The virtual dice rolling has got to go.
October 21, 2009 2:27 PM   Subscribe

The Microsoft Surface was the subject of much ridicule. When Gabe and Tycho from Penny Arcade had the chance to sit down with one at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, known colloquially as the ETC, they saw potential for the Surface to become an amazing tool for Dungeons and Dragons tabletop gaming. They offered some suggestions to the team, and months later, SurfaceScapes is the result. Video.

Wired Article with some more info on the ETC.

The project is the work of a team of designers from the ETC. Currently, they only have a basic Game Master tool set programmed, but the researchers are working to enhance the player experience.
posted by lazaruslong (45 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
... they saw potential for the Surface to become an amazing tool for Dungeons and Dragons...

Because Dungeons & Dragons is also the subject of much ridicule?
posted by Joe Beese at 2:29 PM on October 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

Advice or Suggestions for the team can be submitted to this forum, in which they have addressed the hurdles of physical dice rolling.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:33 PM on October 21, 2009

Do they make the table with a wood paneling veneer so it won't clash with the rest of the furniture in my mom's basement?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 2:34 PM on October 21, 2009 [10 favorites]

Yes because Expensive Touchscreen Table + + Open Bottles Of Jolt/Beer + Greasy Cheeto Gamer Fingers = Recipe For Win!
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:42 PM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

posted by turgid dahlia at 2:42 PM on October 21, 2009

Warhammer 40k, please.
posted by empath at 2:46 PM on October 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

My question is 'why deal with the dice rolling at all?' The random number is the important part, not the dice rolling.
posted by empath at 2:47 PM on October 21, 2009

I'm glad they addressed the dice-rolling thing. That was the one thing in the demo that had me thinking "are you kidding me? At my nerdiest, I never would have used that".

My suggestion: bluetooth-enabled smartdice. You heard it here first.
posted by gurple at 2:48 PM on October 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

See Also: Ubisoft's Ruse
posted by blue_beetle at 2:48 PM on October 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

See Also: Ubisoft's Ruse
posted by blue_beetle

Holy crap that's awesome.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:50 PM on October 21, 2009

My question is 'why deal with the dice rolling at all?' The random number is the important part, not the dice rolling.

Man you just don't get it.
posted by nola at 3:02 PM on October 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

Unless this thing can pipe in vast clouds of high-quality sour diesel and play Esquivel it'll never be like the real thing.
posted by The Whelk at 3:07 PM on October 21, 2009

I remember seeing something similar last year, on a reactable. Can't seem to find any more recent news about it though.
posted by lucidium at 3:14 PM on October 21, 2009

posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:16 PM on October 21, 2009

What a great idea to make use of surface. I had the good fortune to sit in on a Surface demo where I work, and I thought the tech was pretty interesting. Of course the gamer in me had to probe the developers giving the demo as that what sort of gaming they've attempted through this interface, and the debs would not confirm or deny that it may have been used to play World of Warcraft on occasion. I would love to see tech like this put into place for gaming purposes. Obviously it's not a fit for every game genre such as FPS's, but the idea of being able to play RTS games in such a fashion makes my geek heart swoon.

As far as the Surface tech in general, I was rather impressed with the surface unit they demo'd for us and would gladly have found it a place in my living room.
posted by theButterFly at 3:20 PM on October 21, 2009

If you haven't checked out Microsoft's next iteration of Surface, "Second Light" is really, really cool. It utilizes two projectors, the example they use is a the view of the night sky and a simple piece of tracing paper. When the tracing paper is placed over the night sky, constellations are revealed on the tracing paper itself (the demonstrator holds the paper several inches above the table to prove this is actually happening).
posted by geoff. at 3:37 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

You know what? meh. Unless you have a team of full-time designers it'll always look the same and give a generic flavour to adventures. You know why we used to use badly drawn maps on graph paper and talk a lot? because it was actually a lot of fun and a lot more versatile. Besides, it'll end up being too close ended. What if one of the PCs decided to stab another one in the back and make off with the loot halfway through? There's more to an enjoyable game of D&D than "Kobold Genocide Vol XIV".
posted by GuyZero at 3:46 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Warhammer 40k, please.

