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GamerTell Interview: Sifteo’s David Merrill talks about the Sifteo Cubes

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The Sifteo Cubes are neat. When you first see pictures of the devices, you wonder how one could possibly manage to play a game with a group of cubes that sense movement, have touch screens and require at least three for its apps. Then, you see it in action and everything starts to click. It stops being a neat little curiosity to something you’d want to try, perhaps buy or even develop games for, which is pretty cool.

At least, that’s what GamerTell thought when it first heard about and saw the Sifteo Cubes. Which lead to our interview with Sifteo co-founder and Sifteo Cubes co-creator David Merrill. Read on to learn more about the Sifteo Cubes and what they can do.

GamerTell: How did Sifteo come up with the concept of the Sifteo Cubes?

David Merrill: The original idea for Sifteo Cubes was born when Jeevan Kalanithi (Sifteo co-founder) and I were thinking about future interfaces and human capabilities, while sitting in the kitchen at the MIT Media Lab when we were graduate students. We wondered: what if interacting with computers could be like jamming your hands into a pile of LEGOs or arranging alphabet blocks? Human hands are so skilled at manipulating real three-dimensional objects, and we imagined what it would be like if information and media could be handled in a similar way, projecting forward to all kinds of uses – it was an amazing and productive brainstorm. That initial vision for a new kind of user interface evolved into the tactile game system you can get today through the efforts of Sifteo’s talented engineering and product development team. The second-gen Sifteo Cubes improve upon the first; they were conceived in a team brainstorm focused on the question: how can we make the first-generation Sifteo experience better, totally portable, and lower-cost? Most teams would take a challenge like this and say “ok, pick two” – but we did all three! The result is a modern marvel of engineering, and a system that truly instantiates the original vision.

GT: How does this new generation of Sifteo Cubes compare to the originals?

Merrill: The new system is way better. The key difference is that the new cubes are totally portable (they don’t require your computer), so they’re good for play on the go – anywhere. They also have better graphics, tighter response time, and a lower price. To accomplish this, we had to completely redesign everything. We are also making and publishing games that go far beyond anything on the first-gen system in terms of gameplay mechanics, graphics, and depth.

GT: When I look at the Sifteo Cubes, I can’t help thinking edutainment. Is this intentional and would you consider it a learning device first and an entertainment device second, or is it more balanced than it appears?

Merrill: Sifteo Cubes are for fun – they’re an entertainment system in the tradition of the Wii, but portable. That said, our focus on Intelligent Play means that Sifteo games are smart experiences that players (kids, adults, families) can feel fine about. They are made for fun, but exercise thinking skills because of what the system is and how it works – hand and mind working together is good for you.

GT: What is the most unexpected function or characteristic of the Sifteo Cubes?

Merrill: When someone first plays with Sifteo cubes, the most unexpected and awesome function is how they recognize each other when they get close (neighboring). That was the feature that we first realized was pure magic when the system was being developed. It allows for a bunch of everyday actions – arranging, stacking, pouring to work in a way that no other interactive system can do. This video shows some of these possibilities that we are exploring:

GT: About how many games and apps can be stored in the Sifteo Cubes at once?

Merrill: 10-20 games can fit on the Sifteo Base, depending on their size.

GT: How many cubes does someone need if they get the Sifteo Cubes? I know it comes with three, but the website says people can expand to up to 12.

Merrill: We design all of our games to be great on three cubes, since we know that every player has at least three. Three cubes is a great experience, and you really don’t need more than that. When you do have more than three though, games expand in ways that are unique and appropriate to each game – usually with expanded mechanics or additional content.

GT: How does gameplay change when 12 cubes are available?

Merrill: There are a few games like BlissBomb and Sandwich Kingdom that can make full use of up to 12 cubes. In BlissBomb, an ambient music exploration app the pulsating pattern shown on the cube screens changes depending on how many cubes you’ve neighbored together. It’s a different pattern, and different musical track, for each number of cubes all the way up to 12. In Sandwich Kingdom, the more cubes you have the more of the map you can view at the same time. In Code Cracker, Chroma Splash and Word Caravan there are groups of puzzles that are made specifically for more than three cubes. I must say – it is fun to have a ton of cubes! At the office we play with big sets all the time.

GT: Is there any kind of multiplayer aspect?

