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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.