more updates and upgrades in the future?
Yes, CPI 3.1 supports HDMI output and provides a larger memory for better performance.
We recently worked with the community to update the Clockwork OS. The new version implements more optimizations and comes preset with more great indie games.
In addition, we have a high-profile IPS screen upgrade planned and new and different products in the works. Updates and developments will be a continuous topic for us going forward.
11. Speaking of the screen, why didn’t you select one of the popular high-resolution screens for GameShell?
We chose the screen based on a number of factors.
Firstly, the resolution of games from the “90s and earlier was almost always 320x240 or less and the majority used a 4:3 aspect ratio. Therefore, our screen provides better support for these old games than a high-resolution 16:9 screen.
I should also mention that the LCD pixels of early handhelds used a triangular pixel arrangement, like the CRTs of TVs and monitors. We deliberately chose this type of screen to provide a retro and nostalgic look.
Another reason we chose this screen was to help developers improve their demo development efficiency and concentrate on the game itself, rather than dazzling and expensive visual effects.
12. Currently, many independent game developers focus on the PC platform while others develop games on or port games to the PS and NS platforms. What effect do you think a retro development tool like GameShell will have on the indie game developer community? In other words, what changes do you expect this product to produce?
GameShell is positioned for the development of demo games, like the Celeste demo.
From our community and the emails we have received, it was clear that indie game developers and bedroom programmers were very interested in our product and wanted to bring their games and the games they loved to our platform. For instance, users of demo game engines like PICO-8, TIC80, and LOVE2D were able to run their engines on GameShell. We also hold game demo competitions through regular Game Jams.
13. GameShell is a handheld console and development terminal for retro style games. Is this because the development team liked this style of game? There are an increasing number of 3A games on the market and the cost of producing indie games is also rising. In this context, how do you view the prospects of Atari, GBA, and NES style games?
Rather than saying we like “retro” games, it would be more accurate to say that we care about gameplay and creativity. Back before stunning graphics and powerful CPUs, to become a phenomenon, a game had to combine exceptional gameplay and creativity within the limits imposed by the existing technology. Today, some games have stunning graphics, but lack the soul of a game. They feel more like interactive movies.
This phenomenon is closely tied to the rising costs of game production. As costs go up, games are only produced by a few major studios. We believe, and I think we will see this very soon, that game design will return to its source, which is fun itself. Then the game development industry will become fragmented again.
The PC industry fragmented into mobile phones, blogs fragmented into Twitter, and the traditional media has fragmented into YouTubers…
By providing a tool and a path to a wide range of indie game developers, allow them to easily and directly develop, collaborate on, and release games. We are building a digital gaming ecosystem for all bedroom programmers and coding enthusiasts.
Our mission is to provide democratic game development tools and environments so that more bedroom programmers and coding enthusiasts can release their own games.
14. I let one of my programmer friends looked over the GameShell materials and she was surprised that it uses Linux rather than Android. Can you tell me why you chose to use Linux?
We are all Linux fans. We also really admire the values and culture behind Linux. In addition, we wanted to use GameShell to bring more users to this amazing open-source community.
15. Besides gaming and game development, GameShell has a lot of other functions. It can be used as a controller, a speaker, and even a music player. Why did you decide to include these functions? Will they make GameShell’s market position less clear?
We have a group of users base among music producers, DJs, and digital musicians. They are interested in all electronic devices that can produce sound. We’ve seen the pictures posted on SNS by a singer from France, a DJ from Moscow, and an artist from Japan. Don’t forget that our users are a bunch of really creative geeks.
16. On the forum, I saw some discussions about using GameShell for education. Some teachers were discussing how it can be used to teach a wide range of subjects, from basic programming to research into electronic games and media. If given the chance, would you be willing to work with teachers and schools to find ways to teach programming to students? Have you already started?
We have an education plan. Each year, we will donate 100 devices to schools and other educational institutions. So far, more than 30 schools have applied for devices from us and we have sent them out. We were surprised to see some teachers attempting to use GameShell devices to teach young children of about 12 years old. We are waiting to see how these efforts go and then we will share successful cases online. If we can bring some happiness to young children learning to code, that would be our most meaningful achievement. Our ultimate goal in programming education is to create the sense of fascination that Satoru Iwata had for the HP-65 calculator.
