In the wake of viral phenomenon Pokémon Go, the world of augmented reality is seeing rapid growth. But with growth comes growing pains. Like any developing media format, AR is easy to get wrong. Yet one startup is tackling an even more specialized niche: the AR card game.
The mechanics of card games haven't changed significantly for decades. A true merger of physical cards and digital tech has yet to appear. But two co-founders, Jimmy Smith and Paden Pierry, hope to change that. They're developing their own take on the card game of the future. The first product from their AR startup Oshien is Scions of Helios, a yet-to-be-Kickstartered augmented reality card game that breaks new ground while elegantly navigating the still-uncharted boundaries of what's possible in AR games.
I sat down with co-founders Jimmy Smith and Paden Pierry in a South Seattle coffee shop recently to discuss the challenges inherent to developing a game in the emerging field of augmented reality. Tech.Co has covered Scions once before in the past, but they've proven themselves since. They were in town for the Seattle Mobile Gaming Forum, where they won their Venture Den event. Here's a peek under the hood at the game design that's taking two indie developers to a keynote at London's international MGF competition next January.
How It Got Started
Jimmy had been working on a different project in January of 2016. It revolved around NFC, a set of close-range wireless communication standards, and he began wondering what other product could rely on a similar digital-meets-physical dynamic.
“I ended up landing on cards,” he says. “I was like, what does a card game of the future look like? What kind of thing could I do with card games, trading cards? What's changed from now and twenty, thirty years ago, when we had games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh?”
The answer: Nothing much. “There hasn't been a killer app for card games except for Hearthstone,” Paden tells me, referring to the World of Warcraft-related app from Blizzard Entertainment. “And that's still not a physical card game. It can't be, because of the randomization of a lot of the cards.”
Jimmy developed the initial prototype with a few freelancers and then scheduled a Friday meeting with Paden. Paden tells me they had met a few months prior at, “some random Nashville business meetup that had nothing to do with gaming.” Paden, a self-taught game developer who helped take Nashville's local game meetup from four to more than six hundred people, was immediately fascinated. He coded furiously the entire April weekend after meeting Jimmy, stopping only for hours-long naps, and when he reconnected with Jimmy late on Sunday, he'd built out a entire multi-stage playable AR card game.
It's Not the Tech, It's How You Use It
The nature of film hasn't changed much in the 110 years since the first moving picture was produced. It's still a series moving images, composed in a way that tells a story. But the language of film is constantly evolving, both relying on universally understood tools — like the “180” editing rule — while using those tools in new ways. Jaws was a gateway to all summer blockbusters, while The Bourne Identity ushered in an era of shaky cam.
Just as any film operates within set boundaries, an AR game needs to fall within the boundaries of augmented reality. Paden explains:
“AR has not changed in years. And it's not going to. AR is still AR. It's a storytelling medium. It's not the technology behind it that's necessary to research, it's how that technology is used to be most effective in telling a story.”
Jimmy and Paden needed to navigate the toughest boundary an AR game faces: It must both be challenging enough to engage players without being so difficult that users can't pick it up after playing for just five minutes. To walk that tightrope, Scions of Helios needed to be built and rebuilt four times.
Find the Sweet Spot
The revamps weren't due to technical challenges, Paden says:
“We're trying to find out what is the most fun experience that someone can have in an AR game. First it was too complicated, then it was too simple, then it was kind of a mix of complicated and simple, and now we've boiled it down to being simple enough that it can be picked up and played by almost anyone. We've taken the physical card game to game meetups and someone can learn it in one round. It takes about five minutes.”
Jimmy then breaks down the specific challenge that led to the Goldilocks-porridge-like problem.
“In our first version,” he says, “there were multiple cards, and you had to scan the cards one by one to activate each one. The user doesn't want to do that. We made it more simplified, where there's just a couple buttons and the user can just hit a button and your character would perform an action. But we found that to be too simple. It's not dynamic enough, it's not something that's high-fidelity.”
Play to Your Strengths
One option they considered was a strategic, sprawling AR game:
“You had your character on the board, and you would select it, and then move it to another part on the board, and an attack. But you have to have a pretty large table to actually play on, and it was too clunky an idea,” Paden says. “So we decided okay, let's have the characters stand on their own card, so each player would need their own card, so two cards total. Each player would appear on each card, and they would just stay there and battle each other sort of, but not interact, sort of. We went through a few iterations.”
They also rejected an onscreen joystick and buttons, citing the lack of any mainstream mobile games relying on the feature. The game style that made the cut can be compared to Angry Birds, a “micro-game” with intuitive swipe-based controls. Users choose which digital cards to swipe up on, in order to give their character a specific action before popping the phone back in their pocket.
Freed from a strategic setup, the action in the game can be cinematic. It's what makes AR so cool, after all, you get to watch your characters go out and perform what you want them to do.
