This week saw the release of Book of Spells, the first of Sony's Wonderbook titles. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dave Ranyard and Masami Kochi to talk about the origins and evolution of Wonderbook and where it might be going next.
Let me first give you a little background to Dave and Masami.
Dave Ranyard is the Game Director/Executive Producer of PlayStation's new Wonderbook franchise, right now working hard on the first release, Book of Spells. Dave joined the Wonderbook team in October 2011, after running the SingStar franchise since October 2008. He is responsible for product development and launch of Wonderbook and associated titles.
Masami Kochi is the creative director on the new Wonderbook franchise, and the original conceptor of the peripheral. She is currently responsible for the creative direction of Diggs Nightcrawler, a new Wonderbook title developed in collaboration with with the Academy Award winning Moonbot Studio.
Origins and Evolution
London Studios have been in their current building for around 10 years now, and before that there were two studios in London for Sony. One was in Soho called Team Soho and the other was in Camden and they were brought together to where they are now.
They started working on more family based titles, the first one being called EyeToy Play which was the first camera game for consoles.
Mas had worked for Konami in Japan and had come to the UK to work on EyeToy Play.
One thing they wanted was to make sure that it was as much fun to watch someone playing with it as it was playing with it itself and that everyone felt a part of playing if they were in the room.
It was quite simple camera play with 2D interactions, with the camera looking for motion. London Studios then built a whole bunch of fun family games around that concept.
In 2005 they released SingStar (and I have to admit to being a fan an owning probably more songs than I really should). SingStar is one of those fun interactive gaming experiences that you don't really even need to play it as a game, you can just pick your favourite songs and just sing! Even if you don't have a microphone you still find yourself singing along with those that do.
SingStar did also use the camera functionality (although I have to say I used to turn that off)!
Then the PlayStation 3 came along and London Studios released EyePet. EyePet used a magic card with a paw print on, which was an augmented reality marker and the camera would look for it (and some of that technology is in Wonderbook, but we will come onto that later).
Then EyePet with the Move Controller was released. With Eye Pet, the software knew where the floor was, which was a step on from just the 2D elements of EyeToy Play.
Now jump ahead to Wonderbook and it incorporates everything that London Studios had learned from those earlier releases. Under the hood there is quite a lot going on. The camera is looking for the big shapes, and the software knows what the next page is and it is also looking for skin, which is why the book and it's pages are blue (similar to green screen or blue screen technology in TV and films).
All over the page (see the picture above) are markers and the camera looks for those markers. As you lift the page the camera can see the markers for the next page. So if you were to skip a page the software would be able to display the correct page and not just what it is expecting as the next page.
During the development process there were a lot of different prototypes and they were very blocky, and now they have used graphic designers to try to make them look good. In the case of Book of Spells, they even look like they might be ancient runes!
I asked Dave and Mas if they were concerned that children, especially younger children, might take a pen or a crayon and draw all over the pages, but unless they got a think magic marker and started carefully changing the shapes it should be fine. And one thing Dave said, and I have to agree from all the times I have seen it being used, is that children are so entranced by what is coming to life on the pages that they probably won't draw on it! That, and making sure as a parent that you put Wonderbook away when you are finished should be fine.
So before we go any further, lets jump back in time to August 2005 where Mas put forward the first idea for Wonderbook, or Wonder Book as she referred to it then.
Mas told me that she always had a passion for innovation and also for games that involved everyone, possibly because of her background working for Konami on arcade games, which as anyone who has ever played an arcade game knows, there are no instructions and you have to be able to intuitively figure out the game and play it otherwise you won't play it again and your money will go into another game.
One thing that really interested her was breaking the barriers between the player and the game controller, so that the player could use their own body as a controller and bring something more engaging to a game - this was Eye Pet (as Dave already talked about). This broke down those barriers Mas talked about, and as the player you sat in your living room playing with your pet, which was a believable creature.
