Interview: Makielab's Sulka Haro On The Gamification Of Toys

Sulka Haro, former lead designer on the popular virtual world Habbo Hotel, recently discussed his new ventures at the startup Makielab, where he hopes to help usher in "a trend of gamification in the toy space."
Sulka Haro, former lead designer on the popular virtual world Habbo Hotel, recently discussed his work at new startup Makielab, where he hopes to help usher in "a trend of gamification in the toy space." Haro and co-founders Alice Taylor, Luke Petre, and Jo Roach established Makielab in June to create games that coexist alongside physical products produced via 3D printing. The company aims to develop video games that interact with customized 3D printed products, allowing players to buy physical items based on the game that then influence the virtual world. Haro likened the 3D printed products to the World of Warcraft FigurePrints service, which allows users to order physical statues of their in-game avatars. With Makielab, however, Haro hopes to create physical items that serve as more than a sentimental trinket. "With WoW FigurePrints, you play with your character in WoW for a long time, and you get emotionally attached to it. So you get the print, but it doesn't feed back into the game in any way, so it's sort of like a memento. It's something that relates to what you were doing in the game but it doesn't feed back in any way." "There's really nothing inherent in WoW that makes you want to have one of these prints. We intend to bridge that gap and build both products in a way that would make sense to have both," he said. Haro also noted the high cost for these luxury statues, saying that Makielab will do everything in its power to ensure its toys will remain affordable as well as functional. "The [FigurePrints] use the WoW designs, so they include a lot of very fragile parts and are permanently attached to a base, so you can't effectively do anything with the figures. What we're aiming at is something a lot more flexible, where the object really is a toy you can play around with," he said. "We are developing our products from the ground up so we can avoid some of the cost. But the technology had advanced a lot, so it doesn't have to be that expensive. At the end of the day, we need to make products that someone can afford." Haro said he couldn't divulge any details on the company's first project, which is currently in the planning stages, or explain exactly how the company's toys will influence its virtual games. However, he did point out several potential ways physical items could interact with a virtual space. "A classic example could be barcode scanner games and more recently augmented reality solutions have started to pick up, both of which allow you to 'upload' physical objects into games," he said. "We're pretty close to the moment where every new phone that's bought is an app phone, regardless of the user's age, so even something as simple as the barcodes could be taken much further than what's been done before, as even kids will have a scanner-capable, connected device in their pocket all the time." He also pointed to CPU-driven toys such as Disney's Pal Mickey, a (discontinued) plush toy that tracked its location within Disney's theme parks, and provided attendees with information about the area they were visiting. Haro said products like these mark the beginning of a larger trend toward online-enabled toys. "The cost of these solutions is coming down fast, so it's not even that expensive or complicated anymore to create a toy that feeds data back to online. The rise of app phones and the iPod touch has ensured there's a mass of relatively open computing devices in consumer's hands," he added. With these new technologies evolving in the toy space, Haro noted that the overlap between toy makers and game developers is growing larger by the day, and Makielab hopes to capitalize on that opportunity. "What I'm seeing is that there's going to be a trend of gamification in the toy space, and people in the games industry have a lot to experience that's going to be relevant in that space," he said. Despite the lack of details, Haro said that the company expects to launch its first product by the end of 2011.

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