Hands-on with Combiform

by Danny Kim

 

Video games are generally considered products of the digital realm. Sure, we as the players press buttons and fiddle with joysticks, but ultimately, all the action’s happening in the digital space. Even with motion-based control systems like the Kinect and the Wii, their physical motions are just means to achieving a desired result in the game – you swing your Wiimote to swing your tennis racket in the game, and you move your arms in front of your Kinect to interact with something on the screen. The digital-physical divide has a particularly noticeable effect in social gaming situations where you play together in the same space as other people, such as a split-screen match of Halo with your buddies. Although you might be trash-talking to each other, the emphasis is still clearly on the screen and the game within it, not the players themselves or their physical interactions.

With Combiform, that’s definitely not the case. Created by project lead Edmond Yee (MFA Interactive ’12) for his MFA thesis and developed by a team led by him and producer Josh Joiner (BA Interactive ’12), Combiform is unique compared to many projects in IMD in that it isn’t just a game; it’s a full-on platform on which developers can create their own experiences. The system consists of a set of four wireless controllers connected to a PC via a dongle. Each controller has a button, twisting knob, multi-color LED, and accelerometer, but the coolest thing about the Combiform controllers is that they are equipped with magnets that allow them to combine with each other. The ability to combine may seem gimmicky at first, but it works with the other capabilities of the controller to open up refreshing new gameplay experiences. To demonstrate this fact, the Combiform team is working on a host of games that really showcase the unique capabilities of the platform, and I had the chance to check some of them out.

The first game I played was called Blow it Up. It’s a 2v2 game where the players on each team combine their two controllers and use the combined device as an mock air pump, moving it up and down in the air to simulate a pumping motion. The faster you pump with the two controllers combined, the faster your balloon fills up; if the controllers become disconnected, you lose air fast. The surface-layer simplicity here is deceiving, because once you realize that the core of the gameplay – said pumping motion – takes place in the physical world, it opens up some unique strategies that you can use to win. Indeed, while messing with someone else’s controllers might be considered a gaming etiquette faux pas in most scenarios, with Combiform and Blow It Up, karate-chopping apart the other team’s two controllers to make them lose air is completely normal.

This mechanic of physical action affecting digital play was also on display in TAI. Named after the Combiform team’s lead engineer, TAI is a Simon Says style experience where the game gives you commands like “Combine” or “Press Button” that you must follow only if your controller light is blinking. You start out with five points, and  you lose a point each time you combine or press your button while the light isn’t blinking. This gives you the opportunity to screw up other players by pressing their button or combining with them while their controller isn’t blinking, making the experience as much about dodging other players’ attempts to hinder you as it is about keeping an eye on the light.

The next game I saw, My Light, My Game, I’d seen before, and it was as great as ever. Players are split into 2 person teams, Blue Team and Green Team, and to start the game, two of the controllers light up green and two light up blue. Players switch the light on a given controller between the two colors by pressing the button on it, and everything all four controllers are lit blue or green, the corresponding team earns a point. There’s a surprising amount of strategy involved as to how your team can earn the most points (get three of the controllers to light up your color then just keep mashing the button on the fourth controller) and prevent the other team from earning points (run like hell).

Then there’s Secret Agent Purple, where one of the players’ controllers lights up purple and the rest blue, and the objective is to get the purple light (transferred by magnetic contact) as many times as possible without getting caught with it when the music stop; it was very fun, basically Combiform’s take on the children’s game “hot potato”. Also notable was Get Out of My Way, arguably the most “traditional” game of the bunch. A 1v1 fighting game where each player gets two controllers, Get Out of My Way has players shaking their controllers to charge up their energy then using that energy to defend or attack the other player by combining their controllers in different configurations. It’s very fun and highly reminiscent of the “007” game a lot of us played on the bus in middle school; the only downside is that your hands start to hurt really fast from shaking the controllers.

