Will The Desktop Kill The Tabletop, SurfaceScapes Thinks So

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 12, 2010

About a year ago there was a Blogger Carnival about technology in RPGs. In our submission I raised the question of whether the desktop would kill the tabletop. In recent days that prediction may have come closer to reality with arrival of SurfaceScapes. If you’ve been following some threads in the RPG Blogger Network, read the latest Kobold Quarterly or even articles in main stream media (here or here) then you’ve likely already seen this technology reviewed. Some of the reviewers have actually had the opportunity to see things in action. Of that fact, I am very jealous.

However, I’m not going to allow my lack of hands on knowledge to prevent me from weighing in about where this technology could take our hobby in the future. First I’m going to say that I’m excited by what this technology offers D&D. The Dungeon’s Master team has been using Map Tools for the past several years at our game sessions, so we recognize the power that virtual tabletops bring to the hobby. I really do believe that this is the future of mapping, hit point and condition tracking and perhaps even character generation. What is most promising about the SurfaceScapes project is that they are actively working with Wizards of the Coast to bring this product to market. I think it’s fair to say that this project could turn out to be the virtual tabletop we were promised with the DDI.

With that said I do see some potential problems or pitfalls with the gaming table as presented. Call this my list of points I’d like to see addressed or things that I’d like to get greater clarification on. So far none of the reviews I’ve read have covered these issues.

  1. Dice. I’m not giving mine up. The great thing about Map Tools and other virtual table tops is their dice rolling features. This allows you to play online with individuals who might not be readily available. The SurfaceScapes table is clearly designed to have everyone present. Dice and the rolling of them is a fundamental part of the game, I’m not sure I’m willing to give it up. Is it possible to equip the dice with pips that can be read after I roll them on the table?
  2. While the table is capable of calculating movement, line of sight, difficult terrain etc. These are all aspects that the DM still needs to input into his map. Human input is still required to have things function. Does the table come with pre-generated graphic images that represent different terrain types and what the movement over them would be? Perhaps even having lava terrain that applies damage automatically when a mini is placed over it.
  3. Continuing with the theme of data entry, would the DM be required to input NPC data? Or does the table come preloaded with NPCs given that WotC is working in partnership? How does the table update? Is a DDI subscription required?
  4. Cost. The estimates on cost right now are about $10,000. Obviously, that’s not the kind of cash that I’m going to put up for my gaming table. You’re also not likely to see one of these in your FLGS anytime soon. The cost is too prohibitive. Also, the table does all the work, including the character sheet. If a FLGS bought one for LFR games, I’m not sure how much actual product they would sell. WotC on the other hand would like increase DDI subscriptions. Right now I see the table as being something that’s only going to be present at your big conventions. At least until that price comes down substantially.
  5. One of the most appealing elements of the tabletop is it’s ability to draw in new players. However, if a new player experiences this at the FLGS and gets hooked, buys the books etc. Then they show up at their buddies place to play, now they have to do all the math themselves. This could be a let-down and may not keep people around long-term.

If I sound critical it’s because I am. I want this to work, I want to own one. However, I want to know that it’s in the best interest of the hobby. As it stands right now, I’m not sure I see the price on this thing dropping enough to make it anything other than the rich gamers toy and that won’t keep the company in business. The RPG hobby is a niche industry with only so much market potential.

Now that I’ve been fairly critical, let me give me 2 coppers on where I’d like to see this project go and where I think it might actually have some life beyond the heroic tier.

  1. The expensive part of this project is the table itself. The processor running it and the multiple camera’s taking pictures of what is sitting on the table. This is what will keep people from purchasing the table. What isn’t so cost prohibitive is the software. I could see this project morphing from focusing on the table to becoming a software application designed to be used with touch screens.
  2. Now I’m not a big technology geek, so I don’t know how sensitive these touch screens can get, but wouldn’t it be cool if they could read a form of braille on the bottom of tokens? If that’s possible then an iPad is cheaper than the table, just add the software. Of course the question of screen size would become a factor.

