Somewhere in London Studio there are teams busily working away on prototypes for the next several Big Things. A decade ago they were thinking about where to take the EyeToy from just being a camera and we’ve already seen some of the fruits of that with the PS Move. Now it’s the turn of Wonderbook.
Dave Ranyard, the Director of Wonderbook, gave us a wonderful guided tour of how the project started and evolved over the last seven years. It all came from a simple storyboard of an idea that mapped out a brief moment of using an interactive book via Augmented Reality and from this simple idea, Wonderbook spawned.
Soon the Augmented Reality tracking logos were being stuck onto real books, and working prototypes were cooked up. Some of these were shown behind closed doors and are utterly adorable. Much like some of the prototypes that were shown for the PS Move, I just wanted to play around with these tiny snippets of gameplay!
A little figure standing on the open book’s surface, pointing in the direction that the console thinks the book is travelling, or a little game of hide and seek, with one figure searching for the other as you turn the book to look behind three dimensional houses. Both so simplistic, but with an undeniable charm to them.
As the computer code evolved, so did the book. Initially it had smaller AR codes in corners, but before long these were made larger to assist tracking and expanded to give the PS3 data about what page is coming up next. A seemingly simple idea that means that the next and previous pages can be cached well in advance, for seamless play.
Mind your feet! Those little dragons are vicious little buggers.
The book opens with an animated foreword from Miranda Goshawk and it immediately drops you back into the world of Harry Potter. It’s just a brief tale of how she came to write the book after years of sisterly pranks from subtly incorrect hand-me-down spells that she received, and that this book was there to save others from similar fates. From here you move through five chapters of learning, practicing and testing of your spell casting knowledge, led by a narrating professor.
A great deal of effort has gone into creating an authentic feel, appearance and experience from the book. What’s immediately obvious is that every page is weathered to look like it is actually 200 years old. Not just old but also used by many people, with little notes scrawled in margins. The key to the entire experience is the interactivity and animation, and there have been some wonderful touches made throughout.
This girl has some skills, curling that fireball like that in one of the practice sessions.
Naturally this is just the beginning of the interactivity and as you learn the history behind a spell you can play with a small pop up card theatre, replete with little pull tabs to animate the paper characters on screen. Or, should you disturb a drawing of a creature that lives in the page, they may spring out and affect the book and the surrounding area. A dragon might fly out of the book and set fire to it, which you must then put out using a water spell.
A great part of any game, film or TV show which can really affect how it is perceived is the music. There’s been some great music composed in a Romantic classical style in order to fit with the canonical age of the book. As you’d expect from a game, it adapts to what is happening on screen, rather than just sitting in the background. Suitably perilous music naturally fits behind the dragon’s attack on the book, for example, until you can dampen the fires.
Having learnt where a spell comes from, you learn how to cast it, and here it’s a simple case of learning to match the on-screen motions and putting them into use. In the case of Wingardium Leviosa there’s a glass jar that you can make levitate as you learn. Be careful, though, because if you put it back on the floor too hard it will shatter.
Before you can head off to a test, you’ll want to get some decent practice in with each of the spells from that chapter. For the practice sessions you’ll be transported to a new world springing out of the book, to surround a little bubble centred on the book. Again, it’s all done with a particular authenticity, ensuring that it explodes out in a mass of pages, forming into a backdrop as the world is sketched and coloured in before rendering in 3D.
The scene set, you put your latest spell into practice. The example I saw pitting the Expelliarmus spell against waves of wizards that come at you. This same system is also used for end of chapter tests, but on a larger scale, making you combine the spells you have learnt up until that point to overcome challenges in such places as the inside of a pyramid.
Should you pass your test, getting bundles of certificates and scrolls to add to your collection in the process, you’ll also be treated to a little tale from Miranda Goshawk. These make examples of former students at Hogwarts that didn’t live up to their expectations, such as Douglas, who never finished anything he started and on the day he was put on the spot accidentally disfigured himself into a hideous creation.
From front to back Wonderbook: Book of Spells looks like it’s going to be a winner. It’s certainly aimed at children already invested in the world of Harry Potter but, even without that foreknowledge, I can imagine it being a very immersive experience thanks to the care and attention to detail that has been applied to every aspect of the book.
The only real hitch I see for the project is in terms of discovery. Without the Harry Potter name on the box it could understandably not catch the attention of parents while Christmas shopping. Sony will have to pull out all the stops in order to get this in the hands of kids but once it is a fixture in the living room, Wonderbook can really spread its wings. Diggs Nightcrawler, Walking With Dinosaurs and projects with Disney are all on the way, and with a strong list of books like that Wonderbook can hopefully live up to its tagline, “One book, a thousand stories”.