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GDC 2009 Winds of Orbis Hands On

April 17th, 2009 by

Winds of Orbis

Winds of Orbis is a game with a simple premise: a classically-styled action-adventure game that uses a dance pad and Wiimote. These two factors combine to make a game that is highly recognizable in terms of gameplay on the screen, and is good for your health in your living room. The game turned out to be what we expected to see based on the information found on their website, but we learned a lot about the philosophy behind their game design as well as specifics about how the controls work when we encountered the game in person.

When you spend time talking to both game developers and players who are in their late twenties and early thirties about how they got interested in video games, there are a few themes that repeatedly come up. One of these is the Nintendo classic, Legend of Zelda, which hit American shelves in 1987: about the time this generation of gamers was hit elementary and middle school. What you hear over and over again is the intense experience the game provided. How they actually felt a real connection to the world of Hyrule, and cared about it’s future. Speaking to the creators of Winds of Orbis, it was clear that they wanted to reach out to kids like themselves, who were inclined to sit in living room and become passionate about a fantasy game world, and give them that sort of experience. Without letting them sit down.

A lot of IGF finalists become finalists because the gameplay within their games was new and different. Winds of Orbis is a visually rich and beautifully scored game, but the fact is that it’s a standard action-adventure game. Winds of Orbis was something of an odd duck at the IGF because that’s what the Carnegie Melon team wanted. There’s quite a rift between a couch potato gamer kid and exercise, but the idea is that a familiar Zelda-style game can bridge that gap.

Somehow I don't think this will mesh well with arthritic knees
Sometimes naturalistic controls means looking a little silly.
But that’s okay

Seeking to make “an exercises game that didn’t suck”, the CMU team spoke to pediatricians when designing the control scheme for the game who said that games like DDR got kids up and moving and very active were really good, and the team selected the dance pad as a main part of the control setup. They picked the nunchucked-Wiimote for the hand controls, and ended up with controls that let the player control the game through very naturalistic motions, particularly once they chose to rotate the dance pad 45 degrees into a diamond rather than a square.

The two controllers combined provided context sensitivity to the control scheme. One example of this we discussed was the punch: the input for a punch is to step forward onto one of three attack buttons with a foot and to make a punching motion with either the right or left hand. Neither the foot command alone nor the punch alone will signal the need to punch to the game: you have to have both. This means that when kids are fooling around idly with the Wiimote they’re not randomly attacking, but it also means that the game experiences fewer problems with the Wiimote being janky; that’s right, by hitting one of the attack buttons with a foot, you finally get to say “Hey! Listen!” back to the console, and make it pay attention to the Wiimote.

Other examples of controls included jogging in place, which makes you run faster (you default to walking and turning with the thumbstick on the nunchuck), doing a jumping jack to do a jump, crawling in place to crawl, and a wall climbing motion with hands and feet to climb walls. The wall climb turned out to be one of the most exerting motions in the games, but also among their playtesters’ favorite. If they really want to encourage healthy competition, they could have a leaderboard for a 100-yard wall climb. There is also an homage to Dance Dance Revolution embedded in the spellcasting system, where the button you need to hit comes flying at you. Unlike in DDR, however, the symbols on the screen come in the same arrangement as the symbols on the pad, making them spacially correlated 1:1. The game eschews the Wii’s sensor bar (the game is currently coded for the PC) and just uses the accelerometers in the controllers, making the of controls related to the Wiimote sensitive to the motion of the controller rather than if it’s pointed correctly at the screen.

These graduate students lost some weight themselves playtesting the game.
From left to right:
Brad McKinley, Nate Morgan, Seth Sivak,
Ryan Hipple, and Garth Deangelis.
Not pictured: Zikun Fan
Photo by Kate McKiernan

There was a pretty big crowd around the Winds of Orbis booth at the GDC, and we wanted to know how hard it was to get kids to pick up the game. When playtested with their target demographic, 7-9 year olds, boys and girls alike picked up the game right away and really got into it, with an estimated 95% of them making it to the end of the 20 minute demo level wanting to continue playing. Bringing it to high schools presented the developers with a much more skeptical audience, as high school students are perhaps the second most “looking silly” averse group after middle schoolers. The game managed to win some converts, however, and people who said they would never play it said that they would give the game a chance after all. When brought to the Tokyo Game Show, Winds of Orbis managed to break through both cultural barriers and the self importance that comes with wearing a suit, getting Japanese salary men happy to play this new type of game.

While Winds of Orbis was certainly a hit at the GDC, there are barriers for this team of students to overcome before this title is viable for hitting the market. We’ll have to wait and see if they get the financial backing they need to continue with the project, but the demo alone certainly serves as proof of concept for an exercise game that is appealing to kids. It also shows that there’s room for innovation in game design within the realm of games aimed at children: while they were not the only game suitable for all ages, Winds of Orbis was the only game targeted at a young audience.

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