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Building a game around AR: The story of Outsiders Exclusive

June 24, 2014 | By Mike Rose

Despite repeated attempts at making augmented reality video games part of the mainstream, the genre refuses to take off. But while the 3DS, the Vita and numerous mobile games have recently failed to grab any real attention, one studio is looking to take the tech a lot further.

Outsiders is an X-COM-style strategy game that takes place on your tabletop, your work desk, in your garden, or wherever you want to play it. Using AR tech, the team at Distance Studio is looking to take strategy gameplay into the real world.

"Outsiders came before Distance Studio," explains Luis Diaz Peralta, community manager on Outsiders. "Two people started the project and, as more people joined in, they decided to form a studio."

The team is extremely interested in the possibilities of AR games on mobile, and Outsiders is the first in a series of AR-based experiments.

"The concept for Outsiders came from our love for board and miniature games, such as Space Hulk," he continues. "The problem with those games is that you need to spend a lot of money on units and manuals. And once you are playing you'll have to check the rules every minute. Video games don't require you to pay for every unit, and they take care of applying each rule, but the feeling you get from the board game is not there anymore -- your soldiers aren't standing in front of you, they're just pixels on a screen."

That's the goal with Outsiders: Creating that feeling of a tactical board game without the need for buying lots of figures and lugging them around with you.

"We've reached a point where technology has made it possible to recreate that very same feeling you get from board games," Peralta notes. "When you are using AR it feels real; the first time I tested the game I couldn't believe the results, I had seen AR before but I had no idea the technology had advanced so much."

The video above shows just how far Outsiders is able to take AR tech, with an entire strategy level rendered in detail, and the chance to manipulate and turn it at ease.

"I had seen AR before but I had no idea the technology had advanced so much."
"We want to take the games many of us love and make them accessible to everyone," the dev says. "You could pay just a few dollars and have an epic battle right in front of you with up to three more friends, during a train trip; no need to spend a lot of money, read all the manuals or take your miniatures wherever you go."

If AR games like this are so readily possible on mobile, why aren't more studios doing this? Peralta reasons that too many mobile devs are trying to chase whatever is big on the App Store right now, and failing to explore innovative possibilities for the platform.

"We got used to the idea that mobile games should be quick to learn and consume," he notes. "Whether we like it or not that's how it works, and many users won't play games more complex than that. You don't need AR to make something like that and, chances are that it won't improve your design, so most developers just don't bother. It's common sense. If your design ideas/mechanics are not improved by the use a certain technology, then don't use it."

But, says the designer, he believes that mobile AR games could become big for board game manufacturers in the future. Imagine if manufacturers created digital AR versions of their games alongside the physical editions, and launched both formats, in the same way that books are now released in digital and physical forms.

"We don't see many AR games for mobile devices because people are focusing on something else right now," he adds, "but the technology is still blooming. I think it'll change and we'll see more AR titles over time, but it's hard to tell -- we'll have to wait and see."

I ask Peraltra what is the biggest lesson his team has learned from messing around with AR on mobile. What advice would he pass on to other studios who are considering a dabble?

"The biggest lesson would be, as silly as it may sound, not being afraid of it," he answers. "There are plenty of free frameworks and even Unity supports it. Sure, AR is still a bit young and there aren't many successful AR games, but it works and there's enough documentation available, that's all you should need."

"It's not that hard to implement, just follow a couple of tutorials, create one or two simple games and you'll be good to go. Once you've done that, you'll see that making an AR game isn't that much harder from making a regular 3D game. If you have an idea for a game using AR just do it, it's not an impossible goal anymore."

Outsiders is due to launch in September.

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