Augmented reality, artificial intelligence, “phygital”… These key words, associated with start-ups and the digital world of tomorrow, are today used by a manufacturer of board games: Xplored. While the latter has just launched an ambitious campaign on Kickstarter, Davide Garofalo, its leader, answers questions from Linternaute.com.
The Bad Karmas is a cooperative boss fight board game. A ragtag team of modern characters find themselves propelled heroes of humanity and must face the threat of the Zodiacs. These titanic demi-gods have come out of their long torpor and wish to annihilate humanity…
If the pitch of the game and its graphic design are very nice, the most surprising is its Teburu game system, the brand new concept from the company Xplored which allows you to set up connected and intelligent game boards. Artificial intelligence, narration, monsters that adapt to player profiles and behavior… These are the main promises of this new 2.0 game mode. How and why did Xplored decide to move the board game into the semi-digital world, that of “phygital”? Answers from Davide Garofalo, CEO of Xplored.
Linternaute.com: Why did you create a connected game board?
Above all, we are not a young start-up testing new technology. We are a research and innovation laboratory and we have been developing – as a white label – products for years, from video games to “smart toys”. We wanted to develop our own product, and since the majority of employees love board games, we were naturally interested in it. We wondered what values our society could bring to this medium, and very quickly decided to focus on gameplay that would react to the position of tokens on the physical board. We used a sensor system that we created in 2014 for a connected toy distributed by GameStop. Which we have adapted to this new paradigm, “an intelligent board game that reacts to the positions of the players’ pawns”.
Speaking of physical games and sensors, did the success of the Lego x Mario partnership confirm your choice?
Yes, for two reasons. First, we have been working in “phygital” (physical & digital) for more than ten years and have created products for Hasbro, Bandai and others. Seeing that the market has not only become accustomed to this kind of product but has even become fond of it is a good thing for us. And the second reason is this frustration that arose from this adaptation. For me, you have to go beyond when you cross an already existing technology and an existing gameplay. We cannot force the meeting between the physical world and the digital world. These two points of view must be adapted so that each brings added value. And it is by having the user experience as the first quality criterion that we can achieve a satisfactory project.
Today, there is a certain friction with the discovery of a board game. The more complex the game, the cumbersome and indigestible its rules can be. With Teburu, players learn the rules while playing, there are no rules to read before your first game. In addition, the game makes it easier to design single player modes, since the system embodies the “mobs” (Editor’s note: monsters) and the narrator for you. The solitaire gaming experience enters a new dimension. Finally, this system allows you to play remotely with your friends, which is unfortunately very practical with the Covid, but also if your friends simply live far from your home. We even published a video showing a remote Bad Karmas session.
Have you considered using an AMOLED screen tray?
Not at all. For me, the difference between the board game and the video game is the place left to the imagination. Artists from the world of board games illustrate tiles, boards, sculpt figurines, and it is our imagination that brings the work of these artists to life.
The mixture of these static pieces in the dynamic universe of a game is what makes the charm of a board game. If we put a screen in our system, then we might as well play a video game, which will be more immersive, will offer HD visuals, etc. Not to mention the impact on the budget for the purchase of such a system. Today, everyone owns a smartphone or tablet, so downloading a game’s companion app doesn’t strain gamers’ budgets. We only sell what is the bare minimum necessary to offer this new gaming experience.
The price was an important factor when designing the game?
Absolutely. Our promise throughout the design phase was to get the base kit price under $200. The basic kit contains the digital communication system, a connected board, connected dice and a basic game. This is a very significant effort, one is in the price range of modern high quality board games. Except that here, players can keep the platform for the next games which will have a stroke similar to a basic analog game, varying according to the type and complexity of the game.
The playful world is a world teeming with creators. Have you thought of a system Mario Maker or put your code in open source?
