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A team of CMU students made waves when they released a Microsoft Surface-compatible Dungeons & Dragons interface. Gamasutra talks to former team producer Michael Lewis about the project's challenges and development.

Chris Remo, Blogger

July 7, 2010

9 Min Read

A team of Carnegie Mellon University students made waves when they released videos of their interactive Dungeons & Dragons interface using Microsoft Surface. Combining the Dungeons & Dragons 4.0 ruleset with an advanced multi-touch screen, the project -- dubbed SurfaceScapes -- marries traditional tabletop roleplaying with modern technology, aiming to preserve the game's live social experience while streamlining the numerous manual steps and calculations involved. Players put their characters' miniatures on the Surface table, which displays environments and enemies, and keeps track of position and movement. They then input commands with their own personal interface that is opened by placing their unique "control objects" on the table. Meanwhile, the dungeon master player can control every aspect of the game -- both what is displayed on the Surface screen and what isn't -- from his networked laptop. SurfaceScapes has been demonstrated at industry events like Game Developers Conference and the Penny Arcade Expo, although the realities of student projects mean that its development has largely ended as its team members continue to graduate. Gamasutra recently spoke to first-semester producer Michael Lewis about the project, discussing its conception, its challenges, and what he hopes it proves in the long term. How does this system work in terms of all being on one screen, when some information needs to be hidden from the players? Michael Lewis: The player's experience is on the Surface table, so that's where their interface for combat is. With their miniatures, they can have their really tactile feedback with it and interface with it. Then we have a separate dungeon master screen that's networked through a laptop, and they get to control everything -- all the action, the background [on the Surface screen], and they know everything. They can look at all the stats of everybody and move monsters around, add more monsters, and so on. It's a tool for both the dungeon master or the regular player characters, and we definitely wanted to make both of those experiences useful -- specialized for each. How did you guys start working on this? ML: Mike [Krahulik] and Jerry [Holkins] from [popular online video game comic] Penny Arcade were visiting our program at CMU, and we had a Surface table set up for another project. I started drawing maps on it, and we were like, "It'd be cool if we had D&D on here." And [current team members] Whitney [Babcock-McConnell] and Michael Colt said, "Yeah, we can do that." Dyala Kattan-Wright, who is the current producer, was in the room also, and said, "Let's pitch this to our school and see if we can do it." So, we got together. Each semester, our students are able to pitch their own projects, and if the faculty approves it, they fund it. We went through a two-round pitch process, and it got approved. We began this in August last year. As producer and project manager, I also worked on the design with the artists. We all worked on designing the user interface for it; it was very collaborative. So you already had access to the Surface devices? ML: Yes. We had a project that was going on for a client developing on Surface, and the school had purchased one of them, so we got to do a project on it. What languages did you use to develop this? ML: It's done in C#, and the environment on the table is XNA. The dungeon master's screen is done in Windows Presentation Foundation, which is really good for menu systems in 2D. Have you had much contact with Microsoft? ML: Oh yeah. Microsoft has been very supportive of us. They put us in contact with people. We presented with them at GDC this year, so they've definitely been aware. Did you start out by identifying all the systems you would need to integrate, or by trying to figure out what kind of overall end interface you'd like to see, or some other way? ML: At the high level, our original pitch was just tabletop gaming on the Surface, not necessarily Dungeons & Dragons. It was a proof of concept: "We're going to show that tabletop gaming has a future in this space." Then we had to pick a system we were going to use, and Dungeons & Dragons 4.0 lent itself nicely towards that, in the way the rule base is structured and the fact that it definitely relies on miniatures usage. Once we had that picked out from the design side of it, we really focused on the player experience -- what happens on the table -- because if we didn't make that engaging, then it wasn't worth it. That was the first goal. In the time that we had, we really worked on the user interface from the player's perspective, developing the control objects that the players use and the menu system that goes around it. I would imagine one of the most difficult parts from a design standpoint would be ensuring it doesn't become so cumbersome that it feels more difficult than simply playing the game normally. ML: Absolutely. We always wanted to make it quicker to play