I’ve been following Magic Leap from its genesis as megalodon-sized funding monster, through its hype-deflation crisis and into its current status as proto-consumer blockbuster (maybe). The device can currently be bought for a couple of grand, but with a name like “Creator’s Edition”, it’s pitched squarely at developers. Actual consumer launch details have yet to be announced.
Last week, I had my first real play with the augmented reality glasses. I visited Funomena’s offices in San Francisco, and played with that company’s fairytale game Luna Moondust Garden, which is out today.
Luna Moondust Garden, a simple point-and-click narrative in which one creates a garden, made of different elements, is already available on virtual reality platforms as Luna, but in AR it’s a very different proposition. Magic Leap allows me to see my surroundings while I play. I can can use real world objects as interaction points. I plant seeds, and watch new things grow. Characters pop up to progress the narrative, which runs for a couple of hours.
I’m in an office, with a table at the center of the room, so I allow my garden to sit on the table, with other parts of it spilling onto the floor. It’s a modular piece of fun, which feels like the basic genesis of something much bigger and better, maybe three years in the future.
That’s really the point of the game, which surely has only the most limited commercial promise. Funomena is a company that sits outside the dreary business of making games to sell. It attracts its funding from platform companies like Magic Leap, which are looking for developers who are serious about progressing their technologies through software design.
Funomena was co-founded — and is run — by Robin Hunicke, whose previous work includes the groundbreaking adventure Journey. A professor of game design at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Hunicke’s dissertation was in the field of artificial intelligence.
“We’re working out how to build enticing virtual objects,” she says. “We look for pleasing affordances. We start small. We start by looking for the personal connection, and by thinking about the right context, about where people play.”
Funomena (pronounced like “phenomena”) employs 30 people dedicated to figuring out how AR might affect our lives. They are game designers, but the goal isn’t to make commercially viable games, or even to find a killer app. It’s to use games as a gateway to other virtual interactions.
The office walls are plastered with white boards, filled with charts that detail emotional responses to visual and audible inputs. Hunicke and her team are fusing AR with games to find out what feels good. The goal is more like scientific research than commercial design.
Hunicke says that she is trying to find out what games will look like when they are no longer “constrained by screens.” If you and I are connected through a network, and interacting through a pair of glasses and a basic controller, what will we do with one another?
“This is not a different version of a TV screen,” she says, before reeling off a few possible examples: “Sports, LARPing, dancing, speed-dating, dancing, picnics,” she says. What she doesn’t talk about are shooters or RPGs or strategy games. Augmented reality will undoubtedly try to bring new angles to video gaming standards. But the potential is far above the genres that define current digital entertainment.
“What will AR be good at?” Hunicke asks. “What are the behaviors that we can exemplify and expand upon?”
She says that, currently, Funomena is often restricted by the work-in-progress nature of experimental hardware. This is a company that is forever in the challenging development window of hardware pre-launch. “We work on a lot of new platforms,” she says. “If I’d had a full year, we’d have built a lot more creativity into [Luna Moondust Garden].”
It’s clear that this publicity push is all about enticing other developers to begin thinking about, and working on, games that make augmented reality sing. Luna Moondust Garden is a nice, little piece of entertainment, but its role is to encourage other creatives to play it, and to decide that AR needs something different.
“We’re doing something that’s important for games as a whole,” Hunicke says. “Maybe we can design something that’s better, that’s more human.”