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Real World Gaming, Microsoft Surface, And More

GDC 2010, Day 1: The Missing Middle
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Real World Gaming

What happens when you apply game development techniques learned when developing Diablo III and World of Warcraft into the real world? You get MyTown.

Keith Lee, CEO of Booyah, the developer of MyTown, gave a talk filled with interesting insights into the increasing overlap between virtual and real worlds. MyTown is an iPhone app that allows you to “buy” real-world real estate, like your local Starbucks or H&M. You don’t really own it, of course, but you are competing with others who are bidding or buying up these real world assets in a virtual way.

Lee covered some fascinating examples of using gameplay techniques in applications with real-world implications, like Nike+ and Wii Fit. Booyah’s own application, MyTown, currently has 1.3 million registered users, who spend an average of 70 minutes a day in the game.

Lee painted a somewhat frightening, yet strangely compelling universe of “smaller, tighter compulsion loops” to keep players engaged. MyTown’s business model generates revenue both by brand partnerships (as with H&M clothing stores) and micropayments by players for virtual goods.

Is this the future of gaming--turning the real world into a giant Skinner box, treating players like hamsters eager for the next virtual food pellet in exchange for real dollars? We can only hope for a backlash.

Game Design For Microsoft Surface

Microsoft Surface is a pricey PC with five embedded webcams and a huge, massively multi-touch display. It’s literally a tabletop computer.

Microsoft presented a talk on designing games for Surface. Interestingly, Surface was originally called the “Microsoft Playtable,” and was originally oriented towards early childhood education. So, gaming was always in the cards for Surface. Demos were shown of the Dungeons and Dragons prototype developed by Carnegie Mellon graduate students and several arcade titles by Vectorform Game Studios.

What’s interesting is how Surface illustrates, in a large scale way, some of the real-world game interactions that are becoming memes of game developers these days:

  • Using Surface seems more natural than working with a PC. Surface removes a layer separating PC from user, those ubiquitous input devices like mice and keyboards we all love and hate.
  • Microsoft Surface is “massively multi-touch.” We’re not talking about two or three gestures, but up to 52 touches occurring simultaneously. This enables more robust, real-time multi-player experiences. One example shown was a Scrabble-like letter tile game using physical tiles. Each tile was pre-registered with Surface, so it knew which letter the tile represented. Players could move the tiles around in real time, form words, and modify words. And multiple players could all be doing this simultaneously.
  • Surface is inherently multi-user. This opens up new possibilities, like multi-player pinball, and Vectorform’s Galactic Alliance, a multi-player, real-time tower defense game.
  • Surface recognizes objects that are placed on the screen. Since it can recognize objects (there are five cameras, remember), objects exist in full 3D space. Physical objects on the screen can be used as blockades, attractors, weapons, mirrors, refractors, and more.

Currently, the price of Surface--$15K or more--is still too high for most home users. But the developer’s kit is free, and apps can be tested on more limited multi-touch interfaces available on tablet PCs. Dev kits are downloadable right here.

More To Come

GDC is really just getting started, so drop by and check out further reports on the show in the next few days. We’ll talk more about highly multi-threaded games, Civilization V, Borderlands, and more.

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