But then you don't have to spend several hundred dollars on minis... ?

This is actually a way better idea. Wargaming heck yes. Even Risk, Axis & Allies, all those crazy board games with too many rules and counters where a neutral automated ref would be a huge asset. Shit, Monopoly for that matter. You could actually use the auction rule and finish the game in P vs NP time.
posted by GuyZero at 3:49 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Surface has amazing potential for tabletop gaming of all kinds. I've had extensive discussions about this and come up with all sorts of ideas. If only the hardware wasn't so expensive.

So yeah, things like Warhammer, Car Wars, etc. Even something like Magic would work good (use a smartphone for your hand which syncs with the table --- the smartphone approach is my main solution for private data, although you could build a surface-like device that had individual screens for each player, kind of like those super-fancy non-computerized gaming tables).
posted by wildcrdj at 3:55 PM on October 21, 2009

See Also: Ubisoft's Ruse
posted by blue_beetle

Holy crap, please do this to Avalon Hill's SQUAD LEADER!
posted by Ron Thanagar at 3:58 PM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

But then you don't have to spend several hundred dollars on minis... ?

Microtransactions, my friend. You merely purchase your army for a penny a point at the beginning of the game. No lead figures for your little sister to munch on, and everything is always up to date with the latest force list.

I'm a huge nerd. I played D&D in High School. I write computer software. I STILL get together with friends to check out the new video games a few times a year. I just spent more than $100 on a new Games Workshop game. This is a stupid use of technology. Really, really stupid.
posted by ecurtz at 4:01 PM on October 21, 2009

Greasy Cheeto Gamer Fingers

Exactly the snark I was going to bring. Also the lack of real dice makes it somewhat uninteresting to me, but having seen hundreds of mooks sitting in a Las Vegas casino playing jacks or better on the bartop screens with virtual cards, I suppose anything can have it's fans.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:07 PM on October 21, 2009

I've got an idea cooking in XNA that's similar to Ruse, and that's all I'm going to say about that :)

Being a child of the 70s, an arcade attendant during the last of the glory days of the late 80s, and a VR programmer during the 90s I do indeedy miss the age of the quarter-slurping arcade machine.

What this country needs is a robust micropayment system, though it's tough to really see how this expensive technology can be scaled into our current lifestyles. What cost 25c in 1975 now costs a dollar, so you'd think $5 per 30 minutes per player would be doable, but there's a venue problem I guess since if the game doesn't work in a coffee shop it's simply not going to find a market.

ATI's Eyefinity technology that can drive 6 displays at once is interesting; 4 player views plus a scoreboard would work well, but I guess the PC itself is the less expensive part of the system.
posted by mokuba at 4:11 PM on October 21, 2009

Use real dice, because it is fun. The table should be able to read what I roll automatically and calc thaco (they still have that?) against it.
posted by butterstick at 4:23 PM on October 21, 2009

The issue as described on the discussion board someone linked to is that the under-surface camera is too low-res to read the dice. A better over-table camera might work though. They have camera systems that can track card games like poker and 21 so OCR'ing dice in real time shouldn't be very hard assuming you have sufficient camera resolution.
posted by GuyZero at 4:27 PM on October 21, 2009

On the world map section: rotate clockwise to zoom in, and counterclockwise to zoom out? Yeah, that's much more intuitive than pinch/spread.
posted by ook at 4:55 PM on October 21, 2009

On the world map section: rotate clockwise to zoom in, and counterclockwise to zoom out? Yeah, that's much more intuitive than pinch/spread.
posted by ook

I thought that too at first. But I think the decision to use control objects like the rectable, instead of pinch zoom type hand manipulations, is a smart one. The most obvious issue with touchscreens is smudgy smeary-itis. By removing the control of the table to a small control object, like the generic "map tool" one they used in that scene, or the D&D miniature itself, means less touching of the surface and less smearing.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:16 PM on October 21, 2009

"the lack of real dice makes it somewhat uninteresting"

This seems like an easily solvable problem. Either with smart dice like gurple's bluetooth or a using a special rolling surface tower that could interface with the control program separate from the table display. A dice tower with a moderately sized roll out area and a web cam + OCR would be all you'd need and would work with the majority of dice with a little training. Though one might have to go with either non polyhedral dice or double d8s for d4 rolls.

