March 28, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
GameSetWatch recently visited with Pleo, a robotic dinosaur that its developers, Ugobe, call a "life form." We found it quite complex – sensors under the rubbery skin respond to touch, and Pleo is sensitive to light, sound, obstacles and a variety of interaction.
Out of the box, it "knows" a variety of different behaviors, and Ugobe has been releasing more Pleo behaviors accessible with an SD card.
A lot of interaction with the little creature, then, is surprisingly game-like; Pleo’s manual is minimized, prioritizing interaction and discovery rather than specific instructions on how to get it to do various things.
The developer intends to expose the Pawn-based SDK to developers, to allow them to create, share and elaborate on Pleo behaviors. When GameSetWatch's Leigh Alexander spoke to Ugobe chief technical officer John Sosoka, he said he sees Pleo as… a new development platform for gaming?
A Real-World NPC
"We draw from game design," Sosoka said enthusiastically, recalling his experience seeing Davidson and Co. (Math Blaster) through the CD-ROM multimedia revolution, and supporting some contract designers as they formed Silicon & Synapse – the company that would become Blizzard Entertainment. "We’re used to that world," added Sosoka, "So there is a piece of that. This is the first time I got to combine my robotics experience with my game design experience."
He likens developing Pleo to "building this really cool NPC that exists in the real world." Non-player character AI is getting more and more sophisticated with time, he notes, and part of the appeal for players is discovering just how deep that sophistication runs, and figuring out the rules – and the absence thereof – of interaction with those NPCs through experimentation. Like Pleo, says Sosoka, they do things you expect, and then you gradually come to understand what special, unexpected things they can do, too.
"Pleo is those things wrapped together," Sosoka explains. "It’s kind of like an animal and kind of like an NPC. And so, the design issues are along those lines. Being able to have as many of the things that you can expect if it were an actual animal… and then you want to have the way that you interact change depending on what’s going on so, you can build more depth of experience."
Developing The Presence
We told Sosoka some of the highlights of our experience with Pleo: At times we were pleasantly surprised at Pleo’s unexpected responsiveness, like when he seemed to approach the TV to sing and dance during a game of Guitar Hero. At other times, we weren’t sure whether he was reacting to us or not.
Sosoka admitted Pleo is still a work in progress, comparing developing it to the gradual learning curve that occurs in the game industry when new engines and platforms are introduced; the initial efforts are exploratory, and later efforts reflect refinement born of familiarity. "Pleo is a little of a cartoon sketch of what we expect the experience to be," he said.
Beyond the NPC concept, Sosoka has an interesting view of the Pleo experience in the context of video games. "One of the things that really strikes me is that there is something incredibly powerful about being in your physical world, and being tactile, that is just different from games," he says. "Much as I love games, there’s something different about it being in your physical space."
Continues Sosoka, "One example I use lately is… that you play the same game with a Wii controller that you played on the computer, and it’s a different experience. Just that little tiny experience makes it fundamentally different because you’re engaging other senses… kinesthetics and all those other things. So with Pleo, we’re going down that path of creating this new technology… this is a big space to explore and we’ve all kinds of opportunity to explore it."
A New Platform For Game Experiences?
In that vein, Sosoka hopes to share Pleo’s technology platform openly with other developers. "We designed things in order to allow you to control it through its USB cord, you can control every motor. And then we built a little virtual machine and a little scripting in, like you would in a game, but instead of using Lua and Python – we didn’t have space – we used one called Pawn. We built this virtual machine in from scratch, and built the high-level behaviors on top of that to make sure that it really worked, instead of just building it in for other people to use. We actually use that for the high-level stuff."
Then, the team set it up so that users can write their own scripts in Pawn and create their own sound, animation and other behaviors. Sosoka also worked with universities to get some units into human-robot interaction study programs. "We’re working now in going out to art schools and animation schools for people to experiment with," he adds.
Sosoka hopes that providing the tools will help other people to "use Pleo for something wildly different from what we’re doing." Ultimately, he hopes they will explore what it means to create a game experience with a component of interaction in the physical world "I think that this is a really cool thing that you can do using a lot of the same skills you’ve already developed for game design," Sosoka says excitedly. "Pleos can talk to each other through infrared. You could do kind of interesting, coordinated things… performances, cool stuff like that, and just make it up… and on an SD card, you have room for lots of content."
"This could be a new kind of game platform," Sosoka states. "Normally the way we think about games is you build the whole world. It’s really interesting… to think about taking all your skills from building a NPC or a hero character, and create one that can see things and can hear things and can detect things and can feel things. And you have this chance to build a character in the game -- except you don’t really build the game. The ‘game’ is your world."
"Ultimately," he concludes, "I’d love it if people could develop their own personalities for these life forms… but if they could develop their own content, we could provide a mechanism for people who didn’t want to share it, but wanted to develop commercial content – we’d love to develop an avenue for making that happen. We could potentially have developers that could use this as a small game platform. That would be fun for us."