Reimagining Social Play: An in depth interview with Rob Wyatt

An indepth interview between TLG CTO, Rob Wyatt, with renown geek filmmaker and content creator, Ben Bobyns of Zombie Orpheus Entertainment.

 

I’m in the studio when my phone rings. It’s the final week of a massive Kickstarter campaign and we’re livestreaming like it’s a PBS pledge drive, celebrating every dollar as we inch closer to our $430,000 goal. The last thing on my mind is designing and running another campaign. But I take the call and listen to the pitch… and the more I listen, the more I realize that I’m going to say yes to help bring the Gameboard-1 to life.

Crowdfunding at a high level is a full-time job. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. Asking for money is hard and asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars is even harder. It’s also personal—a pledge is an emotional investment in a person or team who you believe in. Building that connection means being vulnerable, open, and accessible for the equivalent of thousands of miniature interviews, questions like:

Why should I trust you? Do you have the skills to pull this off? Will I receive what you’re promising? Do I want you to succeed?

That’s why I ultimately say yes to the phone call from The Last Gameboard. The idea itself hits all of my gamer nerd buttons—a physical/digital hybrid board that will let me upgrade my home D&D games in incredible ways!—but more importantly, the team itself is passionate, engaged, and authentic.

Plus, they have Rob Wyatt on board to bring their vision to life. I nerd out a little. Okay, I nerd out a lot.

Rob Wyatt was a key architect on consoles and platforms that changed electronic gaming: the original Xbox and the Playstation 3. And now he’s created a tabletop console for board games, roleplaying games, arcade games, and what promises to be an entirely new class of hybrid games: the Gameboard-1.

A 16×16 sensescreen tablet that can read physical pieces at high speed, interact with your phones, enable remote play, and carry an entire game library without requiring a moving truck, the Gameboard-1 scratches an itch that I’ve had for years. Rather than wear weird glasses, I can just focus on having fun playing games with my friends, while cutting down on the amount of time I spend looking up charts in the back of roleplaying books. The maps are right there, the pieces are real (and carry all of my character stats with them), and the mechanics are fully integrated.

It’s one thing, though, to talk with the Gameboard-1 team and plan a crowdfunding campaign. It’s another entirely to learn about the sheer scope of the vision from the guy who helped make so much video game technology a reality.

A couple days ago, I’m given the opportunity to chat with Rob about everything from his early days with the Xbox to the vision for the Gameboard-1. We cover Rob’s history with the Playstation and Xbox, his love of games, and then do a deep dive into the technology that sets up the Gameboard-1 to evolve tabletop gaming.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. (Want to read about hard-core technology side of the process? That portion of the interview will be out soon.)

Ben: I’m curious about what brought you into the X-Box and then the PlayStation.

Rob: Back in the early days it was that you made hardware, and it was like, how you going to use that? This is where the early game consoles were much harder to program, because you had to get your head around, what the hell is this piece of hardware that I have to work with? But once you did that, you got fantastic results. And programming that hardware is really what drove my career. So I went to Microsoft originally, not to work on the X-Box, I went to Microsoft to work on DirectX, at exactly the right time, which was a complete fluke. I was one of the low-level API architecture guys doing like, “how does this API work in order to be usable?” And this was DirectX 7, DirectX 8 timeframe, the late 90s.

[The team] was like, “you should look at [the Xbox]. So, what would we do if we wanted to do a game console?” and this quickly spread away from graphics, and became, I became kind of the system level architect, of like, if we put these bits together, it will work okay. If we put these bits together, in this [other] way, it will work a lot better.

This was kind of the first time you had been able to make a PC-based console, that’s all a PlayStation is today, but we did it first. The Xbox was a PC, it used PC components, it used pretty much PC connectivity, even the model board level stuff was very PC like. That’s ultimately why it got hacked, which we can talk about that in a different story.

So there was a lot of [working with the] API, and wondering what would it look like, and then there was a lot of helping developers. Because if you know how the hardware works, and if you know internally what it’s doing, you can kind of go away and help developers do the best games they can.

That’s really the point at which I left Microsoft, I was just going and helping people, and I started my own company then, I’m just going to go help all these people make X-Box games. And in doing that, I ended up doing a lot of work on PlayStation, because a lot of the games were developed on PlayStation and then needing an Xbox port. I ultimately ended up knowing a lot about the PlayStation 2, and it was the exact opposite of what the X-Box was. It was a dedicated vector unit, and a dedicated GPU, and you did everything in software. You did your own DMA, your own everything. It was like, there’s a bunch of registers, go to town. And that was the PlayStation model, and it kind of still is, as much as they can get away with it in a the constriction of an operating system.

