Combiform is a game platform that involves four wedge-shaped controllers that can be played separately or “stuck” together for cooperative play. Their game “Bisho Bisho Bailout” won “Most Innovative Game” at the Meaningful Play conference in October. Play As Life interviewed Andy Uehara and Edmond Yee (shown in picture below on the right) about the game console and their thoughts about gaming.
Play As Life: For those who don’t know, please describe what Combiform is.
Andy: Combiform is a game platform that inspires people to play together. The player’s focus is split between the screen and each other. Combiform has two parts. First, it has unique physical controllers that can combine and decombine. Second, it has the games whose core mechanic for most games will be deciding when and how to combine and decombine. So in a sense, Combiform is a gaming platform whose focus is the communication between the players.
Play As Life: Can you briefly describe your roles in developing Combiform?
Andy: Ed is the hardware master and I am the software slave. We work pretty collaboratively on the design and implementation of the original game. I want to make a quick note here, that while Ed and I originally created Combiform, the version that we brought to Meaningful Play was made possible by a team. So credit needs to go to: Greg Nishikawa, Yun Dai, and Jacob Boyle for making the next version possible.
Ed: For the past nine months, I am primarily responsible for designing and building the CombiForm controllers, giving artistic directions and marketing (poster, logo, webpage design, etc). I also did the game art for the first CombiForm game: “Combine & Transform”. We got lucky enough to have Yun Dai joining our team later on and created all the game art for “Bisho Bisho BailOut”. She is our primary artist now for the project. As one of the game designers in the team (Greg Nishikawa, Yun Dai, and Jacob Boyle and Andy Uehara), my role is to make sure the game ideas and the design could utilize the combine mechanics to achieve an extremely fun, simple and highly socialized play.
Play As Life: This game takes cooperative gaming to the next level. Where did you get your inspiration from?
Ed: The idea was inspirited by one of my childhood dreams. I am always a big fan of combinable robot animate back in Hong Kong when I was small, things like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Voltrons. For those who are not familiar with Power Ranger, each ranger is driving his own robot in a cockpit with a separate set of control when separated and a cooperative control panel when all robots are combined. I still remember I got one of those combinable robot toys and was so disappointed by it since I could not see myself as a ranger because power rangers just don’t put together their robots with bare hands.
At the age of six, my brother and I finally came across with a game called “Strike Gunner STG” in the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. I love that game so much that I would love to play it through even today. It is a very well balanced 2D shooter game ideally for two players. The players control two jets (a red jet and a blue jet) to fight their way through enemy’s base and eventually destroy them; very basic action game. But unlike most shooters with essentially the same game mechanics, it (I believe) is the first one which allows players to combine their jets and control it cooperatively.
The only thing I am unhappy with is that the level of cooperation is not well balanced since the blue jet will take over all the agency of movement as well as the main gun. The only thing you can do with the red jet is to turn on the side gun or not once combined. Since my brother is a little older than me, he often took control of the blue jet which made me not want to combine with him. I obviously didn’t know anything about game balance, flow model or anything like that back then. I just wanted to do everything myself as a small kid trying to show off how much I could achieve. When I thought about all these earlier this year, I decided to come up with a more compelling cooperative play mechanics. Since my background is in Tangible User Interface, I eventually came up with a general idea of combining gaming controllers by merging both Power Rangers and Strike Gunner together, and worked out the details with Andy.
Play As Life: Combiform requires that players be co-located (in the same space). How important do you think co–location is in terms of game play? How would Combiform be different than playing Xbox live from different locations?
Andy: Combiform is about players interacting physically with other players. As such, co-location is a requirement to play any Combiform game. I believe that touch is an incredibly important human sense. When you dance with another person, you realize that you can communicate all sorts of information based on touch. We hope that Combiform controllers can capture some of that physical communication and use that in new and interesting ways. So co-location is important, but only because we are focusing on physical touch based communication
Ed: Imagine two scenarios:
1) 10 people playing World of War Crafts or a game in Xbox live in a tightly enclosed space, i.e. a small LAN party.
In this scenario, people will be yelling at each other; asking for help by shouting across the room. And in rare occasions, they will all laugh too much that one would worry they will all die from suffocation.
2) Playing the Nintendo Wii Sport Tennis in a party.
People who are not actually playing will show themselves as if they are also holding game controllers. People who are playing will look back and talking to the observers all the time claiming how good they could play in the coming up rounds. They would be standing up in front of the TV exaggerating their play movement as if they are on a stage performing.
It is apparent that in both scenarios, people would not have nearly as much fun as it is when playing alone in separated/distanced locations. People are social animals; two people could have fun playing with a simple finger wresting game for hours even when the game is completely off balanced (e.g. one player has significantly longer thumbs and bigger hands). I think it is undoubtedly true that all games when played in the same space with others are more fun than played alone. It really isn’t a new idea. It might be one of Combiform’s compelling aspects but I would like people to focus on the combining mechanic in this new interface but less about co-location. After all, it is this fun and innovative interactions keeping people to play in the same space.
In addition, I don’t think it is appropriate to compare Combiform (co-locative play) with networked games in Xbox live since they are very different play and these two concepts are not mutually exclusive. But one thing I am quite convinced is that people will be more energetic when playing together in a more enclosed space.
Play As Life: Do you perceive Combiform becoming a commercial product?
Andy: We would love to see Combiform become a commercial product, but we feel that we are a long way from that point. For now, we are just focusing on making great experiences.
