PlaneQuest brings the tabletop RPG to tablets with a Skylanders-like blend of toy and game
You hold in your hand a small, roughly two-inch tall figure of a half-dragon humanoid, attached to a round base. This is Marcellon of the Flame Ardent; he is on a heroic quest to right the wrongs done by dark angels and save his people. You place the base of the figure down onto the map, but this time is different.
This time, you're not setting a figure down onto pre-painted tiles or washable battlemap; you're not rolling dice or keeping stats on a piece of paper. This time, when you set your character onto the map, you're setting them onto a tablet, with a fully-realized digital world rendered before you. This time, you're playing PlaneQuest.
At the crossroads of digital and physical play
PlaneQuest is the first game from TabletTop Interactive, a Brisbane, Australia-based development house. Or rather, it will be TTI's first game, should it reach its Kickstarter goal of £150,000 (or just more than $230,000) over the next 35 days.
The game meshes physical and digital play by having players control their character via a miniature figure placed onto a touchscreen device's surface. You orient your character's direction and place on the map by turning and sliding it across the screen, and move along the map and attack by using your free hand.
Each character has a different set of attacks, which are performed with different touch gestures; the Tigron race, anthropomorphic tigers trained in martial arts, use flick gestures to send their weapons hurtling across the screen, while the angel-like Archons use touch-and-drag gestures to fire a beam from the circlet on their foreheads. Each race also has a special ability – in the case of the Draken, the dragon-people mentioned above, it's summoning a dragon from their home plane to rain fire down on all enemies in the area.
Chris Loh is head of production at TTI. His experience researching the tablet market is a large part of what drives the production behind PlaneQuest.
“For about four years, I did a lot of marketing, a bit of analysis, and I really had a very good feel of what was happening in Web and mobile,” Loh told the Report. “Since the start of 2010, with the emergence of the iPad, I've been focused very carefully and closely on this area. Tablets form incredible platforms for new content and utility, and our games, with TabletTop Interactive, they basically enhance the already superb kinetic and tactile nature of the gaming experience.”
I asked Loh if designing the game for use with physical figures presented any unique control challenges. After all, while a console's controller might be intimidating to some, it's immediately understandable that pushing buttons should do something. Loh said that by freeing themselves of the virtual joystick, the team was able to create an experience that could be immediately understood.
“The girl who is demonstrating some of the game play in the footage, she'd never touched it before. I gave it to her to use and play with, and she was happily smiling, and was quite surprised at the game play dynamics within a few seconds,” Loh told me.
In the end, you're playing pretend with toys. That's a pretty universal experience, and one that's easy to pick up.
Life on another plane
PlaneQuest bears more than a passing resemblance to Wizards of the Coast's Dungeons & Dragons, Privateer Press' Iron Kingdoms, or Paizo's Pathfinder tabletop RPGs. In many ways, it's the modern evolution of those games. “We think we are working on and developing what we think most tabletop games will look like in 2020,” Loh told the Report.
“It's been the same for decades,” he said. “It doesn't need to be constrained to turn-based play, you don't need to physically more around on an unchanging, static board, or on a fixed tabletop where you have to do everything manually and roll dice and do calculations. There is an opportunity for us to shift the tabletop to the tablet-top, and in that transition, unlock a lot of functionality.”
Still, after watching PlaneQuest in action, it's not hard to picture a digitized version of D&D, where players set miniatures representing their characters onto an appropriate surface and shuffle them about just as they would in traditional play.
Each figure could even hold information about a character's stats, equipment, and abilities. I asked Loh why he had decided to form TabletTop Interactive and create PlaneQuest as opposed to approaching Wizards or other companies with the intent of licensing the technology, or working in tandem to create a licensed product.
“Our arrangement is a licensing one for the underlying IP,” Loh explained. “On top of that, we've improved and enhanced and added a lot across the whole development process, so there's a lot of IP with TTI.”
Asaf Amit, head of technology for TabletTop Interactive, noted that this doesn't mean such a possibility is out of the question. “We do offer [the technology], at the moment, as a license. So we can offer it as a license to third-parties who want to develop similar games or technologies,” he said. “It's in its early phases of being a product, but the plan is to package it as an SDK and either offer it as pure license or partner with someone to develop the game.”
While I looked at PlaneQuest and saw my tabletop RPGs being brought to digital life, Loh and Amit admitted there was another game PlaneQuest was drawing comparisons to: Skylanders. “People say it with a question mark,” Loh told the Report. “They say, 'Is this like Skylanders?'”
“It's really surprising to us how successful Skylanders has been, considering there's next to no connectivity or interaction between the physical toy and the game itself. Parents and kids are spending a lot of money to purchase the miniatures or the toys, and they might use them once per game session to unlock an in-game character, but then they play using normal controls and a digital character,” Loh said. “You actually don't do much with the interaction between digital and physical.”
The news isn't all bad though. Skylanders has provided PlaneQuest a point of reference, and the game's proliferation has “grown a market that didn't exist” as Loh put it. Loh and Amit are confident they have the superior game, however; the interaction in their game is more dynamic, and miniatures aren't reduced to keys which unlock an in-game character that winds up being controlled by standard methods.
“Honestly, if 100,000 Skylanders players saw our game, I'm sure we'd have a massive conversion of those on-board,” Loh said.
A quest to save the planes
As of this writing, the Kickstarter funds raised thus far are a mere £1,828 – just over 1% of the needed £150,000. While it's still possible the project will make a turnaround, the situation is bleak. I asked the two men where things went wrong.
“The problem you have with putting anything on the Internet, is it's just a passive page that no one knows about,” Loh said. “I guess our problem is that we've been focused with our heads down on the game. Everyone's been working on making it look good and getting all the creative material together for the Kickstarter page itself - working on the video, editing and stuff.”
“We really should have spent months ahead of the launch doing marketing and promotion and getting into more conversations with journalists. Most campaigns launch with a 30 days thing, but we went for longer so it could do a soft run-up over a couple weeks and we could try to engage, talk to a lot more people. On review, it probably would have been better to hold off until we'd done more [getting the word out].”
Fortunately, the conversion rate for those who visit the game's Kickstarter is high, Amit said. “If we look at how many people look at our website and watch the video versus how many people pledged, it's quite good numbers.”
I asked Loh and Amit what they would do if the Kickstarter failed. We've seen other games persevere despite such failures and go on to find success, as well as projects which moved from Kickstarter to do their own, independent funding. Would we see PlaneQuest in some other form? Loh and Amit didn't have an answer just yet, but even if the Kickstarter fails, they'll be satisfied if they piqued an interest.
“It's such a shame in a way, that everything's gone digital: music, videos, and everything. You don't even have to touch anything physical,” Loh said. “It's really nice having mementos or reminders of the album you enjoy, the video, or in our case, the game.”