Not all the games were quite as interesting though, nor did all of them really take advantage of the platform’s unique capabilities. Firewall is a puzzle game that has really slick futuristic visuals but incredibly slow gameplay. Pop Quiz, a math game that’s great in concept and actually fun to play, is probably better served as just a traditional PC learning game. Match, where you’re given a color using the multi-color LED and then asked to match it once it turns off a few seconds later, is a game that could just as easily be played using other devices. And For Here, To Go, where players must balance a tray of coffee ingame by combining all four of the controllers into a fake “tray,” lacks depth and gets very boring very fast.

Among the final games I got to play was Switch, and it was a stellar game with which to round out the evening. You start with the four controllers combined together, and once the game starts, all of the LEDs on the controllers light up, two of them solid blue and two of them blinking purple. The players need to switch the positions of the controllers blinking purple to advance, after which the purple lights relocate to two other controllers to be switched, so on so forth, with each “level” giving the players less time to reposition them. Again, the game might sound simple in concept, but it becomes a delightful challenge in practice, with players cheering each other on and rushing to move out of each others’ way at the higher levels – the game really creates a sense of bonding among its players.

As great as most of the above games were, it’s important to remember that Combiform is about more than just the hardware or the games – it’s about the experience. Combiform is the first in a new genre that Yee himself has coined “communal casual gaming.” Communal casual games, or CCGs, are games that put more emphasis on the players in the physical world than the game itself and the virtual world. With CCGs, the experience isn’t about the fulfilling objectives in the game or winning; it’s all about the experience of playing the game with others and having fun together. It’s a radically different experience than most games people play, and closed minded “core” gamer snobs need not apply; but for the rest of us, Combiform ends up being a truly eye opening experience. You realize just how much most games limit themselves by sticking to the screen and its contents, and you see first-hand how the integration of the physical world into digital play opens up an entirely new dimension of gameplay.

So the games are great and the experience is unique; so what’s the catch? In its current state, the hardware is Combiform’s Achilles’ heel. While budget limitations are understandable, it’s surprising that the team hasn’t done more to make the controllers more user friendly and aesthetically pleasing. They’re boxy and bulky, the handles on them aren’t exactly ergonomic, and they don’t feel that great in your hands at all. Also, after some games, the controller left behind a rather uncomfortable rash wherever they rubbed against my hand. However, each controller is a nice weight, and you can hold one for a long time without your arm hurting. Durability is also no problem here, as each controller is built like a tank.

CONCLUSION

I’d been following Combiform for a while before I sat down with Yee and Joiner at the hands-on session for this preview. I’d always been a little skeptical about the limited controls and the simplistic nature of the games on the platform, but despite my past skepticism, I went into the preview session with an open mind. And as I sat down several hours later to write this preview, warm coffee in hand, I realized something:

Combiform had converted me.

In the year that passed since I first saw Combiform, the platform and the ideas driving it have matured immensely. For all my gripes with the controller build quality – something the team is well aware of – , the games on the platform themselves are top-notch, looking professionally done and custom-tailored to take advantage of the platform’s abilities, and the experience of playing them is like nothing else. Combiform successfully bridges the gap between digital and physical play, and, in the process, it gives life to a whole new kind of gameplay experience – one focused on fun and player interaction rather than just winning. It’s truly amazing to see the platform in action, not only for its cool/fun factor, but for the effect it has on its players – everyone’s smiling, everyone’s laughing, and everyone’s having fun. Indeed, Combiform’s big “X factor” is the way it provides a fun experience for everyone involved by putting the emphasis on the experience of social play rather than the typical goal of winning.

As I’m sure you can tell, I entered a skeptic and emerged a believer. Combiform will always be remembered as a pioneer in the CCG genre, but what’s just as important to remember is its nigh-evangelicalism. The ability for a product to single-handedly turn someone on to a genre is exceptionally rare in any form of media, but it’s one of Combiform’s biggest selling points. It’s difficult to play games on Combiform with your friends and not have a good time, because even if they’ve never played video games before, they’re pretty much guaranteed to have fun.

Following our preview session, I told Joiner all this; about the initial skepticism, the transformative experience of playing the games, and the conversion.

All he did was smile knowingly.

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Combiform will be on show at the Interactive Media Division and Directors Guild of America’s First Move showcase on April 26th 2012 as well as IMD’s Demo Day on May 2nd 2012. For more information, check out their official website at www.combiformgame.com.

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