Play As Life: How did you two meet?
Andy: We met through the Interactive Media program at the University of Southern California (USC). We are both in the same cohort of MFA candidates.
Ed: Well, I would like to add that we yell at each other all the time to pull out good ideas; so don’t be afraid to yell if you have to J
Play As Life: How did your ethnic/cultural backgrounds contribute (or not) to how you perceive games?
Andy: Originally, we were inspired by old school Japanese tv shows like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Voltron. We see Combiform as a great metaphor for teamwork so we are now drawing our inspiration from many classic stories where the protagonist overcomes obstacles through teamwork.
Ed: I would say no for myself. I personally love simple, fun and clever ideas, anything that makes me think more than 5 minutes will make me fall asleep. I really don’t like to think about ethnical, cultural or historical backgrounds when it comes to games. They are just games after all, let’s have fun!
Play As Life: Are you thinking of going into the game industry as developers?
Andy: I am definitely considering it.
Ed: Most likely, but I would like to have full control over game design if I were to enjoy the job as a developer. (which is really difficult to find I know)
Play As Life: What is your favorite game and why?
Andy: Wow. I don’t think I have a favorite game, but I have a lot of games that I am currently enjoying: Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Taboo, Recettear, and Star Craft 2. I really enjoy playing different kinds of games.
Ed: Star Wars: Jedi Academy (2003). I was addicted to this game before college. It is one of the few games that make you feel very tangible with just a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. The light saber control is simple yet deep. You can play for years and still discovery new tactics to saber dual your friends.
Play As Life: What do you think the current gaming industry truly lacks?
Andy: I think the current gaming industry needs to make more genres and nuanced genres more accessible to the public. The genres that we use to categorize games also limit the public’s understanding of the potential of games. I would love to see categories like existential games or transcendental life changing games. It would not only validate game makers interested in making these kinds of games, but would also open the door to a broader video game audience.
Ed: I personally think there are not enough recognitions of conceptual creativity. I could totally see how some people say ideas worth nothing in the business world. But without ideas there is no game, and more importantly without good ideas there is no good game. I was recently trying very hard to find the person who conceptualized the Wii console. But I couldn’t find a single name associated with it. This to me is pretty sad.
I also think that the current gaming industry is lacking a diversity of hardware creativity. I think game developers need to think more about being creative with the hardware; but not always on particular hardware interfaces. There are hardware and software when it comes to games and if all we do is focusing on being creative on the software side, we are not digging at least half of the goldmine. It is like doing research in psychology focusing only on behavioral tendencies and negating neurological factors.
Play As Life: Violence in game has always been and still is a huge issue. What is your take on violence in games?
Andy: I am fine with violence in games. I think it’s the same as violence in any other traditional media: freedom of expression. GO-GO first amendment!
Ed: I am assuming you are talking about this problem in the United States since I don’t think this is a problem in other countries. I am not an expert in this, but I believe that the United States is not the only or the country with the most violence games developed (I think Japan is, correct me if I am wrong). If someone brings out a gun to shoot random people on the street, you really cannot blame video games for being too violent. The fact that the murderer’s mindset has some associations with a particular video game doesn’t mean that game needs to be banned. Similarly, if someone learns to steal from a random movie, it really isn’t the movie’s fault. Educate them; tell people that this is not correct and stuffs in video games are fake, rather than blaming this and that for the trigger.
Play As Life: Kinect was recently released. What do you think about not having a controller? What are the benefits of having a controller (like Combiform)?
Andy: I like the idea of not having a controller. I think not having the affordances of a controller will be a big struggle for Kinect. Microsoft (MS) will have to train people for a brand new interface, where there are very few intuitive clues. MS sure has their work cut out for them.
Ed: I did my undergraduate thesis paper particularly on this topic; I really can talk forever if you allow me to. But very briefly, in tangible interface theory, Kinect falls under a very different category compares to system like Combiform. There is really no absolute advantage of having or not having a tangible interface in hand. Making a system of less tangibility like Kinect does not mean all other consoles will follow this trend and physical controllers will be obsolete. It is just another gaming experience. There are many reasons for this; the most important two are physical constraint and tactile feedback.
We as humans operate in this tangible world for about 50 thousand years. We are completely adapted to rely on physical constraints to guild our movement. When we walk, the friction we experience on the floor with our feet is one strong constraint. We are so adapted to it as if it is not there. If this constraint is partially being relaxed as in ice skating or roller blading, we all will fall almost immediately. However, we will soon adapt to this new, weaker constraint and one day we will be able to dance with it. But why aren’t we all roller blading every single day? Why don’t people roller blade at home? Because our feet with the roller blade shoes on and without are essentially two different types of interfaces utilizing different set of constraints with its own pros and cons.
Kinect and Combiform are in a very similar situation. I would not go into detail of tactile feedback; it would be useful to imagine situations like sitting on a chair without feeling the chair or eating without feeling the food. Lastly, I would like to recommend a very nicely written paper by Kenneth P. Fishkin titled, “A taxonomy for and analysis of tangible interfaces” (2004), for anyone who is interested in tangible interface theories.
Play As Life: Anything you’d like to add about Combiform, gaming, or for people developing/playing games?
Andy + Ed: We believe that Combiform is an exciting new platform for local social gaming. We are currently looking for folks interested in developing games on the Combiform platform. Interested parties should contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org and put MP Blog in the subject header. We also like feedback so feel free to email us and tell us what you think. Feel free to friend our Combiform group on Facebook 🙂