I really enjoyed programming the PlayStation, so I went off and worked for Insomniac for a lot of years. I did their PlayStation 2 Ratchet [& Clank] engine, I did their entire PlayStation 3 engine, and did some of their PS4 engine too. It was great, all that was great. And that’s how I got into Sony, so Insomniac was one of the first people to get access to the PS3, maybe one of the first companies in the U.S. to be honest, and I was working with Mark Cerny, and we spent a lot of time in Japan working on the PS3, before it was NVIDIA. They had their own GPU for a long time, which is also a whole other story we can go in to, at some point.

So that’s kind of how I did it, I’ve always bounced around, hardware, graphics, and I’ve done a lot, since I’ve been doing my own company, outside of the game space. I’ve done a lot of work with big data flow, image processing, more recently machine vision and things like driving cameras on the NVIDIA Jetson, and things like that. And doing custom Linux builds for various pieces of hardware and custom drivers within that Linux build, for various pieces of hardware. So my entire career has bounced around graphics on all sides. It’s kind of come full circle for me, it’s everything I’ve always worked on, is now common. Where it used to be these little disjoint things.

Ben: I’m going to talk about the Gameboard 1 in a minute here, but I’m curious about the experience of actually playing these games. Do you find yourself going in and playing the games, or do you find that it’s more about, let’s get this functioning and then moving on?

Rob: I don’t really play games much anymore. I don’t like violent games.

Never really liked first person shooters. For the most part, [that’s] all there is today in the AAA market. You get the odd oddball like Spider-Man, which was great, [but] the last games I really enjoyed working on were the Ratchet and Clank games at Insomnia.

Since then it’s always been like, too many first person shooters, too much violence, and it’s not really my thing. If people make more casual games, more console quality platform games, I’d happily buy then and I’d happily play them, but they don’t. So I haven’t played games in a while, and I haven’t really been in the AAA game space for quite a while, I’ve been doing a lot of image processing and camera work. So the AAA space is now like, I have no idea what is going on to be honest.

But the casual games, and the fun elements of these small games, if I want to play for a bit [I can]. That’s kind of one of the driving factors that took me to the Gameboard, because that’s the sort of gameplay you’re going to get: board gameplay, interactive boardgames. You’re kind of going back to these smaller games, you’re not committed to violence for 80 hours straight. You might play for 80 hours, but it’s not violence for 80 hours.

Ben: Yeah, I completely understand. I’ve stopped playing most console games, years and years ago, for similar reasons. And find myself, when I am gaming, I’m playing D&D, or I’m doing boardgames.

Rob: I think a lot of people are doing that now. The amount of people that play D&D and boardgames, or make their own boardgames and then play that, it’s insane. There’s definitely an untapped market there, which the big console players are not even interested in.

Ben: So do you find yourself with the time to play boardgames at all, or is this a case more of appreciating that people do it?

Rob: It’s a bit of both. I have a daughter […] and we play a lot of boardgames with her. She likes playing boardgames. It’s that social thing, I mean first person shooters, although they have an online experience, they’re not social at all. The whole idea of social media isn’t social, because it’s locking you in your room, by yourself. Where, when you play games, or you play with your kids, or your friends bring their kids, it’s a full social experience. You could do so much better if you had digital versions of these games, where they’re interactive and they respond back, but you still get that social element because people have to be there.

You sit around one table, around one board, and you’re playing a game together. And it’s a real good family time, it’s good social interaction. It’s quality time for everybody. So that’s really, and I think if you combined the two, if you combined the core gameplay type systems that you got in the earlier console games, with the board game mentality, and the way you play boardgames, there’s a totally untapped market there, that no one’s ever even considered. You could do arcade style boardgames, what does that even mean, I don’t know, but you can.

Ben: Someone has to invent it.

Rob: Yeah exactly. What does it mean to do an interactive arcade-type board game? Is it even a thing, is it just an arcade game at that point? What is it? I have no idea.

Obviously you could do air hockey, and you could have me and you just bouncing off things, a puck around the board game, and it’s responding at 100 frames a second. So it’s super interactive.

