Wonderbook might not be for you, but as PlayStation widen their mark for the PS3’s twilight years, this quirky story-driven tech hopes to attract a new audience to the console. Are you sitting comfortably…?
Originally thought up in 2005, Wonderbook was put onto the back burner waiting for technology to catch up with the ideas. At that point, Eyetoy ran on PS2 hardware, with very limited capabilities. A low resolution combined with only considering objects and motion on a 2D plane held Wonderbook back. Come the PS3 and all the power was unleashed. The PS Eye upped the resolution, and the added power of the PS3 let the developers do more with the image interpretation.
Amongst other things, it could now interpret the 2D images it was getting into 3D data without resorting to multiple cameras.
A lot of that is from clever thinking, we’re told as we sit with the developers at a recent press event, using visual Augmented Reality codes, and figuring out the size and orientation of them. With the Move it’s all about tracking that big glowing ball and combining that with data from motion sensors and gyroscopes. From that original concept storyboard, a lot of the interactions possible have come through, and Book Of Spells seems happy to be the tech showcase.
We’ve covered Book Of Spell in detail previously – click here for our earlier hands on with the game.
“Wonderbook: Book of Spells, I’m excitedly told, is where you train to become a wizard Dad,” says Graeme, father of eight year old Oliver who is trying the game for the first time as Sony start to target the all important family audience. “I was new to PlayStation Move but once shown the basics, the game was soon picked up,” he says.
“This game is clearly aimed at children who will love being absorbed into the fairy tale – the children are really involved in this interactive game, reading the story, choosing their house, appearing on the screen and it really seems to me that they think it is their game when they are playing it.”
“The PS Eye camera is fixed on the book and captures the player and the Move controller,” Graeme continues. “The controller comes alive on the screen as a wand allowing spells to be cast, flying insects to be hit and the pages in the book actually turn like a real book and have interactive text. It’s hard to dislodge an 8 year old Harry Potter fanatic,” he admitted.
It’s not necessarily just for the target age range of 7 plus, though, as long as the parents feel like getting involved. We spoke to Sony’s Dave Ranyard, the game’s director, who recalls some anecdotes of taking his work home with him to show his two children. It was clear that his then 2 and a half year old son was absolutely fascinated by the moment when the dragon springs out of the Book of Spells, even if he wasn’t really interacting with the book and playing along.
It goes beyond that though, as the augmented reality of the book can hook into the imagination of kids. Dave told us of how his eldest son at one point started to chase his little brother around the room with the Wonderbook, which on screen revealed there to be a giant scorpion otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Obviously there’s nothing really there, but in their imaginations? Maybe it is a little magic, after all.
It’s not just Book Of Spells, though. We asked Dave why about the various other third parties now signed up to Wonderbook, and why they decided to go outside of the traditional game developer realms with Disney, BBC Earth and Moonbot Studios. “I think when we were developing Wonderbook we just decided it’s about that kind of content,” he replied. “What we’ve tried, and I do feel we’ve succeeded with, is partnering with people who are at the top of their game and the best around.”
“So J. K. Rowling is the world’s most successful children’s author, or even just author! So that’s one of the best partnerships which you could want, I think. Then we’ve got a partnership with Disney, with all their great content and characters we’d love to bring to life. Then with Diggs and Moonbot, those guys are really interesting, sort of the new kids on the block and really uber-creative guys. They’ve just won this Oscar, and we were in conversation with them and they actually came to the studio straight from the Oscars, which was really funny!”
Walking With Dinosaurs is still largely under wraps, but London Studio are working closely with BBC Worldwide and Supermassive Games (also working on Until Dawn) to recreate some of the work that they’ve previously done on TV. What they’re aiming for are three key cornerstones of Adventure, Danger & Discovery.
Adventure, by immersing you in the world of the dinosaurs, using portals to drop you nearby and letting you interact with them. Things like reaching into the world and feeding a triceratops, using the Move controller as a bunch of foliage. The Danger aspect comes into the world as other dinosaurs could appear. You might be happily feeding a triceratops, when a t-rex crashes into view, and starts to attack. But the Discover side of things ties into the real world, where many recent dinosaur discoveries have actually come from kids across the globe. So the act of discovering fossils, puzzling and putting the bones together and so forth can be recreated.
Of the three titles announced for Wonderbook so far, Diggs Nightcrawler is the one some might find find the most intriguing. Details on Walking With Dinosaurs and the Disney partnership are still very sparse, and whilst Book of Spells will add layers on top of the Harry Potter franchise, there’s just something about Diggs.
A large part of that is down to the art direction behind the game. Moonbot Studios’ work here is wonderful, taking all of their Best Animated Short Film Oscar winning knowledge, and applying it to an inventive tale which weaves so many fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters into Diggs’ film noir universe.
It’s all in colour, rather than black and white, but it’s taking a lot of its cues from across all of film noir and merging this with a colour palette and stylings partly inspired by Edward Hopper’s artwork. Eagle-eyed parents should be able to spot scenes and ideas taken and transformed from classic films such as The Third Man and The Maltese Falcon and the dialogue is filled with somewhat cheesy clichés to fit the references.
A handful of scenes from the game were recently demonstrated to us in various forms. The game opens in Library City, with Diggs Nightcrawler the prime suspect in the murder of his best friend, Humpty Dumpty, and under the watchful eyes of The Three Pigs, who are investigating the murder.
As a hardened detective, Diggs is not going to stop until he solves this case, but to do so he needs your help. A key part of this title is that instead of you playing as Diggs, you play as yourself, and it’s up to you to interact with the world which has popped up out of the book in various ways to help him. You’ll never take direct control of Diggs, but he knows you’re a person, and will talk directly to you and about you to other characters, turning you into one of the main characters in the book.