The preview of this technology is exciting and I’m a fan. I have some reservations about how well it will work overall for the average player. Even if the table drops in price, would it drop below $1,000? That’s a lot of money to spend if all it can do is run your D&D game.

If I’ve raised a question in this article and you know of a response to it in another review I’ve missed, please point me in the appropriate direction. My intent isn’t to bash this technology, rather it’s to provide some feedback to help see it succeed. Many of these questions are raised out of not experiencing things first hand. Either way I look forward to further information about the SurfaceScapes gaming table.

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1 deadorcs February 12, 2010 at 9:57 am

Interesting review. I think, however, that the Microsoft Surface tabletop will be a gimmick for some time. I told my wife that if I win the lottery, I wanted a game table (a SULTAN) with the surface built into it. I figure the whole thing would cost about 20-30 grand (but it’s the lottery, right? I can dream).

In regards to surface group that’s working with Wizards of the Coast? If WotC play their cards right, they’d learn about the interface between the DM’s input and the output on the screen, and adapt that for virtual gaming over PCs. Essentially, a “3D” version of MapTools, or Fantasy Grounds II. Getting that piece would go a long way towards realizing their virtual gaming goals.

Just my two cents…
.-= deadorcs´s last blog ..What’s In Your Backpack? Part IV =-.

2 Chuck Benscoter February 12, 2010 at 10:17 am

You have hit the issue right on the head. This table could have a very bright future if the price were in range of us mortals. I have seen the demo and it looks very promising, but…

In reality this table, while very cool (and I want one too…), is more like a proof-of-production. Now that is is being built for real and we can see it, others will jump in and begin developing of similar systems. Since most don’t have access to the expensive hardware they will focus on the application side. Newer computers are beginning to have touch screens and even TVs are on the horizon to have them, it makes sense to have an application you can install or run from the cloud independent of the hardware. As a software developer and webmaster I have seen this cycle over and over. Hardware is cool, but it the apps that make the difference. Always!

So, the bigger issue is useful and will this grow the hobby. I say yes, ‘IF’.
IF it promotes the strong social element that is a fundamental part of RPGs.
IF it allows the participants to be involved physically, throw the dice, gen characters, and see the results. Not just watching the screen do the work. There is something about hold a piece of paper in one hand and dice in the other while pushing your mini into the breach.
IF it allows for flexibility for both players and GMs. Can a group, make a house rule and can the tool adapt to it. Can the GM modify a result, an action, the map or a monster on the fly just as I do now?

We should not lose sight of the fact that this is just a tool. It should be used to enhance the RPG event and not replace it. If is just exists for it own sake then it will fail.

3 Jon February 12, 2010 at 10:29 am

I prefer my rpgs to be portable. This gaming table seems like a pool table where you go to to play and can’t use any other table. Only rich guys can afford it as well. If people are complaining about rpg book prices, what more this table.

Plus the table is only suitable for tactical combat rpgs like 4e and games such as Vampire or FATE doesn’t really need them.

4 numenetics February 12, 2010 at 10:40 am

My big concern is the lack of flexibility given to DMs and players. Fudging and adjudicating one-off odd actions and situations gets a lot harder if the computer is calling the shots.

5 Wimwick February 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

@ deadorcs
If I win the lottery after I buy myself one, I’ll get one for you too =)
You raise an interesting point about WotC using it to learn and then going in their own direction. We’ll see what happens in the future.

@ Chuck Benscoter
Good point about this inspiring a few other companies to develop a similar technology. My concern here is that there is only so much market potential with the RPG industry and this could keep some companies away. it could perhaps inspire some community driven projects.

@ Jon
Price is the biggest barrier to be sure. I also had the pool table analogy. I used to use my pool table for our Warhammer 40k battles, it was fantastic for that!

Limiting the technology to only be 4e right now is likely being done because they have WotC on board. I could see future version being designed to handle different systems.

@ numenetics
You raise a good point, we’ve written a few articles about fudging rolls when required. I hadn’t considered that aspect of the table. Another question to ask is could the tabletop accept house rules or custom powers?

