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The next-gen of video game blocks from Sifteo Exclusive
The next-gen of video game blocks from Sifteo
August 30, 2012 | By Chris Morris

A little over a year ago, Sifteo was one of the hotter topics in gaming circles. The unique system offered a variety of games via small electronic blocks (equipped with LCD screens and 3D motion sensors) that communicated wirelessly with a PC.

They were unique. They were promising. Then, once Christmas passed, they were largely forgotten.

Some of that was due to the cyclical nature of retail. Some was due to the shortcomings of the system (like a high price, minimal software lineup and having to be within arm's length of a PC). And some was due to Sifteo's own cone of silence. Today, though, Sifteo's founders are rolling out version two of the game system -- and it sounds (on paper, at least) like a marked improvement.

The company has dropped the retail price of the system from $150 to $130, with individual cubes falling from $45 each to $30. But the real improvements go a lot deeper.

The cubes will now run off of a AAA battery -- which allows users to play with up to 12 cubes instead of the maximum of six in the first generation. Additionally, you'll no longer need a computer to run the games. And, perhaps most importantly, the system will be sold in select Toys R Us and Barnes & Noble stores around the country, making it a lot easier for people to get their hands on the system. They're available for preorder today and will ship in November.

And attendees of Pax Prime in Seattle this weekend will be able to test-drive them in person.

"If there's one take away, it's now a totally portable system -- and I think that's going to be huge," says Dave Merrill, president and co-founder of Sifteo. "The main reason to launch the next-gen system is we're product guys and we want to make the best possible gaming experience."

The cubes will ship with four pre-installed titles, including Chroma Splash where you tilt and arrange cubes to form same colored chains and the number puzzle game Code Cracker. And buyers will receive a coupon code to download a fifth when they receive the system. Unfortunately, that's all that's available for the system right now. Although the original Sifteo cubes have 20 games available, the system is not backward compatible, leaving new owners dependent on the company's developer recruitment efforts.

Sifteo was born in the MIT media lab as a research project. The company's co-founders, Merrill and Jeevan Kalanithi, both have a background in cognitive science and human computer interactions -- but realized that gaming was a natural fit for the project they were working on.

Sifteo has already struck a deal with Nickelodeon to develop games based on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and is working with Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, on a new title as well. It's also reaching out to the independent developer community.

"I've been spending a lot of time talking to indie developers to see what they'd need to build experiences for the platform," says Merrill. "Indie developers are at the creative end of the spectrum. They like building games that are unlike any other game so I think there's a good opportunity to work with them."

While games for the original Sifteo cubes ranged from $1 to $8 each, Merrill says titles for the next-gen system will run a bit higher.

"Most of our games are bigger in scope than the original system -- at least the ones we're making in-house," he says. "So the expectation should be our games, and standard full-sized games, will be in $8-$12 range." He also expects expansion packs of games to run around $5.

The problem Sifteo faces is the same one it had to deal with last year. Consumer's entertainment dollars are already sparse. And while the company likes to compare itself to Nintendo -- in that it's exploring an area where no one else is (much like the Wii and DS did), this year it will find itself going toe-to-toe with a new console form that very company.

"My general view of the industry is it's tougher for game consoles to come out and [impress people] like you've seen them before," says Merrill. "Our system is such a different experience. It's orthogonal to anything anyone else is doing. I don't see it as a competitor to any of the new systems coming out. ... I'm not naive, though. Any product competes for consumer dollars at the end of the day, but the type of experience we're offering is so different that it captures people's attention."

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Michael Rooney
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I always thought these were cool, but the price always frightened me. $150 is a lot for 5 1" screens, and 5 1" screens is not the same as a 5" screen, which is still fairly small. It's hard to justify purchasing these (for me) when I could just as easily get a more portable system like the 3DS for the same price.

Todd Boyd
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The form factor and interconnectivity certainly place some interesting "restrictions" on how game mechanics unfold. I'm interested to see what sort of titles will be released for this in the future.

Jonathan Jennings
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I got to play with these at GDC last year I absolutely loved them. I definitely think in a group setting these would make a fun game kind of like a virtual board game ( not quite but close) but i definitely enjoyed playing with the blocks myself.

Corey Fong
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From a marketing standpoint, I don't understand this product at all. Especially when mobile devices including: phones, tablets, and portable entertainment devices that play movies, surf the web, play games, answer emails etc are becoming the norm.

Why spend even a hundred on this, when I can go out and buy any of the new Android music/game/movie player portable devices for the same amount of money and have access to hundreds of thousands of free to play games on the market place?

Chris Hendricks
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It's a niche product, for sure. The only people who will pay for it are those who say "This can do something that no other game can." Having had a chance to play with the first edition of these cubes, it is definitely a unique play experience.

Konstantin Yavichev
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Such a cool idea, they could redo all of the board games with these if you could 40 or so. Dungeon crawlers would be cool too... or dungeons and dragons style games... Price will most likely kill this for now :(

Neko Otome
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I prefer the built in batteries of the originals. AAAs suck.

Dozer B
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These are certainly cool and as others have stated the price is a tough nut to crack. Lets hope that they can get out there and eventually lower the price because the potential as a new platform is awesome.