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

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