Play Patterns, Character Interactions, and AR

Do you remember the Burger King web game, Subservient Chicken? A man in a chicken costume performed a wide range of actions based on the user’s input, showing pre-recorded footage. There were more than 300 commands that the “chicken” could follow. I remember watching a 7-year-old type, “Show me your butt,” and of course the subservient chicken did just that. It was hilarious.

This type of gameplay appeals enormously to kids because, at its core, controlling another character’s actions is highly empowering. Providing them with experiences in which they are the “boss” of another person, whether digital or real life, is immediately appealing. (I know many grownups for whom it works similarly.)

I believe that controlling increasingly life-like virtual characters will be at the heart of the most successful Augmented Reality (AR) experiences, and that classic play patterns will point the way towards satisfying gameplay and interactions.

With the advent of ARKit (Apple) and ARCore (Google), we have a new generation of 3D virtual characters to enjoy. Pet simulators are popular…surprise, surprise. Dress, feed, and play with Tamagotchi–like pets. The big difference is that these characters appear superimposed in your physical environment, as seen through your mobile phone. Keep up their “happy” meter, or they’ll run/fly away. These new AR virtual pets seem more life-like because they appear in the real world, and thus even more compelling to children.

You also control, albeit indirectly, virtual characters in HitPoint/Legacy’s new first-person game, Color BlastAR, on Apple’s ARKit. (A BIG update just launched, with extra-scary Halloween-themed graphics.) This fun walk-around AR game for kids of all ages combines tag and paintball with dragons, gnomes, yetis, zombies, and more for a very active experience!

Working on Color BlastAR has encouraged me to draw on other design inspirations, like classic outdoor multiplayer games, when thinking about virtual character interactions. What are some other interfaces, environments, and gameplay patterns that are relevant in designing an AR game?

  1. Back to Subservient Chicken. What if we could directly control virtual characters, with simple commands (voice or text) like “turn around” or “touch your toes”? Could we re-create the game red light-green light with virtual characters? Could we control them with music, e.g., the character dances until we turn off the music, or as in musical chairs? Or perhaps we control them with our movement. As long as we continue to move our arms, the character will move.
  2. Similarly, what if virtual characters could interact with each other, not just with the player? In Color BlastAR, I’d love to add a new gameplay mode – freeze tag. Once you color in a creature it remains frozen until another creature touches it, and unfreezes it! Meanwhile, you are still racing around trying to color all the zombies, orcs, dragons, ghosts, etc. before you get “chomped.” Would be frenetic but super fun!
  3. I wish virtual characters were able to interact more with their physical environment. Unfortunately, occlusion doesn’t work well with ARKit and ARCore…yet. Characters walk through each other as well as through physical objects in their path. But even before occlusion is solved, the phone still knows something about the environment. We could use day/night, inside/outside, GPS data, etc. to make characters smarter about where they are and change up the gameplay accordingly. Maybe we make the ghosts in Color BlastAR only appear when you play outside at night?
  4. Is it possible to combine target based and world-sensing AR so that virtual characters can interact with signs and symbols on the ground? I’d start with a virtual robot game, where it reacts to the symbols I draw in chalk (e.g., arrows) on the ground. If the robot steps off the correct path due to faulty programming logic, they disappear! (Naturally, you could control a virtual robot through programming from your phone as well.) Next we’ll be playing hopscotch with a zombie and designing mazes for our virtual friends!
  5. What if virtual characters were invisible, while playing Hide and Seek or Marco Polo? You follow puzzle clues, both visual and auditory clues, until you get close enough to reveal the hidden character (who then pops out and scares the s— out of you!) Or perhaps you find the invisible character by throwing color or light around, and if it intersects with the character, that part of them is now visible. I’m smiling just thinking about it.

I haven’t discussed sports games with virtual characters, which could be massive, especially once AR Cloud and multiplayer is implemented in ARKit and ARCore. I’d love to let kids play Color BlastAR together, teaming up to paint the creature horde in tandem. (It’s on the road map.)

How important do you think interacting with virtual characters is to future AR gameplay?