Bringing physical and digital game worlds together
We're a brand-new and very small indie game developer in London called Sensible Object, and we've made life very difficult for ourselves.
Why? We founded Sensible Object on the principle of exploring a new territory for games: a place where physical and digital meet. Which is all very obscure and highfalutin, but we think this whole area is going to be a really interesting future for games. Maybe our first project helps to show what we mean. Please bear with us!
For the past year or so we've been making Fabulous Beasts, which at its heart is two games working together at once. It's a tabletop game, where you're building a tower out of physical game pieces shaped like animals. And it's a videogame on a connected device's screen, where you're strategically choosing pieces to play and seeing the results play out.
We're working on various different modes, but the one we're currently showing is a cooperative game. Players take turns to stack pieces, establishing and then nurturing a world of beasts in order to get a 'fabulousness' highscore. It's simple to get started, which makes it immediately fun, but there's a lot of depth, too. The eagle-eyed will realise that the order in which they choose to play each piece has huge implications for their score – if they can keep their towers standing. Because when it falls, it's game over. It's kind of like Jenga, but in reverse?
The important thing is that the screen and tabletop have equal importance, and that one naturally depends on the other. It'd be a complete failure if either feels like a gimmick, and ensuring they aren't means a whole lot of testing.
Fabulous Beasts works through technology that's become super available to small studios like ours over the past few years. The pieces have NFC chips inside; to play one, you first scan it to the game platform so the game recognises it. Then, when you stack the piece, the platform measures the weight it expects to be added to the tower. Making this process totally natural to perform, and completely reliable has, as you can imagine, been a journey.
So far, we've built every prototype ourselves. Chris Shaw has constructed ever more refined Arduino boards in preparation of full manufacturing, while also testing new types of sensor to polish the act of stacking, and our 3D designer Tim Burrell-Saward has been 3D printing the game pieces, testing shapes that are fun and challenging to stack, and also beautiful to look at and hold. We want them to be desirable objects. Our studio generally smells of paint and there are mock-ups of beasts everywhere. It's really very lovely.
One thing that has enabled us to tackle the really tricky technical and design questions that all this has brought up has been the speed we've been able to iterate the game. Our game designer, George Buckenham, uses Unity, because its ease allows us all to focus on the new and hard bits of the overall project. The screen element of the game is all about UI, and we've found Unity's UI system both simple and powerful. The Bluetooth plugin we're using has made connection to the game platform simple, too. And it also makes it a lot easier to get Fabulous Beasts' octopus tentacles into as many different platforms as possible.
For a game that's made of so many components, we've actually managed to ensure that each bit – the technology, the game pieces design, and the screen element – has been able to develop in tandem, allowing us to pretty rapidly iterate. And that has meant we're able to hold weekly playtest nights on Thursdays at our studio, where we invite people over, eat pizza and drink beer, and play the game. Every week we have a slightly different game, sometimes better, sometimes worse, but we come out from each a little wiser.
It has also helped sustain our confidence in Fabulous Beasts. It would be terrifying if we were working slower and unable to see the results of our decisions for long periods, given that we have so few benchmarks to work to. A great scientist once said, "Where we're going, we don't need roads." Nor do we, but getting to see how people play has given us a compass that really helps.
If you'd like to have a go on Fabulous Beasts during one of our playtest nights on Thursdays in central London, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, or better, sign up to our newsletter.