6 anarkeith February 12, 2010 at 12:35 pm

The table is very cool technology, no doubt. With the right game and implementation, it can only augment the experience (as opposed to “killing” it.) Jon’s point about portability is a good one, IMO. I don’t want to host every session of my game, after all.

The real issue (specifically with 4e, IMO) is that tracking modifiers and streamlining combat would be a great way to involve computers in the game. WotC seem to have designed 4e with this in mind, which is a good first step. The next challenge is to find a platform that enables it without breaking the bank or taking up acres of table space. In my mind the solution is in the palm of your hand. In the form of the ubiquitous smart phone. We’ve got a platform that many players own. Granted there are competing flavors of OS, but there are some common elements enabled. Creating a piece of software that leverages that seems to me to be the way to go. Mapping, positioning, and all that are easily and efficiently handled with tokens/minis and a map.
.-= anarkeith´s last blog ..Campaign Notes: Talking to your DM =-.

7 Steven February 12, 2010 at 1:22 pm

It is a nice concept and I applaud WoTC and others for being open enough to research the issue. I think it will bring breakthroughs in tech areas that other economically viable markets can take advantage of. However, I scratch my head when a virtual tabletop requires the participants to be sitting around the table. Maptools and other VTT’s empower me with the ability to play with those not in my geographic area. What does this map provide me other than the tactile feel of touching the screen? Wouldn’t it be a shorter technical leap to get the current VTT’s to receive input from a touch screen? Maptools on a machine with touchscreen and adroid os 2.1.1+ sounds like the same thing.

In any case, I love your idea of rolling dice locally. Rolling dice was the only thing I thought I would miss about a physical gaming table. But the thought of tossing dice over a 10k screen makes me cringe!

8 Snarls-at-Fleas February 12, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Sometime ago I saw some technology that allowed turining projection on any surface into touchscreen, using WiiMote or something like this.
I guess this technology (free for now AFAIK) plus pico projectors and software like SurfaceScapes is the way to go. Cheap, portable and wonderful.
.-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..Building your own world,part 1 =-.

9 Patrick McNabb February 12, 2010 at 4:44 pm

The biggest issue I see with this thing is that it’s small relative to a real table. That places limits on the number of players. Also the virtual character sheet that you bring up is large. Which means when it’s not your turn and you want to be looking at your sheet and deciding what to do next you can’t. Maybe if they networked it to a bunch of iPads???


10 Snarls-at-Fleas February 12, 2010 at 8:33 pm

An MS Surface? A bunch of iPads. Gonna be one expensive hobby I should say.
.-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..Building your own world,part 1 =-.

11 Matthew Arcilla February 15, 2010 at 1:22 am

If I’m not mistaken, WotC is not involved in the development of this product, though I’m sure many gamers are currently going “nyah nyah, where’s your digital game table now?”

Although I’m of the geek generation that spent childhood with config.sys files and adolescence building adventure game fansites, I remain skeptical of technology. As far as I’m concerned, these tools are best put in the hands of people with experience running games without them. (Post idea!)
.-= Matthew Arcilla´s last blog ..My Favorite Blogs: Dice Monkey =-.

12 Susie Day February 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm

What I would like to see (and what I’m sort of working on in my spare time) is the development of the software that can be run on any surface.

I can build a surface for $500-$700 plus a lot of labor … the most expensive thing is the projector. The program surfacescapes is working on is tied both to the microsoft table AND to 4e… that’s just too restrictive. You should be able to use any game system on any table.

The idea of iphones or ipads supplementing the table is pretty interesting, but way expensive.

13 Eugene Girard February 28, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Nice review…. I have spent some time designing a similar system on a home-made touch table, and the first thing my players said was “I’m not giving up my dice.”
This led me to stop working on the table, and start working on DiceCAM. It’s a simple concept: you roll your dice, a webcam watches and interprets your rolls, and then passes the results on to your game.
(Like you said, it’s all about the dice;)

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