There are many ways in which you’ll be able to interact directly with the game world. You might need to tilt the book so that a hanging lamp is at a different angle and illuminates a clue, or turn the book, to reveal the other side of a building. Other times you might rub on the page to disturb some beastie within the game hiding in murky water, or help Diggs to get the drop on an enemy by calling out to him at the right time, thanks to the microphones built into the PS Eye camera. The key has been to keep the various interactions along the same obvious lines as they will be in other Wonderbook titles.
A little work to manipulate the world, and you can help Diggs escape the scene of the crime, and set off on his own investigation into who committed the crime. Along the way a whole host of further characters will crop up, from Itsy Bitsy, a lounge jazz singer, to The Three Wise Monkeys, a trio of bouncers who are perfect for a little bit of slapstick comedy, and of course, the rather ominous Shadowman. He’s naturally the bad guy in all of this.
“Film noir is not only the art style in Diggs, but also the gameplay,” Masami tells us. Dave agrees. “The chasing of the villain [down corridors, turning the book to direct Diggs] is done in a very typical noir film way, like The Third Man. There are so many elements which have also influenced the gameplay and not just the art style, which is really beautiful. We’re also doing film noir in colour, so it’s appealing to kids, but there’s also that quality to it that parents can enjoy as well.”
“I think that with Diggs the promise is being a detective in that kind of environment. I think it really rings true with kids, because being a detective is pretty cool, but also with adults too, so it does give it a nice broad base with a bit of wish fulfilment for the grown ups! I personally love those films and would like to be involved, so it’s doing a bit of that too.”
A lot of the game is still quite tightly under wraps, but from what we’ve seen it looks very good. The art style and animation seem to tie in perfectly with a witty, self aware plot and script, and even though this is aimed at kids we’re rather looking forward to it myself.
Masami Kochi, Art Director for Wonderbook at SCE London Studio, says that the various collaborations are really working out. “Particularly with Disney and Moonbot, they’re really passionate about storytelling, which is very important for Wonderbook,” she says. “Then they also have amazing characters and really top quality artwork and animation. It’s just a great experience when you have all of this come together, so that’s why I like working with these places like Disney or Moonbot.”
“I was surprisingly really pleased that it came so far, because when we showed this concept for the first time everyone was saying it was really good but that the technology wasn’t there,” says Masami when we ask about how closely the finished Book of Spells replicates her original storyboards. “I was really pushing for high quality, to give some new experiences with dreams coming to life in your living room. When I see Diggs and Book of Spells, I think it’s really really close to what I hoped.”
“I think what’s amazing,” adds Dave, “when I look at this storyboard, you see you’ve got the book, the “rubbing the lamp” input and those sorts of things in there. Just having the little boy drawn behind the book, that’s pretty much what Wonderbook is! I mean, this concept art could be an advert for it even now, and I think that shows a really strong, clear and simple vision. If it’s that simple, then everyone’s going to understand it. One of the things we’ve been very keen on with Wonderbook, is how broad it is. Everybody knows what a book is!”
“It Was Brilliant!”
Book Of Spells is aimed at those keen on the Harry Potter universe, and Oliver, 8, certainly fits that bracket. “The game was really good,” he said, after sampling it at a recent family-oriented press event. “The Move controller that you use with the book of spells is pretty good. The Move controller turns into a wand on the screen and you shoot fireballs and spray water out of the wand because of the camera.”
“You had to do lots of tests and learn how to cast spells by making shapes in the air with the wand. You had to make a glass jar levitate and if you dropped it it broke and eyeballs came falling out. And you had to make a pumpkin grow with the growing spell. It was really easy to play.”
“I really want this game for Christmas,” he added, excitedly.
Now that technology has caught up, how much stuff gets left behind compared to what makes it through to the full production, we ask. “That’s quite an interesting question,” replies Dave. “We have a group of Vision Research guys in our studio, and they’re supremely clever guys and what they do is amazing really. Sometimes they end up down a dead end, but to be honest they’re really good at delivering on ideas, and it’s more about what technique they use to get there.”
“There’s a lot of complexity in Vision Technology, and while I did a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence, which is not the same but uses some similar techniques, the difference between these areas and sort of hardcore programming is that often there’s no one right answer. You’re looking for something that works, but that’s not the same as computing the right answer, you know?”
“So I think for the Vision Research guys it’s about techniques, and quite often they’ll have to mix techniques. Their challenges are more to do with trying maybe five different ways of matching the vision, but eventually they’ll find a way to, for example, track the skin of a book.”
“I want to mention that some of the ideas we come up with are really technically possible, but not intuitive for kids, so we dropped some of them,” adds Masami. “With Wonderbook we wanted to have this physical book to work between kids and the game, so we dropped some things because of a lack of intuitiveness. For example, in Diggs when you have to tilt the light like in actual life, you understand immediately what you have to do. There’s a very important clearness which we wanted to communicate.”
We ask the developers if there are guidelines as to what kinds of interactions to use – things like having a portal within a rendered world seems to be a core element. “Yes we do have guidelines, and as Masami said, there are things we could do, but we’ve not used them,” replies Dave. “We’ve got it down to maybe about ten key things, I think, which we send out to developers. From that perspective, we want it to be that if you have one Wonderbook game and then get another, it’s going to make sense. We don’t want you to have to re-learn how to use the system.”
Since they’ve partnered with Disney, who have recently bought LucasArts, we ask the obvious question: how long until we have a Star Wars Wonderbook? “That’s a great question, and I wish I could answer it!” says Dave. “I’m a huge Star Wars fan, and if you just look at my desk there’s lots of Star Wars and Dr. Who things. Unfortunately I can’t answer the question, but I can tell you I’m a huge fan!”
Article written by Stefan L, Graeme K, Oliver K. Edited by Alex C