D&D. The table can handle all the ongoing stats, it can calculate line of sight, it can calculate movement for you, and it can provide feedback for all that. Getting all that in there was a goal, [as well as developing] a menu system without too many nested menus, so players could take their turns quickly enough that it keeps moving, keeps the gameplay streamlined, but still feels like the players have control over it -- that control is not taken away from them. What about contact with D&D owner Wizards of the Coast? ML: Yes. We've definitely had contact with them. They gave us the rights to show the game using their miniatures at PAX as well as GDC, so they're absolutely aware of us. But we're definitely not partnered with them. You were saying earlier this was developed with an eye toward the idea that tabletop gaming isn't dead; it can coexist with electronic gaming in this way. ML: Right. To that end, are you planning on developing an API or SDK or something that will allow integration with other rule systems or software? ML: Originally, that was like one of the things we thought about, and it would be really nice to have a genericized version of this, but in the timeframe that we had to develop it, we [had to] really pick something and go for it, and at this point, the second semester of the project is over and seven of the nine students who worked on it are graduating. So, the project isn't at the point to release to the public. In our program at school, we do have ownership over whatever we create, so the students who created it own the system, but we don't know what we're going to do with it afterwards. So you don't know what's next yet. ML: Not at this time. Everybody definately wants to know where it's going, but at this point we don't have a concrete answer for that. What were some of the big challenges or lessons you've experienced developing this? ML: The first challenge was figuring out perspective. It's a table where you sit around it from every angle, and when we originally thought of it, we said, "Oh! It'd be cool to have isometric!" and we could mess around with the camera. We had to do was a lot of research. We ended up thinking about doing a lot of different graphical formats -- you know, 3D, isometric, different camera angles -- and the first thing we did was loaded up games like StarCraft and WarCraft to look at them from the "upside-down view." It immediately made us queasy; you could not look at that view if you were the person on the other side of the table. Then we loaded up Grand Theft Auto 2, actually, which is very top-down. Then we went a step further, and put a miniature over the player character in GTA2, because the camera's always centered on him. We started playing, and it became clear that this is the perspective we need. The other thing we were worried about was, "Is it going to be weird when we have a miniature on the screen and a digital character engages with the miniature?" But when we were watching GTA and little guys would walk up to the miniature then bounce off, we realized, "Oh! That's kind of cool looking!" It wasn't as bad as we thought it would be. That was a really exciting moment, when we realized what the perspective would be for the system, and after that it just became a user interface challenge. We originally started the user interface around the miniature. When we mocked up our drawings for our pitch, we said, "You have your miniature, and when it's your turn the UI pops up around it." But we realized if you have two miniatures next to each other, that's a bad thing -- all of a sudden your UI is under somebody else's character. So, at some point we developed the "control object," where we take these interfaces, put it on an abstracted object that the player owns separately from the miniature, and that's where the user interface would be. Once we had that kind of design mentality, we were able to start really drilling down how the menu systems work and move from there. Is this something you see being accessible to average consumers in the near future? As far as I'm aware, Surface tables are still prohibitively expensive at this point. ML: Right. It'd be pure conjecture from what I've observed. We don't know from Microsoft what their plans are, other than that right now, it seems they have Surface in like hotel lobbies and places like that -- more commercial spaces than consumer use. But that's not to say that consumer use isn't in theirp lans. Speaking outside of Service specifically, is this kind of interface something you think could represent the future for tabletop games? ML: I think it absolutely could be. Not only does it make it streamlined for people who already play, it makes it accessible for people who are not necessarily Dungeons & Dragons players. All of a sudden, you don't have to take a ruler out and measure your line of sight, and the person who is intimidated by things like that can go and play and engage with people who are already playing, giving the game a new audience. There's definitely a future in digital tabletops. I imagine that in the future it will exist in the home space in some form or fashion.

About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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