In 4e with multi coloured dice you could roll all your to hits for blast/burst/wall etc area effects and have them automatically resolved against each target by colour.

And the table could be programmed to automatically track and provide visual indicators of stunned/grabbed/dazed/slowed/poisoned/ etc. conditions.

"rotate clockwise to zoom in, and counterclockwise to zoom out? Yeah, that's much more intuitive than pinch/spread."

Both seem equally intuitive to me and the rotate is more robust vs. accidental input.

Personally I'd skip monster display instead using monster miniatures but I've got to admit the fireball effect was very cool.
posted by Mitheral at 5:23 PM on October 21, 2009

I would not be surprised to see this used by the military or hell the NFL in the near future.
posted by carefulmonkey at 5:29 PM on October 21, 2009

Cool. As for the dice...why not have a particular area to roll the dice in, use the optics, program the reader so that the dice roll is equal to the number that should be on the opposite side of the dice.

I'd like to see this have portability so that you could put your phone down on the surface and be able to add your character or to stream music to the game.

Overall, good stuff. I don't know how much of the gaming world we will recognize in 20 years.
posted by zerobyproxy at 5:34 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

This would be great for distance gaming, but if your friends all have enough cash to spend on Surface rigs and custom software, you just might be Vin Diesel.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:41 PM on October 21, 2009

I think the decision to use control objects like the rectable, instead of pinch zoom type hand manipulations, is a smart one[...] less touching of the surface and less smearing

You're right, I hadn't thought of that.
posted by ook at 6:17 PM on October 21, 2009

Vin Diesel would have at least 4 of them in a linked display. Because that would be awesome.

Just as I, if I were stupidly rich, would replace my bathroom mirror with a plasma TV an a closed-circuit camera system. I'd never have to turn my head to shave again!
posted by Decimask at 6:20 PM on October 21, 2009

Been there, done that. (There is truly nothing new under the sun. (The virtual dice are kinda cool, though.))
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:26 PM on October 21, 2009

Not the same thing.
posted by empath at 6:35 PM on October 21, 2009

"I suggest a new strategy: Let the Wookiee win."

I thought of the originality angle per GuyZero, but I wonder if a system like this might actually change the nature of playing in significant and unexpected ways. Not necessarily undesirable ways -- it could certainly reduce some paperwork and such -- but perhaps in making things more oriented towards things the Surface can do as opposed to things we just make up in our minds because we have no choice.

Idle thought, but informed by recently playing Wii Monopoly. There were numerous tedious animations to sit through, repetitive sound effects that drove you insane, and more clicking than you can shake a Wiimote at. I enjoyed not having to count my money, but ultimately it wasn't as fun as standard Monopoly.
posted by dhartung at 9:01 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

greasy Cheetoh fingers

That's something that keeps striking me repeatedly with these demos; we really want to have the same device be both input and output (touchscreen and display), but hard physical reality is that we are oily critters, and leave smears on everything we touch. On something like a keyboard, that smear isn't visible and evaporates, but on a smooth display surface, it looks awful.

It really seems to me that in this particular case, where physical interface area isn't particularly constrained, separating the input from the output would be a very good idea. It seems like having input devices (whether keyboards or screens) around the edges, with the center screen serving as output-only, would be far better.

I haven't tried it myself, not really being a tabletop gamer anymore, but I've heard that an overhead projector onto a white-ish table can be an excellent way to handle a lot of this for a tiny fraction of the cost. People's hands leave shadows while they're reaching out to move figures or something, but it doesn't actually seem to bother anyone, and your table can still instantly be whatever expository graphics or terrain you want. The DM can reveal new areas on his or her master screen, and characters can move their miniatures around, and no actual screen touching needs to take place.