17. When independent developers choose to develop games on GameShell, how can they promote their games to more gamers? Have you considered creating a platform to allow developers and gamers to interact, like Steam?
We want to launch a prototype platform as soon as possible to tap into the creativity of talented independent game developers and bedroom programmers.
18. What do you see in the future for this product?
Our plan for the GameShell product sets out two main directions of development:
a) GameShell will become a community for indie game fans. Our users are already running a variety of fantasy consoles on GameShell. This is something we really want to see, and we will do our best to support indie game developers. Through a variety of game jams and community forums, we are bringing the unique joy of the bedroom programmer back to game enthusiasts and developers, even providing them with an extremely simple mechanism to release (share) their indie games. We also hope that, through community-wide collaboration and modern capital operations, we can create a true marketplace for outstanding indie games. This would make our community into a global and cross-platform content platform that continuously releases outstanding products.
b) GameShell will become a fun entry into coding. Starting from the assembly of the device, users will learn about the operating principles behind the hardware and software. This is something we really want to do. In fact, we have seen many gamers learn about Linux, SSH, command line operations, and scripts through GameShell. Some gamers even purchased the book Linux: From Novice to Expert just to play a few old games. We want to use GameShell to make new friends who share our interests and we hope that more friends will share their unique experiences, their memories of playing games or the joy they get from coding.
19. Why did you decide to name the handheld “GameShell”?
The name GameShell makes you think of the housing of a Gameboy or some other handheld. If you search for “Gameboy Shell” on eBay, you will find a lot of plastic Gameboy housing kits. A second reference of the name comes from the software field, where a shell is the most commonly used tool. It is a user interface. For example, after logging into Linux, you are taken to the Bash shell. Shells even have their own culture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_shell. Thus, GameShell is the perfect name from both the gaming and programming perspectives, in its literal meaning and cultural connotations.
By the way, it is also a reference to Ghost in the Shell and the deep philosophical ideas of that sci-fi franchise.
20 Why “Clockwork”?
The original meaning of “clockwork” is a physical gear-based device, such as the internal workings of an analogue clock.
The most obvious reason for choosing this word is as a classic metaphor: we hope to give users a chance to see through external appearances and observe the internal mechanisms of what’s going on, so that they can understand the means and principles by which something operates.
The metaphor exists at another level too: different modules are similar to gears, and the sum total of these gears is “clockwork”. Of course, gears can also symbolize software or computers; the way these work at a basic level is essentially the same as a clock. In actual fact, the difference engine, widely recognised as the first ever computer, was a mechanical device constructed from over a thousand gears. Our product has a strong connection with computers.
There are two further significant connotations of “clockwork” in other cultures:
a) The “clockwork universe” was a term coined by Isaac Newton to describe his view of the cosmos. He believed that the rules and order that governed the universe worked much the same way as a clock; he also saw the invention of the clock as the catalyst for modern civilization.
b) “Clockwork punk” culture is seen represented by Da Vinci, whose sketches are full of mechanical devices (clockwork punk and steam punk cultures are very similar; the main difference is the energy source they use).
Another interesting point and fortuitous concurrence is that the abbreviation of the education industry we are entering is STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths), which obviously brings to mind the steam of vaporized water. When you put these two words together – clockwork and steam – the natural association is clockwork punk and steam punk – another interesting play on words.
As we can see, “clockwork” has many layers of meaning in this linguistic context, and is a key to access these other cultures. Even “clockwork key” has a dual meaning.
One other important point to stress is that “Clockwork Orange” has nothing to do with our trademark. Despite being a film with deep layers of meaning, it comments on society and politics, and this is not our area. We are oriented towards creativity, science, DIY, technology, engineering and art.
The final layer of meaning is related to the form that our product will take. Our product line will focus on the re-interpreting of retro devices, such as handheld game consoles. This naturally fits well with the clockwork and steam punk themes, playing on a strong feeling of nostalgia.
21. How would you sum up your goals in a single sentence?
Pass on the joy of digital technology!