And then you playing some other thing at the side, which gives you an object, which appears on the screen, it could be a physical object, it could be a digital object, but now you’ve got to avoid that while you’re playing air hockey. It’s like real air hockey with things in a way. And it’s like, where does this go, I think once you open this up as a toolkit of components, that a developer can put together, you’re going to see gameplay which we’ve never even thought of. Which is why [the company] is trying to step out of everyone’s way. We can do A, B and C on the technology side, you guys put it together in a way that make sense. There’s the obvious use, there’s the arcade play, and there’s the traditional board game where we know what piece you’re playing and where. But what else is out there?

Rob: I have this demo, which has never been seen outside of the office, where it’s basically a physical water simulation, so you can draw barriers and things on the screen, and you can pour water in it, and it flows around. But then you can get like a plastic piece which is a funnel, and you’ve got to try and catch all the water into the funnel, and you’ve got all these physical pieces that you can put down on the screen, to make basically canals and things. And you’ve got to kind of guide the water in the physical funnel. It’s an absolute blast to play, and it’s basically a puzzle game, but you’re playing with physical pieces. It’s not a board game at all, it’s not an arcade game, but it’s got arcade mechanics, and it’s got board mechanics. It’s very much like a mousetrap type game, where you’ve got all these weird plastic pieces which are physical pieces. You’re putting them on the screen to try and catch and guide the water in various ways. It’s a gameplay which has never existed, which it’s fascinating that we can be this far into games, and these mechanics which have never been experienced.

Ben: I’m curious, I want to follow up a little. There’s the display, there’s the console, there’s the sense screen, but also this aspect of physicality and how you see these actual tactile pieces being an important part of the ecosystem and the social experience that you’re wanting to create. Why is physicality important?

Rob: Because otherwise it’s just digital, it’s just a big iPad isn’t it?

Ben: Yeah.

Rob: If you don’t have the physical pieces, all we’re building is a tablet with fancy functions. Let’s now cut to the chase, the sense screen is the tech that we’re really putting into this, that is our IP, and everything else is just a tablet for the most part. It’s got a battery, and it’s got USB, and it runs Android, how much of a tablet do you want to be. It’s a tablet that’s big, and it’s square. And the square is actually really important, some of the early tests that we made, some of the early prototypes, were 15 by 9, because we couldn’t get a square screen, and everyone’s immediate response was, it’s a tablet, why is that not an iPad, it’s just a big Kindle, it’s a big iPad. We heard it over and over and over again.

And it’s funny, as soon as we went and got the square screens made, and went to the square screen it immediately became a board game, no one even asks anymore, is it just a big tablet? But realistically, yeah, it’s a square tablet, with a very fancy screen. And our IP is in the screen. And without the physicality of the pieces, it’s just a big tablet, you’re playing digital games which already exist. The fun comes in when you can literally play the pieces on the screen.

There’s also lots of other gameplay mechanics that you could factor into this as well. The pieces have RFID but they’re compatible with NFC. You can interact with them on your phone. You can have a piece, you can have a customized app for your phone where you can, imagine it to be like a pet, where you can keep it alive, you can program it, and you can do all things, feed it XP, from your phone, not even using the tablet. But this piece is now, the piece has the XP in it, not the server, or not some logged in account, it’s actually in the piece. So you could trade these pieces, you could build with the XP wizard, and then trade it. Because your wizard looks like this wizard, but it’s unique because it’s got a different XP.

The physicality and the way we can deal with the physicality fits very much into some of the D&D type play, and some of the mechanics that are required. And it doesn’t need to be online, that’s another big feature. You could be in the middle of nowhere and it all still works.

Another example of gameplay here, would be, I want to cast a spell, but I have the spell on my phone, so I’m going to take my wizard off the board, I’m going to program, the wizard with the spell, on my phone, where it’s all private, it’s on a private screen, you can’t see what’s going on, and then I’m going to play the wizard, and you guys don’t know what that spell is going to be until I actually play the wizard piece.

There’s lots of mechanics you can do. And then you build this into the high speed play, and you’ve got turn based play, you’ve got board game type play, you’ve got high speed arcade play, you’ve got interacting with your phone and these physical piece, where you can program them offline and program them on the board.

How you put it together is up to you, as a developer, to make the game you want to make. It’s not, we’re not saying every game has to have a physical piece, every game has to be a board game. We’re saying, we have these tools.

