December 21, 2012 12:00 PM | John Polson
Notable indie developers Chris Osborn of TRΛCER (former Bit.Trip programmer) and Douglas Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik (creator of Johann Sebastian Joust) are working on creating the perfect blend of digital and physical gaming for the new Sifteo Cubes system.
The next generation Sifteo Cubes, released weeks ago, re-introduce players to a tactile way to play with multiple touchscreen game cubes. The first generation Sifteo Cubes required PC tethering, but now the cubes can go wireless with the included, tiny Sifteo base. As shown in the video below, players can tilt, flip, shake, adjoin, and touch cubes for different modes of play.
Sifteo has opened up software development quite liberally, with a free SDK for developers to create games on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The financial barrier to entry is further non-existent, since developers have no extra hardware to purchase. The SDK simulates the cubes for testing.
Without prohibitive costs, indie developers can and have been easily prototyping games for the new system, with one game already available (9 games are available in total for the new system now). Chris Osborn and Douglas Wilson will discuss here making their games, and some of the hurtles they had to overcome innovating in such a new way to play.
TRΛCER's Osborn notes that the new Sifteo cubes system is not only portable, "it has a more powerful graphics engine, and allows developers deeper access to the hardware."
Unlike most mobile and portable gaming devices that combine one accelerometer with one video screen, "only Sifteo Cubes combine many accelerometers with many video screens. Also, it's the only platform where the video screens can be freely rotated and arranged on the fly. This unique ability opens up new design territory."
When asked what he felt Sifteo's target demographic was, he replied, "Sifteo's game portfolio is increasingly targeted at kids looking for a fun yet educational experience. However, Sifteo is a huge fan of the indie community, and there definitely will be some indie-focused titles released on their platform."
Osborn says indie game fans can look forward to collaboration projects between himself, Mark Essen (messhof) and minusbaby, another with Cipher Prime, and a third with Die Gute Fabrik's Doug Wilson.
Wilson says that Sifteo got in touch with him at GDC. "Inspired by the classic tabletop game Crokinole, I ended up brainstorming a game idea for the Sifteo cubes.
"Of course the first thing I wanted to do was crash the cubes into one another! Like, do something visceral. So, now we're working together with Sifteo to make a small game for the platform... We're still in early stages, so we'll see what happens."
In early stages of play, IndieGames noticed that the touchscreen system seems at odds with most other portable devices: it lacks the intuitive swipe gesture.
Wilson doesn't feel this is a concern. "I'd rather play with more cubes than get better touch capabilities. I'm less interested in interacting with screens than I am in interacting with the cubes like we do with everyday physical objects. That is, I'd rather knock, toss, tilt, and crash the cubes into one another[.]"
Osborn only expressed mild concern. "It is a bit of a bummer that the cubes don't detect XY touches, preventing gestures like swipe. But honestly, the cubes are small enough that players should encouraged to play with the cubes themselves instead of fiddling with the touch screen."
Wilson often fiddles with players' expectations by subversion, such as using PS Move controllers for human-contact sport games. IndieGames asked him if subversion is a smart route on a novel system with regular rules most people still don't expect.
"Yes, it's a good point about subversion. I do think I'd have a larger 'design space' to work with if the Sifteo Cubes were more familiar to people.
"That said, I think you can still do fun "subversive" things with new technologies (using that adjective in a broad sense). In the case of the Sifteo cubes, we're working on a game where you crash the cubes into one another. I want to do something properly physical with the platform. You don't want people breaking the cubes, of course, but I want to make a game that was a bit 'rough' - something different than most of the demo games where the interactions are a bit more 'polite.'"
Those demo and launch games only total to nine, suggesting the software lineup would seem the most pressing issue. Curiously, none of the previous Sifteo Cubes library is compatible, which could have considerably increased the software line up.
Sifteo's Scott Kim commented on the lack of backwards capability. "We just couldn't make the kind of technological leaps required to make the Gen2 system all that it is while keeping it backwards compatible. Gen2 represents a complete re-architecture, and we didn't want to hold it back from it's true potential."
Kim said that customers who purchased the first generation cubes were given a limited-time discount to encourage them to upgrade.
When asked if a firmware update to allow backwards compatibility would happen, he felt it was improbable. "[T]he platform team at Sifteo is going to be too busy amplifying the Gen2 experience to work on the kind of major code projects that would be required to make Gen1 compatible with Gen2. It's not impossible, though!"
The first-party games available on the system seem to encourage a new way to play so far. Osborn recently released with Cipher Prime's Will Stallwood their game B!eep on the second-gen Sifteo Cubes, and IndieGames will have a hands-on impression of that title soon.