So with the PlayStation 3 about to come out Sony wanted to bring some excitement similar to Eye Toy, and so they spent a lot of time researching various technologies online, and going to various trade shows where Mas saw several augmented reality demos (now remember this is still back in 2005 - so over 7 years ago and you had to wear glasses to get the AR effect).
And as Mas puts it "I fell in love with something magical happening, the camera recognising a pattern and it being in your hand, and it being something that everyone could play with".
Mas put together a concept for Wonder Book, and she was kind enough to share her original drawings with me, some of which you can see reproduced below.
The idea behind this game was that you opened the Wonder Book and a magic lamp appeared. You would then rub the lamp and a genie would appear. He would talk to you and throughout the book / game his pet hedgehog would appear and you would play games and complete tasks with him.
Mas wanted Wonder Book to be for everyone in the room, not just for the one person playing with it, so it had to have an engaging storyline and interesting characters and be for both boys and girls. With that in mind there was a car game and a gardening game in there too.
You could then select a game and a storyline and play through it.
There was even a Wizard of Oz style concept where the characters would come out and you would use your voice to talk to them, play with them and then they would even do a little musical for you.
So your reactions would move the story forward. This concept was very important to Mas, and looking at the sheer amount of detail she went into for these concepts you can easily see just how important it was. Looking through all her concept artwork with her, its hard to believe all this was over 7 years ago, remembering that at this point there was no PlayStation 3, there were on AR apps on your iPhone, there was no Kinect on the Xbox 360. This sort of technology just didn't really exist for the average gamer.
The little pet in her story became Eye Pet and over time more technology was developed and tested to eventually get to Wonderbook.
When Mas came to the UK she saw that British people had a fascination for gardening, which is why some of the levels in her early ideas including gardening. Personally I think that Sony may have missed a trick and instead of a Harry Potter themed launch title for Wonderbook, maybe they should have gone with an Alan Titchmarsh gardening adventure. Although perhaps they did have the better idea!
I asked Mas and Dave what needed to be done in 2005 to bring it to reality. Dave told me that the technology just didn't exist to bring it to the PlayStation 2 and so with the PlayStation 3 being released, Eye Pet was born, as he had mentioned earlier. If you think that Eye Pet used a single card with a paw print on and Wonderbook is a book full of images in, you can see how far the technology has really come in those few years.
So with all that in mind it was time to find something to launch Wonderbook, and it needed to be big and well known. So, have you heard of Harry Potter?
Book of Spells
Back at E3 in LA earlier this year, Sony revealed their new Wonderbook product and announced that the first title for it would be Book of Spells, from J.K. Rowling and Pottermore.
Sony had a deal in place with Pottermore and so because that partnership was in place the Wonderbook team decided that a story set in the world of Harry Potter and magic would be perfect. There were a number of prototypes in existence at this point and the team showed some of them to J.K. Rowling and she had an idea for a spell book and so everything started to come together. All this was around 3 years ago, so there was still a lot to do.
At this point, as well as the book prototypes, the Move Controllers were also being used, and of course, as a student at Hogwarts, you would have a spell book and a wand, and so the Wonderbook and the Move Controller fit perfectly.
How many children (and some adults) read the Harry Potter books and wished they were wizards attending Hogwarts? Well know they could be.
J.K. Rowling wrote a lot of original content for Book of Spells, whether that's spell descriptions, or little stories, there are lots for Harry Potter fans to enjoy. There are also a number of poems included in Book of Spells, so in each chapter you learn four spells and then at the end of each chapter the book creates a test that you have to pass. When you pass the test you get a certificate to say you have passed, and it also unlocks one of these new poems. Each chapter has a theme, for example, one might be the importance of patience, and then the poem will be about a former student at Hogwarts who didn't succeed in that particular attribute with hilarious consequences.
What makes this different to other Harry Potter themed games is this new content from J.K. Rowling. The Wonderbook team feel extremely proud to be a part of the Harry Potter universe, and frankly so they should!
Anyone who is a fan of Harry Potter will want to own Wonderbook, if for no other reason than to get the new writings, and it is a fun family experience.
