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Alt.Ctrl.GDC showcase: Sensible Object's Fabulous Beasts
February 23, 2016 | By Bryant Francis

February 23, 2016 | By Bryant Francis
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More: Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Video, GDC

The 2016 Game Developer's Conference will feature an exhibition called alt.ctrl.GDC dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase. You can find all of the interviews here.

RFID technology has become one of the biggest successes in family gaming for Nintendo, Activision, and Warner Bros. as audiences eagerly buy toys and figurines meant to be played with at home and used to activate content in games like Skylanders, Super Smash Bros, and Lego Dimensions.

But the RFID chip doesn't just belong to large developers---smaller ones, like the UK-based Sensible Objects, have begun to demonstrate how physical objects and digital games can interact together beyond just importing toys into an action game.

Fabulous Beasts is a beautiful worldbuilding game that brings tabletop scultures and digital worldbuilding tgether in one shared experience. It has been selected for this year's ALT.CTRL.GDC showcase. Sensible Object CEO Alex Fleetwood spoke to Gamasutra by e-mail to explain some of the key design philospohies behind his new game.

What’s your name, and what was your role on this project?

Fleetwood: I'm Alex Fleetwood, and I'm CEO and founder of Sensible Object. Fabulous Beasts is our first game; I came up with its original concept and direct its development.

How do you describe your innovative controller to someone who’s completely unfamiliar with it?

Fleetwood: Fabulous Beasts is a cooperative game in which you build a tower of beast-shaped pieces on your tabletop, and then, as you stack each one, see it pop into a fabulous world on a connected tablet or smartphone. 

Our controller is the platform on which you stack your tower, and all the pieces. The platform senses each of the beasts; the order in which you choose to stack them defines the fabulousness of the world that evolves on the screen. The object is to get as fabulous a world as you can before your tower falls down. 

We use RFID to sense the identity of each piece, and then a load cell to determine whether it's been placed correctly and whether the tower is fully standing. Then the platform communicates to the connected device using Bluetooth. It's simple but very reliable and easy to use.

What's your background in making games?

Fleetwood: I've been designing and making games for many years. I founded an award-winning studio called Hide&Seek in 2007, where we made many innovative games that were about trying to invent new ways of playing. We worked with Sesame Street, installed games at Kensington Palace and ran an online 'British Intelligence Officers' test to promote the Bond film Skyfall. I found myself wanting to focus in on and develop a particular idea about connecting physical and digital play, so I established a new studio called Sensible Object which aims to do just that through new technology and fun game design.

What development tools did you use to build Fabulous Beasts?

Fleetwood: We've used many tools, but the core ones are Unity, in which we built the game app that runs on the connected tablet or smartphone, and the pieces platform was developed using Autodesk Fusion360 and Arduino. 

What physical materials did you use to make it?

Fleetwood: We 3D printed our prototype pieces using an Ultimaker 2, which produces objects made from plastic filament, but more recently have started testing and making moulded vinyl pieces in our studio, so we can make more. The final game's pieces will be factory injection moulded.

The prototype platform casing is also 3D printed, and its electronics were built from Arduino components, but are now made from pre-production boards we've developed from those systems.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Fleetwood: We started developing Fabulous Beasts in late 2014, so a little over a year.

How did you come up with the concept?

Fleetwood: I came up with the concept for Fabulous Beasts when I was making a fire in a campsite in California. I was stacking bits of firewood and watching pelicans fly by and this idea for a game popped into my head about linking the balance of natural systems with the balance of physical objects. 

For a physical stacking game with very specifically shaped objects, how do you account for the many varying ways players can stack the different beasts? Has testing their physical arrangement shown you any combinations you weren’t aware of? 

Fleetwood: We've been through many different iterations of the pieces. They were once quite simple and faceted shapes, which made them easy to stack. Over time, their 3D design has become more and more complex to make them more interesting and chaotic. Our aim is to ensure there are no solutions to the tower, so that no tower is like any other. At the same time we've had to balance these needs with ensuring the pieces are beautiful and a pleasure to hold, as well as look like the beast they represent. And they also have to be strong enough to be dropped on the floor over and over again. So we're thinking about a lot of factors! We're really getting there, though, and so we're always seeing new strategies from players. They find ways of hanging pieces from others, or cantilevering out new platforms. We love watching people play to see what comes up.

Even if you don’t consider the beasts themselves toys to be played with, what value do you think this form of toy-to-game controller brings to players by giving them physical objects to arrange?

Fleetwood: This question is what our studio is all about. While screens and traditional game controller interfaces have created and will continue to create amazing games and experiences, I think they're just a step along a road in how we interact with games. Making games less screen-focused brings attention into the room in which you're playing, and the people you're with. They're inherently more social, with all the extra complexity and fun that comes from playing with other people.

The growth in traditional board games that has taken place over the past few years has only reinforced this notion for me. Skylanders and Disney Infinity bringing the joining of digital and physical to the mainstream, but they've only scratched the surface of how social and rich with interesting play it can be.

One of the .gifs from your Kickstarter video shows the tower falling apart, and the world players have created falling away. Have you experimented with any forms of play that lets players keep a record of the world they built? Why or why not?

Fleetwood: We're thinking about many ways of recording players' towers. We're somewhat restricted by the fact that the platform only senses the weight of the tower, rather than the way it's stacked. But we can record the resulting digital world, and we have plans to feature a bestiary of the different hybrid beasts that players create. 

How do you think standard interfaces and controllers will change over the next five or ten years?

Fleetwood: RFID technology is now cheap to include in hardware and to develop with, so I expect to see lots more games that use 'smart' objects from a wide variety of different kinds of studios, from experimental indies to the mainstream. Added to that is the continued maturation of augmented reality and VR, which can bring additional functions to smart objects. I expect that all these technologies will feel far more natural and intuitive than they do today. We've come a long way, but what we have now is only pointing towards how they can be far, far more involving, fun and inclusive.

Go here to read more interviews with developers who will be showcasing their unique controllers at Alt.CTRL.GDC.

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