We have three steps in mind for the Teburu platform. First, we launch the system with Karma and the 12 Zodiacs. Then we announce other partners. Each with their own production “pipeline”, but which we oversee to ensure quality control at every stage. The second step stems from these third-party creations: we have provided them with an SDK (Editor’s note: Software Developer Kit, suite of tools made available to developers) that we will improve as their requests for customization and debug . Finally, the third step, which will happen in several years, is to publish an editor so that players can indeed create their own games on our system.
We talked about the added value for the players, but for the publishers, how did you convince them to join the adventure?
Very easily. When a game designer designs a new game, he does a lot of test games to adjust the game design. The publishers all have a network of beta testers to whom they send game prototypes and who fill out feedback forms following their test games. But when you fill out a form, you may not be exhaustive, you can also reduce or increase a feedback depending on the phrasing of a question. And if you want complete feedback, you have to ask a lot of questions, which can be daunting for the player-tester. With Teburu, this step disappears completely. We track and record all in-game interactions: dice rolls, movement of miniatures on the board, duration of a game session, when the player stops playing, etc. All this data, anonymized, allows you to adjust the game design of your game much more efficiently. You can even adjust certain game parameters remotely, such as the sheets of certain characters or monsters, to better calibrate the difficulty of a game.
Have you consulted the CNIL about these statistics?
Absolutely, we do not track any data by default, everything is by opt-in (Editor’s note: users can voluntarily activate tracking). And above all, no data is personalized. What interests us are the interactions with the game from a game design point of view. We are not a start-up that takes user data to resell it.
We talk about smart play, but is it a predetermined model? Or a system with “machine learning”?
It was one of the assumptions at the start. For the boss fight engine, we thought about implementing a “machine learning” system that would learn from the fights of all players around the world. But, due to its complexity, it remains a project within the project. One day we will get there, but for now we have intelligent and complex management for the 12 bosses, which will react with simple artificial intelligence according to their characteristics, their states, their personalities and the positions of the players. We have a system in place that will assign scores to each player’s position and their action history, to determine who is the most dangerous, who is the most aggressive, etc. And based on these weightings, each boss will react. Of course we kept a random part in the decision-making. We are very happy with the depth and complexity of our decision trees and can’t wait for players to experience them.
What was the hardest to develop?
I will distinguish between the basic Teburu system and the game The Bad Karmas. The hardest part for Teburu is the incredible number of iterations we’ve done to come up with the best possible user experience. Finding the ideal balance between the physical and digital worlds and delivering an immersive experience with as little friction as possible. We spent three years just prototyping and iterating on it.
For The Bad Karmas, the biggest challenge is that we produced everything from A to Z in-house. We worked with a genius New Zealand designer, Andrew Bakerwho, among other things, worked on the Gollum of Peter Jackson’s films, but also designed The Good Big Giant and even was involved in the American remake of Godzilla. Supervising such a giant is dizzying. But the result is beyond our expectations.
When we hear the 12 Zodiacs, we cannot help but think of the Knights of the Zodiac. Have you considered the license?
We spoke with Bandai (which owns the game license for Knights of the Zodiacs, Ed) from the launch of this platform. But, if there are any advanced discussions, they are not about this game. The similarities don’t go beyond the name. If we had to draw a parallel with the world of animation and manga, then our game is closer to the license evangelion. We are at the end of a cosmic cycle and semi-divine entities wish to end human civilization…
What is the first evolution of the system already planned?
We are developing a system that will make role-playing games easier. Each connected beacon is unique, which means that each “meeple”, each figurine is identifiable. We are going to base ourselves on this signature to allow the recording of character sheets for the players’ figurines. And thus keep in memory the information of time spent playing, experience gained, objects collected. And when we go to play at a friend’s house, we just have to think about taking his figurine, nothing else.
Are more interactions to come?
We can indeed add augmented reality, voice recognition, motion recognition, all these things that we master. But above all it is necessary to build a solid base system.
More information on the game’s kickstarter The Bad Karmas.
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With Teburu, 2.0 board games are becoming more democratic
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