Dave told me a story about how he has taken various prototypes of Book of Spells home to his two children, and on one occasion he eldest son was chasing his younger brother around with the Wonderbook with a giant scorpion on display. This showed them using Wonderbook for even more than they thought of, almost using it as a box of toys.
Diggs Nightcrawler will be the second Wonderbook title to be released and it is being worked on with Moonbot Studios, based in the US, who just won an Oscar for Best Animated Short for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and Sony had been working with Moonbot even before they won the Oscar.
Moonbot are very passionate about both story telling and film noir.
Diggs Nightcrawler is a film noir story where you play with Diggs rather than as Diggs. Diggs is a bookworm who is also a private detective in Library City. Someone has bumped off Humpty Dumpty and Diggs has been setup for the crime. Your job is to help Diggs solve the crime and prove his innocence, you become his partner. At first Diggs is suspicious of you, but over the course of the game he becomes to trust and rely on you.
Here is a short trailer for the game:
Wonderbook is used in a number of different ways - for example, you can lift up one half of the book (which has a street light) so that you can shine a light on a dark area in order to help Diggs find clues. While doing this the rain that was also coming down goes in the direction you move the page, which was a nice little touch.
At all times Diggs looks at you, no matter the direction you turn Wonderbook, and this makes you feel engaged at all times.
Because the target audience for Wonderbook is 7 to 11 year olds, and film noir is black and white, Moonbot decided to make Diggs colour, which would be more enjoyable to kids, and I think that it works very well, from what I have seen.
Each page spread is designed meticulously and everything is designed around books, after all it is Wonderbook and it is set in Library City.
There are lots of characters in Diggs, and each one moves and behaves differently. For example, the Three Little Pigs are the Police and they just want to close the case and put Diggs away for a crime he didn't commit. There is a lot of slapstick comedy as well - Diggs can get hit by a car and just like in cartoons, he head can fly off and then get put back on. It's all a lot of fun.
Having seen a demo of Diggs, it looks like a lot of fun, with a great story, lots of interesting characters, with lots of tongue in cheek humour that both children and parents alike will enjoy.
There is a famous Edward Hopper painting called Nighthawks, and it has been reproduced perfectly with Diggs actually sitting at the counter. I want this picture for my office!
I think Diggs is going to be a great hit and I look forward to seeing more as it gets closer to release.
With Book of Spells now released, and Diggs Nightcrawler being worked on, the next big title for Sony's Wonderbook is Walking with Dinosaurs, which is a collaboration with BBC Earth. Wonderbook is the perfect medium to bring dinosaurs to life in your home. Everyone at some point has learnt about dinosaurs or has a dinosaur book at home and the idea of that book coming to life and taking over your living room or transporting you back in time to when the dinosaurs walked the Earth is something that is both exciting and quite frankly very cool.
Even though Walking with Dinosaurs is a factual game, there will still be a sense of narrative with lots of excitement. Lots of dinosaur discoveries over the last 10 years have actually been made by children so this could bring a whole new interest in Dinosaurs. And yes, you will be able to do some excavating!
One thing was very clear to me during our discussions, Sony and the Wonderbook team are only interesting in partnering with companies that are "top of their game", Pottermore, Moonbot Studios and BBC Earth. Sony are also working with Disney, so who knows, maybe one day soon we might see a Star Wars Wonderbook? My 7 year-old self would love that.
Mas had a really great vision for Wonderbook and it has taken 7 years to see that vision realised, and its only the beginning.
There are many ways that you can use Wonderbook, and its not just following the game. Children will find different things that they can do to get enjoyment for it, just as in Dave's story about his children and the scorpion. After all, when we were kids, and we didn't have the technology that is available today we managed to find ingenious ways of doing more with what we had.
Personally I really wish that Wonderbook had been around when I was a kid! What about you?
Thanks again to Dave and Mas for taking time out of their very busy schedules to talk to me and share both the history and future of Wonderbook - I can't wait to see where it goes next.