SurfaceScapes Follow-up: Bringing D&D to Microsoft Surface

Back in October, we reported (and nearly every other online tech/game publication) on Dungeons & Dragon’s being brought to Microsoft Surface. It took the internet by storm with a three and a half minute video. It wasn’t a full-fledged product from Wizards of the Coast. This was a student project from Carnegie Mellon University to look at expanding tabletop role playing games.

NEW: As part of their project, the SurfaceScapes team members were required to produce a three minute promotional video for their project. After watching the video, scroll down for my interview with the team.

I recently asked Michael Lewis, one of the seven project team members, to speak on behalf of his team about their experiences creating D&D on Surface. Read on..

Eric Havir: What is your team’s area of focus at Carnegie Mellon University?
Michael Lewis: We are students at the Entertainment Technology Center.  The ETC is a multidisciplinary Master's program that brings together students from technical and artistic backgrounds to create new and innovative experiences. 

EH: You have a team of seven people. What is the mix of areas of focus/expertise?
ML: We have three programmers, two artists, one writer/sound designer and a producer.

EH: The video went up on Sunday, 18-Oct-09. When did you start working on the project?
ML: Although we began pitching the project to the faculty last semester, the real work didn't start until this current semester, on 23-Aug-09.

EH: Which came first, the team or the project?
ML: The project idea came first. 

EH: How did this project come about? What was the inspiration for taking on Dungeons and Dragons on Surface?
ML: Three of our team members; Michael Cole, Whitney Babcock-McConnell, and Dyala Kattan-Wright, were working on a project for Surface last semester when the Mike and Jerry from Penny Arcade stopped by.  There was a drawing application up [on Surface] and Mike started drawing maps and suggested Dungeons and Dragons would be cool on Surface.  That was the seed for the idea.  Our team then got together and pitched the idea to our faculty to work on it this fall.  The pitch was of course accepted over the summer.

EH: How did you settle on using Surface for your project?
ML: We were using Surface last semester when Mike and Jerry gave us the idea for the project.  Afterwards we looked at some other platforms too, but the object recognition as well as orientation of the screen on a table made Surface ideal for what we wanted to do.  It didn't hurt that the ETC already had a couple units too.

EH: What was the first thing you created on Surface during the exploration?
ML: A Zelda-like map explorer. Then the infamous virtual dice.

EH: I am not a D&D player, but I see tabletop games as being very applicable for Surface. Was exploring the future of computer interaction part of the goal for the team? Or were you more focused on role playing and how to bring that to computing?
ML: The goal was really to explore how to enhance table top role playing games.  Role playing has been brought to computing in the past, but Surface offers a unique opportunity for maintaining a lot of the traditional roles and expectations of table top gaming, while still enhancing it in significant ways.  That said, Surface allowed us to really explore the possibilities of merging physical objects with virtual interfaces and we've spent a lot of time learning how to best utilize that, and working out some of the problems that arise when creating new interfaces for a traditional table top game.

EH: Today, Microsoft Surface is a commercial product focused on retail, hospitality, health care, etc. You’ve written a game-aid that has a niche audience. What’s the future for this application? Do you see this moving beyond proof-of-concept into retail role playing gaming centers or the home at some point?
ML: We would love to see a future iteration of our work used in game stores or at conventions to both be a new space for veteran players as well as a draw to bring in new players.

EH: What has been the best part of your experience relating to the Surface development?
ML: The use of physical objects on Surface has aided our design in so many ways.

EH: We know the great praise that the app has been getting on the internet must be VERY cool! Were you surprised at the reaction, or did you know you had lightning in a bottle?
ML: We initially intended for only a few of our contacts to see the video, so in that way it took us by surprise.  But from talking to D&D players in the area, as well as at PAX in September, we expected some interest from fans of the game - although the response has still been overwhelming.

EH: You’ve still got some time left on your project before it is complete. I’m sure you have papers to write in addition to the work that has already been done on the application demo. What are you going to be focusing on next?
ML: We want to make sure we have a really polished player-side experience.  That means more work on the UI both in terms of functionality and aesthetic.  We've done some user testing, but of course we always want to do more of that. 

EH: When we last chatted, you were talking about bringing the application to PAX East. Given the reaction on the internet to your demo, what are your feelings about that? Are you afraid of getting mobbed? 🙂
ML: We definitely want to go now-- let people play with what we have.  The experience should be much different than watching the video online.  It will be a great playtesting session.

Thanks Michael!

- Eric (follow Surface on Twitter and Facebook)

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