Overall, I think the fundamental error in this and the ReacTable demos is that they're using the programs as ARBITRATORS rather than as ASSISTANTS. Computer programs are never, never as flexible as human minds. Use them to automate the tedium, like "drawing maps" (projecting images), or calculating line of sight, but leave the actual rules interpretations up to the humans. Having computer-stored versions of characters that both DM and player can see is a fantastic idea, but having the computer decide that something dies just isn't.

My image of how this should work is one master machine, probably a laptop, with a mothership program, driving both its own screen and an overhead projector. Then each player either brings a laptop or uses a machine that's already installed on his or her station. Minis work like normal, but they're placed on "terrain" from the overhead projector, which can also show public information that everyone should see. DMs and players can 'pass notes' and track private data privately, but all decisions are made by people, not programs.

Pencil, paper, and props work really well for role-playing games; computers can be much better versions of all these physical objects, but they can't yet be better DMs. Trying to force them into that role strikes me as weakening the overall idea a great deal. You'd end up spending a metric assload of money for an experience that was actually inferior to doing it the old way.

But, man, a good low table that can change like magic to anything, and a nice system for tracking everything that needs to be tracked (especially hit points, which is a pain when you're dealing with a big battle), and an easy way to pass notes? Those three things alone would be a huge improvement over the way we did it.
posted by Malor at 10:16 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow, ChurchHatesTucker, that's almost exactly what I was thinking about. Note to self: read all links before posting.
posted by Malor at 10:18 PM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

You people are completely missing the point of this table...

Let's just say that it requires broadband connection for network play, a webcam, a microphone, specially-designed usb "interfaces"... and some sort of non-stick table cover for easy cleaning.
posted by markkraft at 2:47 AM on October 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Even something like Magic would work good

They have Magic Online, and it turns out, it has its bugs and flaws, including certain decks just not working, because infinite (actually, arbitrarily large) combos have to be played through each step, whereas in paper Magic, players can say, "OK I get it."

I suppose if the interface was rules-naive, and just handled shuffling decks and let you place cards in zones, it'd be cool, but you'd need auxiliary screens for private information, like your hand, or when you manipulate your library (Brainstorm, Sensei's Divining Top, etc.)

Still, glad to see really cool proof-of-concepts.
posted by explosion at 4:54 AM on October 22, 2009

Expensive Touchscreen Table + Open Bottles Of Jolt/Beer + Greasy Cheeto Gamer Fingers + Squeegee with Cleaning Solution = Recipe For Win!

FTFY. There, that wasn't so hard to figure out, was it?

Also, everyone that I've played with who ate Cheetos or any other crunchy snack generally had their own bag and poured it directly into their mouth.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:15 AM on October 22, 2009

The cleaning thing is a non issue already dealt with by anyone using miniatures and a battle mat. You'd just need a can of glass cleaner instead of a spray bottle of water. Our mat has to get cleaned after every battle because even when using tiles to delineate the playing field stuff like persistent area spell effects are drawn right on the mat.

I agree though that you don't want the software driving the table constraining the DM otherwise you start sliding towards DDO territory where sans a thief a locked wooden door is an insurmountable problem despite all sorts of chopping, exploding, and burning tools, spells and weapons. The best and worst of times for a DM is when the party short circuits 70 percent of the story line with some novel application of magic, skills or technology.

However as a battle manager this would be great. As long as it doesn't consume more play time than it saves.
posted by Mitheral at 7:34 AM on October 22, 2009

Malor, the system you describe is pretty much this one.

Separate DM screen that is the mothership and drives the Surface, separated input and output via control mechanisms to reduce screen grossness, and so on.

Projectors are nice too though. Just not as snazzy.

You are right about one ting for sure though, in my opinion: They need to be careful to make sure it remains an assistant and not an arbitrator. It should streamline the tedious parts, maybe add some eye candy to other parts, and leave the rest well enough alone.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:49 AM on October 22, 2009

From the developers, re: screen smudginess and pizza eating:

...and the surface table is pretty strong so as others said you can easily wipe it off with a cloth. And although we didn't test it here it is suppose to be resident to liquids too. So feel free to dine on it if you have one :)

In fact I have just added a order pizza button into the dm screen!

posted by lazaruslong at 9:32 PM on October 22, 2009

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