The Average Gamer

A Short History of Wonderbook

In 2005, Masami Kochi had a vision. SCE London Studio had released EyeToy: Play for the PlayStation 2 several years earlier and the EyeToy itself was being implemented in a dozen games, from Sega Superstars to Tony Hawk’s Underground 2. Yet, it wasn’t enough.

“For EyeToy when we made it, we wanted to break the barrier between the player and the game controller,” said Kochi, now Creative Director on Wonderbook.

“So we made you use your body to control. When we created EyePet we wanted to break the barrier between the player and the game so that you were just you in your living room with your pet, playing together in your living room.

“We wanted to give it some wow factor, like we did for EyeToy. I really like the idea of a tactile physical book on your hands, so anyone can turn the page – a baby or some kids. We can break this ice between them – not only gamers but everyone can join and enjoy.”

Looking at the original concept art above, you can see that many of the ideas from 2005 are used in Wonderbook’s first release. Written in collaboration with JK Rowling, Book of Spells combines the Wonderbook with the PlayStation Move system to create a virtual wand and teach magic lessons in the Harry Potter universe. Players discover a book purportedly written 200 years ago by a witch named Miranda Goshawk. Right from the outset, your virtual AR book is covered in dust that needs to wiped off, in a nod to Kochi’s desire for the tactile experience.

The game is even presented on the screen as a child sitting in front of the book and, of course, you need to turn the pages to progress through each chapter. But why has it taken seven years to come to fruition?

Well, there’s an awful lot of technology underpinning the Wonderbook itself. Forthcoming games like Diggs Nightcrawler and Walking With Dinosaurs ask the player to rotate the book and turn pages as part of the problem-solving gameplay, which goes beyond any other AR implementations I’ve seen.

“From PlayStation 2 we’ve pretty much set 2D interaction on the camera,” said Dave Ranyard, Game Director of Wonderbook who’s worked at SCE London Studio since it was first formed in 2002. “And then on Playstation 3 with EyePet we use a card, which is part of the technology on this.”

That card has now been expanded into a full-blown book with AR symbols to trigger content, symbols to indicate when a page is turned and markings to clearly delineate the edge of the book from the rest of the world.

The blue colour scheme is designed to contrast as many skin tones as possible and, being a kids’ toy aimed at 7-11 year olds, there’s plenty of dead space in case crayons were left nearby. On that note, it’s also wipe clean and can even withstand a bit of soap and water.

This level of detail is what has allowed London Studio to produce such impressive AR games. Of course, it’s not perfect. As you might have seen in our Book of Spells review linked earlier, it can occasionally get fussy over the location of the book if you move in an unexpected direction but in general, I’ve found that it works very well.

Ranyard also thinks that now is the perfect time to push more family-focused content on what has traditionally been seen as a hardcore console. “It is the right time for us now with PlayStation 3 because there’s 60 million+ PS3s out there. If you look at the console life-cycle, it’s the right moment to go out there with something that’s more family based.

“I think we make entertainment which people generally enjoy, whether that’s SingStar or Wonderbook, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue doing that in whatever form. I personally think augmented reality is going to be a significant part of the future of gaming and of entertainment. I think we have genuinely put something out there that people are enjoying and it’s only available through PlayStation.”

They certainly do have a history with family games but even so, it could take a significant push to change perceptions. Even our 7 year old Child-at-Large Flynn told us while he was playing Book of Spells that the Xbox is more for kids than the PlayStation, and the Wii U is out in less than two weeks. Still, the games line-up is promising.

The next game coming for Wonderbook will be Diggs Nightcrawler, from Moonbot Studios. Diggs is a bookworm living in noir-inspired Library City. In keeping with the original spirit of Wonderbook, you play as yourself, who just happens to be Diggs’ giant friend that can manipulate the books to his advantage. You can see that Kochi’s original vision has survived the intervening years of design, development and focus testing needed to make it a reality.

Where Book of Spells very much leads you through the game’s activities, the focus in Diggs is much more about exploration and problem solving. It’s designed as a game that should entertain both parents and children.

Ranyard is a parent himself. “The humour in Diggs, it isn’t just for kids. You do get content that’s made just for kids that adults won’t necessarily watch,” said Ranyard, “and I think Diggs falls into that category where it’s very funny for everybody watching There’s a few jokes that you get as an adult. It keeps you going. And also, I do see in Diggs a bit of wish fulfilment. Who doesn’t want to be a private detective?”

As for the puzzles, Kochi explained, “We wanted to avoid a kind of patronising tell-you-what-to-do [script]. Diggs says ‘Hey kid, because you’re huge over there can you tilt the book a little bit?’ The way he talks is to a friend.”

SCE London Studio is currently working with BBC Earth on Walking With Dinosaurs.

Details are thin on the ground for this but, as you might expect from the group that made Frozen Planet and Planet Earth, it will be educational. Kids will choose from dig sites around the world, uncovering bones and examining fossils, while the PlayStation Move camera will transport them into the dinosaur’s habitat. We’ve come a long way from my childhood of tugging on tabs in pop-up books.

Wonderbook and Book of Spells is out now as a standalone title, or available in a PS Move bundle if you don’t already have the Move. Diggs Nightcrawler will be released in early 2013 and Walking with Dinosaurs will follow later that year.