SurfaceScapes Revisited: Maps and Dice and Orcs (Oh, My!)

Geek Culture

The team of students attempting to turn a Microsoft Surface table into a platform for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns made a lot of progress since GeekDad highlighted the project last fall. An updated video released in December shows an adventure in progress, complete with miniatures, maps, virtual dice, and a DM control panel. And Orcs.

SurfaceScapes Gameplay Session (December 16, 2009)

SurfaceScapes is a proof-of-concept designed and engineered by nine students at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University. The software attempts to support normal role play by automating the calculations and animating the battles in a geographic space. Keeping with the D&D culture, the Dungeon Master pulls the strings on encounters with monsters and treasures from behind a protected screen … in this case, a networked laptop.

The project began as a student pitch to the CMU faculty last year, buoyed by a later meeting with Microsoft representatives at a conference. Since the release of the first video, feedback from geeks around the world has been positive. Individual D&D traditions range, making it difficult to please both those who want to feel the dice and those happy to let Surface help them out. The sometimes contradictory suggestions for new features have stimulated the design process.

Team members share their own varied perspective on the game, from a naive understanding to those who campaigned regularly for a couple decades. By lowering the barriers to play, more levels of participation can be supported. You don’t need to know the rules of D&D to use SurfaceScapes. Casual gamers can jump into battles as easily as the more dedicated adventurers. The magic moment for everyone, though, came during the first 20-minute game session.

“It was like, ‘Wow, we made this,'” teammate Michael Cole recalls.

Relax. Nothing ever happens at first level.

For GeekDads, playing a module or two on SurfaceScapes is half the fun. The other half would be using the technology as gateway drug to get the next generation of geeks to play, too.

Kids have not been heavy users of the prototype, but the few who have interacted with SurfaceScapes quickly adapted to the interface. They may have benefited from the streamlining of the calculation that can bog down the narrative, particularly for those not familiar with the game. Kids also respond well to the tactile interactions.

This is to be expected given the origins of Surface as an educational platform for children. The platform has four key capabilities that make it ideal for kids:

  1. The size of the table (30 inches) invites many users to manipulate data simultaneously.
  2. The massive multi-touch interactions handle many more geometries than other touch-screen devices.
  3. Physical objects can become associated with on-screen data.
  4. It encourages direct interaction, where people can grab at what they see without using an intermediary device, like a mouse or keyboard.

In short, Surface lets kids play together and grab lots of stuff.

Microsoft User Experience Director August de los Reyes recalls a conference where the 4-year-old child of a speaker was playing with the Water screen saver. It seemed so real, the kid paused to see if his hand was wet.

“Lots of adults are kids, too,” Reyes reminds us. “It never fails when people come in contact with Surface, they turn into 12-year-olds.”

In gaming theory, life’s a die, and then you bitch

Eric Havir, manager of digital communication for Surface, argues the buzz around the CMU project is more than the novelty of the technology. “SurfaceScapes is innovative in a number of ways. They found what’s appropriate for the use, and use the right tool for the right job.”

D&D is a group activity where people share focus on a common narrative and playing space, qualities that fit nicely with what Surface has to offer. When running campaigns, the DM has a cardboard shield to hide his master maps and character sheets. The design team addressed this by avoiding Surface and giving the DM a separate laptop. Even the object recognition capabilities fit the D&D culture, where players cherish their miniatures as extensions of their character personas.

“In retail or hospitals,” says Havir, “people are more likely to walk off with things.”

Future enhancements may include channels for private communication between the DM and individual players, possibly through iPhones. Part of the focus for this semester is to develop a level builder, to allow DMs to get beyond the original story set in a forest and a cave. “We don’t want to take away from the power of the Dungeon Master to create,” says former CMU team member Michael Lewis.

A fight to the death with a vampire has a few inherent problems

Before you rush out to update your holiday wish list, realize that several obstacles stand between you and your gadget-driven RPG experience.

For starters, Surface is not a mobile unit. You can’t pack it up with your miniatures and head out the door to meet your friends. Every physical move requires a couple people, some peripheral equipment, and recalibration when the table reaches its new destination. “It’s a lot of work to move,” admits programmer Michael Cole.

It is also a significant investment to acquire the device that can run SurfaceScapes. Most of Surface’s early adopters are retailers, hotels, and research institutions, such as CMU. A single unit runs upwards of $15,000, making it a bit more unobtainable than an iPhone or even the rumored Apple Tablet. This isn’t pizza money (unless you are buying 2,000 pies).

Finally, while there has been some interest by companies to turn it into a commercial product, SurfaceScapes remains an academic enterprise. Most of the team members are in their second year with plans to graduate, leaving the future of the project uncertain. The long-term value for the design students is the experience working with a new kind of interaction.

Perhaps the best way you can reap the benefits of the team’s hard work is to head to Pittsburgh and volunteer for a user test. So far, the game has been evaluated only by fellow students, friends, and a few guests visiting ETC. The SurfaceScapes team will also be at PAX East in Boston on March 26-28.

Many thanks to Richard Chen for arranging interviews with representatives from both Microsoft and CMU, and to August de los Reyes, Eric Havir, Dyala Kattan-Wright, Michael Cole, Bulut Karakaya, and Michael Lewis for taking time to talk with me about the project and the technology. Also, thanks to for the great D&D quotes in the titles.

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