Club Caveman Raises the Bar for iPad Storytelling

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Club CavemanClub Caveman

Club Caveman is an interactive kids game that puts movie-quality animation into the iPad (source: Caffeine-Free)

As evident by the number of posts on GeekDad featuring such projects, Kickstarter is a great source for interesting and cutting-edge innovation in areas of gaming and technology. One recent campaign is trying to elevate kids’ engagement with narrative by expanding the range of user interaction and quality of game animation.

Club Caveman features a British-sounding narrator guiding the participant into a forest in search of a simple-minded caveman, Club. The caveman reacts to the player through touch, voice and motion language and evolves as the story progresses. The iPad application-in-progress was inspired by instructional Disney shorts where Goofy demonstrates a topic (like how to play baseball).

On the surface, Club Caveman is reminiscent of Talking Tom Cat, a popular download by parents for their kids and hit in the Entertainment genre of the App Store. Instead of call-and-response mimicry and overt buttons to trigger actions, however, Club has to deal with speech recognition and the orientation of the iPad. Most importantly, the animation takes one giant leap forward.

“As a professional animator, I see the quality of the animation there and how popular it is,” says Paul Schoeni, “and I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I get some of my friends together, we can do better than that.'”

In building one of the first applications to take advantage of the high-definition screens on the new iPad tablets, Caffeine-Free — the production company behind Club Caveman — has the pedigree to raise the bar. The creative team of Hyrum Osmond (Walt Disney Animation Studios), Matt Leishman and Schoeni (Dreamworks) have a long list of film credits on their resumes, including Happy Feet, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs Aliens, Tangled, and Megamind. They have also had a hand in some upcoming movies, such as The Rise of the Guardians, Turbo, Frozen and the much-anticipated Wreck-it Ralph. The main techie for the project, Adam Kangas, adds experience creating video games for Activision.

“No one else has top Hollywood animators working on their stuff,” says Ben Sweat, project lead and veteran of Yahoo! and Demand Media. “These art folks want to make it look like a movie, like you are watching a show, without being cluttered up with all of these buttons. The experience we are going for is different than anything else on the market.”

Sweat sees Club as the star on a platform for episodic narrative. He wants Club to push the limits of the tablet’s ability to tell a continuing story, through a combination of premium art, an emphasis on character development, and extending interactions to include cutting-edge options like speech recognition. He is quick to point out that speech recognition in many ways lags behind visual recognition (e.g., Kinect) as an interactive tool.

One problem is a byproduct of the open source software Caffeine-Free is using to communicate with Club. Existing acoustic models work great for an adult male, but not as well for women and kids. Also, while Siri made a big splash with the last iPhone release, that technology is powered by Nuance servers. “They can handle any word in the English language, or any language,” Sweat explains. “We want to have something on-device so we can have low latency and quick response. That’s one of the big reasons we are doing Kickstarter, to try and pump that up.”

The target goal for the team’s Kickstarter project is a relatively modest $10,000, intended to allow for release of the initial application in October. (Have $5000 to throw at this project? High-end backing comes with a professional CGI rendering of your family portrait.) Android development may come in the future, but is out of scope for the initial ramp up, having to first overcome a hurdle of increasing fragmentation of that platform. Any additional funds will be used to ramp up production to include more animation, improve the responsiveness of the speech recognition, and implement real-time 3D rendering.

Some of those surplus funds could also accelerate plans within the game to transition Club into the civilized modern world. Players will one day be able to help the caveman converse in a Siri-like manner and teach him about new technologies, from fire to space travel. Caffeine-Free is also planning to make use of the device’s camera and location-awareness as inputs that will impact how Club behaves.

“We would love to overfund our project and do a lot of cool stuff,” says Sweat.

As a caveman, Club had to beat out other early concepts like squirrels and pirates. “The Astroboy hair that existed initially was just a quick way to get started,” recalls Schoeni. “Hair itself is expensive, time-wise and processor-wise on the computer. It’s a question of how much we can get done with the resources we have available.”

In addition to the feedback early backers of the project have provided, the team also has 15 in-house testers in the form of their own kids, who have had ample opportunities to play-test the progress thus far. Apart from the anachronistic use of a dinosaur, the initial work on Club clearly will appeal to a wide age range of geeks. “I think we started out thinking this was intended for a younger group, five- to a seven-year-olds,” says Sweat. “But it seems like the sweet spot is going to be older than we thought.”

Being parents has helped the team pay attention to some of the nuances of software design, like avoiding links that hijack the screen and send kids into a browser environment. Sweat’s initial interest in the project was spurred by watching his own children shift time from the television to the iPad and iPhone. The content they consumed, however, was essentially the same.

“They were watching Dora on my iPad, with that same fake interaction,” Sweat remembers. “Why? It is a new medium for entertainment. You can imagine a 15-minute story arc where in between there are games and fun things to do.”

“We’re excited for a chance to give the world the caveman it deserves,” says Sweat.

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