The nature of the beasts
How Sensible Object is helping drive an indie game hardware revolution
Deep in the guts of London’s Somerset House sits a development team whose desktops tell a clear story. Glance over the work surfaces at Sensible Object and it’s obvious: something rather distinct is underway in the basement of this vast neoclassical building.
Oscilloscopes and soldering irons share space with 3D printed samples and the notebooks of product designers. This isn’t the home of a typical indie studio, and its staff are crafting something they hope will help push forward an emerging revolution in indie-engineered hardware.
Sensible Object’s inaugural game is Fabulous Beasts, which straddles the division between digital and physical gaming, reimagining the ‘toys to life’ concept made mainstream sensation by Skylanders and its peers. And it is built by a core team of just six, who must between them surmount the combined challenge of game development, product design, mass manufacturing, and seamlessly fusing digital and physical play.
At Fabulous Beasts’ heart is a lightly minimalist strategy videogame. But its moments of interaction take place predominantly in the physical realm, through tangible toy-like objects that would look perfectly at home on the shelves of collectors of the vinyl art toys made famous by designers like kidrobot. It is, for now at least, a co-op experience, where two players assume the role of gods populating a brand-new kingdom that exists onscreen as a stylised map.
Out in the real world there is a base platform, loosely comparable to that seen in Skylanders, on which users must build a tower, reversing the approach to family tabletop stalwart Jenga. The tower is constructed using specially made animal pieces – the titular beasts – and various abstract blocks which represent in-game resources, or activate special abilities allowing the creation of numerous new creatures on the world map. The more plentiful, varied and content the beasts are, the higher the scoring. But should the tower come tumbling down, Game Over may be just seconds away.
Sensible Object’s platform uses the same kind of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that lets Skylanders’ cast talk to their game series’ Portal. But Fabulous Beasts’ base podium also houses an electronic scale, letting the digital game read just how a tower is behaving, or how a player might be interacting with that pile of bears, eagles and classical elements.
While there’s still potential for tweaks to both the physical and digital elements, played in its current state this is a captivating creation, notably strong in pairing the real world with the systems of the videogame. Building a tower, creating new animals and catering to existing ones with the object choices the player makes, there’s a substantial sense of connectivity. The influence of gravity on the angle of the tower may dictate just how a certain object can be placed,
Interaction takes place predominantly in the physical realm, through tangible toy-like objects