Merrill: Sifteo Cubes are natural for multiplayer games, since the interface is a bunch of individual objects. One thing we noticed when we began to develop games and test them is that almost any game on Sifteo Cubes can become “passively” multiplayer when more than one person is around, especially kids. It’s easy to see what’s happening while someone plays, then reach in to move a cube and help solve a puzzle – something that just isn’t possible on other gamepad-type systems.

There are also games that are “actively” designed for multiplayer on the system. Bleep is a party game made by Cipher Prime that just launched, inspired by Bloop for iPad, and is like a cross between twister and slapjack. There are a bunch more games in the pipeline that will also be made for multiplayer, stay tuned.

GT: Do you worry about competition from the 3DS, Vita, Android tablets and iOS devices, since many are similarly priced or cheaper?

Merrill: Of course! Those devices are cheap and good for the kind of games they support, and any special-purpose system that tries to do what they do will encounter steep competition. We do think about them but I believe we have a great solution: make Sifteo games totally unique, totally different. We are building games that are just not possible on other gaming handhelds or mobile devices. The tactile, tabletop, easily-multiplayer experience on Sifteo Cubes cannot be duplicated on any other system, and that’s Sifteo’s secret.

GT: How many Sifteo Cube games are available right now and how quickly do you expect the device’s game library to expand?

Merrill: There are 8 games available right now for Sifteo Cubes. 5 games come as part of the system included in the purchase price, and 3 more are available in Sifteo Sync, our desktop software and marketplace. The library is expanding quickly, with a bunch of great new games in the pipeline now for release in 2013. Our internal studio is already working at full tilt on the next wave of games, and several published 3rd party indies and offshore studios are building new games. There are also game jams popping up all over, developing new experimental games on the system. 2013 is going to be a good year for Sifteo games!

GT: What are the highest and lowest prices for Sifteo Cube games, and are there any free apps/games for new buyers to enjoy?

Merrill: The highest is $12 (120 credits) and the lowest is free.

Each new Sifteo Cubes Interactive Game System comes with 4 games and a demo packed-in as part of the purchase price. Players also get a coupon they can redeem in our desktop software (Sifteo Sync) for a full copy of Sandwich Kingdom. There’s also currently a free game in the store, BlissBomb, made by a local San Francisco company Stimulant.


GT: Which Sifteo Cube game would you say is your favorite?

Merrill: Ah, I can never choose a favorite! That distinction is constantly changing for me.. Right now I am most excited to spend some quality time over the holidays with Ninja Slide, our recently-launched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, and Bleep, which I can get my whole family to play with me.

GT: How easy is it for people to obtain a dev kit if they wanted to make Sifteo Cube games?

Merrill: It’s super easy – and free! Developers can snag our excellent SDK from: sifteo.com/developers, and there is no specialized development hardware. It comes with a bunch of working code examples, and an emulator that is cycle accurate – your game will run on hardware if it runs in the “Siftulator”. Every Sifteo Cubes system can be used for development, and developers who make something cool can talk to us about next steps for distribution.

GT: Could you provide any hints at what kinds of Sifteo Cube games and apps we’ll be seeing in 2013? Are any famous developers working with the device?

Merrill: You’ll see a lot of cool new games in 2013. Richard Garfield, creator of the card-game sensation Magic: The Gathering, is designing a game with us for release in the early part of the year. Also building for Sifteo Cubes are: Cipher Prime, Nidhogg’s Messhof, and Johann Sebastian Joust makers Die Gute Fabrik in Copenhagen. Really creative designers and developers who love Sifteo’s new design possibilities have been eager to get going, so there will be some amazing experiences.

GT: Who would you say is the ideal Sifteo Cube user right now, based upon the currently available games and apps?

Merrill: Right now: Kids 7-12 and adults who love puzzle games. It’s a great gift for your brainy nephew or niece. Sifteo Cubes are a family-friendly gesture-based game system. When 2013 really gets rolling the available titles will expand to include more multiplayer party games, music games and collections of fast-paced mini-games, and titles with fiendishly challenging puzzles and out-of-this-world ambiance. It’ll be fun, see you there!

The latest incarnation of the Sifteo Cubes are immediately available through the Sifteo website and retailers like Toys R Us and Barnes and Noble. A three cube base set is $129.95 and a six cube set is $199.95. Extra cubes cost $29.95.

Site [Sifteo Cubes]

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