Ben: You talked a little bit earlier about how the limitations or design choices of a platform sort of create what’s possible on it. How do you differentiate this kind of experience, from say some of the people who are coming to market with a fully AR- type experience, where they have this dimensionality, but it’s entirely virtual.

Rob: [Gameboard-1] is able to interact with AR, because we give them a good location device. There’s the board, finding the board in an AR test set is quite easy. So now they can put virtual pieces on our board, and on their board too. And I think you’ll hear announcements in the near future, that we are looking at some AR partners where they can do that. So you can have a physical piece that’s AR based, and not actually physical.

For example, imagine you’re playing chess, it’s a boring game, but imagine you’re playing chess with somebody remotely. So you’ve got your physical pieces on the board, but you’re playing remotely. [They have] their physical pieces on their board, and you only see a digital version of their pieces, and they see a digital version of your pieces. Now if you have an AR headset, you could see a 3D representation of their pieces, while yours are still physical. So you see the board as it would be if you were playing side by side. And I think that’s a better use case, because you’re probably alone doing this, because you’re playing with someone remotely. If there was someone here, you’d play with them here [and not need AR].

[But] AR is kind of not a social thing. If you’re in a social experience where you’re all sitting around one board game, does that mean you all will need AR headsets, and you’re all going to walk around like idiots with headsets on your head, to play a game? Why don’t you just play a game physically, like we’ve always played games.

It seems to be, like AR for boardgames, is technology for technology sake. Which is what 3D TV’s were. It’s never going to work in the social experience. 3D TV’s you go around someone’s house and they’re all sitting there wearing glasses, and there’s not a spare set, so you can’t join [00:30:00] in. So it’s immediately antisocial to the people who are not involved. AR is the same, if you go to someone’s house, and they’ve all got headsets on looking at the dining room table, and there’s nothing on it, what are you going to do, as the person not playing. You’re not involved at all, it’s not social at all. It’s really exclusionary if you don’t have the kit on your head.

Playing physical boardgames is open to everybody, you can just show up and you play, and you leave and they keep playing without you. The only cost of entry is a social experience, which everyone kind of craves.

Ben: This gets us down to this core question, that you’ve come back to, an issue you’ve come back to several times, of a social experience. Is is it fair to say that the Gameboard 1 is for people who are looking for that kind of classic, actual, real social experience. Not like Facebook social, where you’re sitting along just scrolling through a feed.

Rob: Yeah.

Ben: It’s people who want to connect.

Rob: True social experiences. Yeah you want to connect, I want my friends to come over, people have game nights all the time. People have card nights, and game nights. There’s a bar in Denver, where it’s basically, you go in and you get a drink and you just sit with somebody and you play boardgames, and it’s literally, the entire bar is setup as a social board game experience place. And it’s incredibly popular, and we just want to digitize that social experience of game night. We’re not creating a new market, people are already doing this, we’re just giving them a better platform to do it on.

Ben: A platform that allows them to extend and expand what’s possible, rather than limiting them to a particular experience, that kind of puts them in a box?

Rob: It’s basically the digital space with physical interaction. So it gives you the benefit of, you still have the social game night, you’re still all sitting around having a beer, playing games and doing whatever you would do, if you were playing a real board game, but now with your digital board game. You can change it, you can do what you wish, you can bring your custom pieces that you’ve programmed at home, for your wizards for your D&D game, and you can do whatever you want to do. It’s still the social experience of game night, with an entire different architecture.

Ben: I want to just project forward to the future—we’re on the third or the fourth iteration of the hardware, we’re several years down the road, and we have early backers from the current Kickstarter campaign who have their original smart wizard miniatures, that are going to unlock some cool new features, and in your best of all possible worlds, how do you feel like the Gameboard has evolved? Say it’s 2029, if everything just goes brilliantly, what’s possible with this platform?

Rob: The goal is to keep it always to be a physical interaction. So over time the pieces are going to get better, the interaction with the pieces is going to get better, the boards might get bigger.

Going forward, the app compatibility is the key all along the way, so your piece you have for Gameboard 1, will work on Gameboard 5, and cross play between manufacturers, and cross play between games. So if you have this piece from this game, you can get special features in this game. And that could be done all at the back end, with publishers and marketers can figure that out by themselves. But that’s the sort of thing we want to encourage. If you take these pieces and play it with this game, and we know what every piece is, and we know what game it belongs to, so we know what the pieces are.

