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Local start-up Sensible Object are moving gaming away from screens with their first offering Fabulous Beasts which connects physical and digital play.

On the eve of the launch of their Kickstarter campaign, we caught up with Alex to find out more about the future of gaming, the hidden advantages of crowdfunding and how he’s been inspired by the balance between natural systems and physical objects.

SensibleObject SensibleObject

Q: Tell us about Sensible Object and your background.

A: So my background is in game design. 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. It was very eclectic, but over the years 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. Our first project is called Fabulous Beasts.

Q: What inspired you to create Fabulous Beasts?

A: Fabulous Beasts started 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.

When I got home I called up some friends I'd worked with at Hide&Seek, George, Tim and Lyall, and with the help of Play Sandbox in Bristol we started working on a prototype with the Engineering department at Bath University. Chris began helping us with engineering and technology, and soon afterward joined the fifth member of the team. Once we had 3D design, game design, technology and art together, the game started to take its own shape, but that central idea about balance is still right at its centre. 

Q: What exactly is Fabulous Beasts?

A: Fabulous Beasts is a game for one to five players who take on the role of gods, taking turns to add magical artefacts into a balancing tower. Every time you successfully stack an artefact, you alter the connected digital world. The aim is to make the most fabulous world you can before your tower collapses.

The game consists of three elements: 25 interestingly shaped pieces, the sensing platform, and the tablet app. We use RFID in the platform to sense each piece, and then a load cell inside senses whether the tower has been stacked correctly. The game knows the weight of each artefact, so it always knows if anything has fallen off or hasn't been added. Then it connects to the app wirelessly over Bluetooth. The app shows the effects of every artefact you add to the tower, allowing you to make hybrid creatures and a more and more fabulous world.

That probably sounds pretty complicated, but a big part of our design work has been to make it feel effortless to play. Our aim has been that the game is all about what's happening in the room rather than simply the screen or tower, or fiddling around with the technology, and it feels like we've nailed it, in that children can enjoy it as well as adults, whether they want to build silly teetering towers, or really careful ones.

Q: Crowdfunding is set to explode in 2016 - why have you chosen this route instead of traditional funding avenues?

A: We're huge fans of crowdfunding, and see it as part of a growth journey for start-ups alongside other kinds of investment. The money we hope to raise through our campaign will be incredibly important to us as we continue to develop Fabulous Beasts as a product, but it's also a way of starting a community around the game. It's a game that's all about players and the moment of playing it, and we think that many of the most popular and interesting games today have risen out from communities rather than through more traditional channels.

The feedback and involvement you get through player communities has become a really important part of designing games, and for us it's a truer way of working. Throughout my career I've made games hand-in-hand with players, adapting to what they like and what they don't, so going through crowdfunding for Fabulous Beasts is enabling us to continue doing that, and I know it will help it become a better game.

Q: You've been working on this game for a year and must've managed to go through different iterations and prototypes very quickly, tell us about your processes and what things like 3D printing have allowed you to achieve in this short time.

A: We use technologies like 3D printing, Arduino, Autodesk Forge and Unity to bring indie creativity to hardware as well as software. We love working together and shaping all the different elements of the game in parallel.

That first prototype was a two-player battling game with habitats and predation mechanics and secret favourite beasts and about a hundred other things. We took it to GDC and it made people very excited! It also made their brains hurt and not in the good way - so we spent a few months simplifying and refining the game we're sharing with you here.

The technology itself has been made possible with prototyping systems like Arduino. We've been able to quickly test ideas, and we've thrown so many out because we can see the results so fast. For instance, the platform was originally going to be based on a camera imaging the tower, but the prototype enabled us to see the about a billion problems that would come with it.

3D printing has been essential in designing the artefacts themselves. We want them to be interesting to stack over and over again, so no tower is ever the same, and we've been able to iterate on them quickly to make sure of that.

Q: We've seen massive advances in software in gaming and of course VR, how do you think the hardware / IoT advances fit into the future of gaming?

A: We've watched games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, and they're fun and they've proved incredibly popular, but I think they've only scratched at what you can do when you introduce a physical dimension to a videogame. What happens when your attention isn't so much on the screen? What happens if you do more to sense the physical component than just recognise a figure? What if you can naturally play with physical objects and the game automatically senses what's happening?

Bridging digital and physical is an important future to all forms of gaming, because it's about computers enabling and enriching things we do innately in everyday life, and can reduce the reliance on screens and controllers covered in buttons that most people can't fathom. It can allow more people to play, and make that play more social and part of life.

Q: What does this year hold for Fabulous Beats?

A: So we're taking Fabulous Beasts to Kickstarter tomorrow (January 26th), which is a huge thing for the game and the team. We've been planning it for a long time, and we're both nervous and excited about what's going to happen. After that we're part of a showcase of innovative design at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March, and all through this time we'll be finalising the hardware and software for manufacturing, preparing for launch towards the end of the year. It's going to be a big year.

Head over to kickstarter and get your own Fabulous Beasts!

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