Allow for Virality
Scions uses just one physical card for the entire game, a feature that adds virality. Players can pull out their wallet-sized card to show a friend, organically winning over a new user. The initial, generic card will be free and can even be printed by anyone. Jimmy and Paden have considered simply using a dollar bill as an image target for the game, ensuring that anyone who downloads the app is only a crisp Washington away from Scions.
I tried the demo, using a plastic card — waterproof, scratch-resistant, the whole deal — and simply pointed Jimmy's phone towards the card. Two characters materialize on the coffee table in front of me, and attack each other in turns. It's a fun game, and definitely heightened by the AR. I feel a little irrational panic when my opponent uses his turn to teleport behind my character and sucker punch him. I'm playing against the game AI, but the final version would let me play against both in-person and online friends.
Make the AR Essential: Don't Pull a “Pokémon Go”
Have they considered a version of the game that doesn't depend on a smartphone to use? Yes, but they sided against it. After all, to go back to our film analogy, you wouldn't just listen to the audio of a movie, or read it frame by frame like the pages of a book. As Jimmy explained:
“We talked about that — can someone turn the AR off and on? But the game's kind of built around that, so we want to make sure that users are experiencing it the way we intended.”
Paden brings up the single biggest cultural touchpoint augmented reality has today: Pokémon Go. And, like plenty of others before him, he doesn't have a high opinion of the game's AR components.
“We wanted to see if we could make a purely AR game work,” he tells me. “Because Pokémon Go is like, ninety percent geolocation and animal battling, and ten percent AR, if that. That's probably generous. Honestly, I've turned the AR off on Pokémon Go. It's funny that Pokémon Go is a lot harder with AR, so it's counter-intuitive to use. We want AR to actually improve the game overall, not just be a gimmick.”
Keep to the Shadows
To AR games, shadows are the secret sauce. You might not notice the shadow from a digital character spilling out onto the physical surface of the table in front of you, but it makes a world of difference. Paden explains:
“It really locks your character onto the surface. Humans have been using shadows to judge height and distance since forever. As soon as we added shadows, the game went from ‘oh, that's cute,' to ‘oh my gosh, that's amazing.'”
Just as fake noses at the corner of a VR headset can help ward off motion sickness, AR's shadows appear to be a surprisingly small tweak with an outsize impact.
Look to the Future
The physical card is a good choice for now, as the sharply defined lines are easily readable, keeping the AR figures stable. Still, it's “just a placeholder until Magic Leap comes out,” Paden says, referencing the hyped AR startup eyeing a 2017 product launch. Armed with any of the head-mounted AR hardware that might debut in the future, a player could start a game of Scions on any flat surface.
The cards will eventually become obsolete, but the transition away from them will be seamless. The digital deck can move from your phone to your headset easily. In any case, Jimmy and Paden are keeping the future in mind: Throughout the interview, the phrase “one thing we're experimenting with” is a common refrain.
Above All, Focus on Characters
The space opera-style story behind Scions of Helios draws on the big names, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but also pulls inspiration from a less likely source, near-future and emerging technologies. It's a dynamic inspiration: As the game continues developing, it might add far-future takes on advancements that haven't even been announced.
“Yeah, we wanted to do near future,” Paden says. “Things happening right now, with current technology, could be seen having an effect in the game. CRISPR — gene editing, the ability to make designer babies — which is happening right now in China, has only existed for four years. So the concept is that we're taking stuff that exists now and saying, okay, what's that going to look like in fifty or a hundred years? That gives us a really compelling story line that's applicable to today.”
The impact of the technology can be explored, too. Perhaps those born on Mars grow seven or nine feet tall due to the low gravity, giving rise to speciesism and its subsequent “No one over seven feet tall may enter” signs.
In the main storyline, the planet Helios is destroyed, leaving its super-powered refugees to seek shelter on the unwelcoming moon of Specter, now a charred free body in space. In addition to the tension between the Helions and the Specters, a third group, the human-like Hethicans, police any superpowered beings with their robotic drones. Every character has a backstory and is fighting for something. As a player, you have to decide who to side with.
Relying on a character-based story, rather than the bland “generic human” that populates games like Call of Duty, could give Scions legs. If the app takes off, a franchise isn't out of the question. Thanks to the possibilities of augmented reality, a comic book tie-in could easily feature panels that allow users to unlock special costumes or view cutscenes. Whatever the case, Jimmy says, “there's a bigger picture to Scions of Helios that we want to shine a light on over time.”
The general public's enthusiasm about Pokemon Go isn't enough for an augmented reality game to survive. But if the story and the technology compliment each other, the mechanics are satisfying within minutes, and it can easily go viral, the mobile gaming industry will take notice. In the case of Scions, they already are.