It’s kind of like a dongle, we know it’s the correct piece, so you do get the benefits, because you have all these pieces. And if you want to collect pieces, put all 10 pieces you’ve collected from 10 games on the board, and get something for free. Whatever it may be. There’s lots of social backend things you can do, based on knowing that you have physical pieces.

Ben: So it’s sort of like the Marvel shared cinematic universe, where-

Rob: Yeah, exactly that.

Ben: You have all of these different games or pieces, but the ability to draw them together for a team-up, because the architecture is compatible.

Rob: Yes, and the pieces are compatible. You’ve got game A and game B from two different games, you can now make a third game [that recognizes] all the pieces and they all play nicely together. And I think to answer your question of where we’d be in 10 years, I’d like to see it where, if you buy a physical board game, it just comes with Gameboard tags built in. There’s no questions about it, you buy a physical game board, a paper, cardboard game board, pick a game, all the pieces you get, are just inherently made for Gameboard. And you play with it on a paper board, as you normally would, it’s just a regular game piece as far as the cardboard board is concerned, but then if you get the digital version of the game, all those pieces you already have from the traditional board game, just work on the Gameboard 1, or Gameboard 10 at this point.

Ben: That’s an amazing vision.

Rob: There’s a long way to go to get there, but I think you’ve got to start somewhere, and that’s where we’re starting. And that’s one reason why we’re letting people program their own games. We actually want it to be an inclusive thing.

Right now, [prototyping] a board game is really expensive. We’re going to make a construction kit for the Gameboard 1, where you can use a PC or a Mac, or Linux or whatever, or maybe the Gameboard itself, to make an actual game board, and you can program tags. So you can prototype your game board on the Gameboard 1, for your new custom boardgames, without having to print things. So the whole idea of construction kits and making new boardgames, and new gameplay experiences, is all part of the scope of the platform.

Ben: That’s pretty revolutionary, for game designers. Having that kind of suite of tools available to just iterate so quickly.

Rob: Yeah, 3D print an object, put a tag in it, program the tag, and now we know it’s this object, it’s this, it’s that, and you can design your game around that. And at some point, okay this is my game, this is how it’s played, you can test it. You can test it with friends, you can print physical pieces. When you happy with it, you get the pieces made, and we put the tags in it. And I think that’s how you get the traditional players involved. Because imagine in five years where all new boardgames are Gameboard friendly, because they were designed on the Gameboard. Even if you playing the paper copy, it was still designed to really be played on the Gameboard, and the pieces all have the tags built in.

Ben: That brings up one other piece, where I’ve seen comments from backers, and I’ve seen people wondering about, they’re saying, well if this is RFID, is it going to be too slow? Could you clarify a little bit about how the sense screen senses the pieces, and that it’s a combination of, the data that comes from the RFID, but the screen itself is actually able to refresh and to sense those pieces as an incredibly high frame rate, is that correct?

Rob: Yes, the RFID is only used to identify the piece. We read the tag, and that’s the data. So we know what tags are present, and then we know from the touch what tags are present. The sense screen is doing all of the high speed acquisition through capacitive manipulation. We know what the pieces are, and we know where the pieces are, we know where they are at high speed, 100 hertz, from the capacitive manipulation of the screen, and we have a very custom capacitive console, which is not standard, which is part of our sense screen tech. Where we decode a lot of this with machine learning to know what the pieces are. And that’s all done at really high speed.

To get the data we have to do an RFID read, and that isn’t terribly fast, but we don’t have to do it very fast, because once the piece is seen, we’ve read it, we know what the piece is, we don’t need to see its data, we’re not changing it on the fly. The actual localization of the piece is done through capacitive manipulation, and the combination of the cap manipulation and the RFID tell us where the piece is, and tell us what the piece is.

Ben: Final question. How does a Gameboard 1 inspire your imagination. Like, how would you, at ten years old, have been inspired by this product? 

I think it’s a combination of everything we’ve already talked about. Imagine playing your new favorite board game that you got for your birthday, but it’s interactive. And it can play with you, and it can respond to things you do, and the game changes based on what you do.

That comes back to the social circle, or physically being social and not online. I think given that inherent training, that kids have had since being three or four years old, [with] interactive screens, interaction, it only makes sense for a board game to be interactive and have an interactive screen. And play with a physical piece on a game board, it’s just an extension of what people expect, it’s just never been done.

Ben: Brilliant. Well thank you so much for your time!

Rob: Cool, thanks. Great talking to you.