PAX Prime: BattleKasters Interview with Brent Friedman

Friday, September 4th, 2015

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This year at PAX Prime, I got a unique opportunity to interview Brent Friedman of Artifact Technologies about his new mobile game, BattleKasters, based on a fictional fantasy world of the Legends of Orkney series. My questions are below in bold.


Was it a drastic shift to go from making games like Halo to more niche mobile games like BattleKasters? And what prompted that decision?

Having worked on some big games, you have the advantage of big teams, big resources, a marketing budget, and a lot of it is only limited by what you can imagine. So, it was a very hard shift to take on something that no one has heard of, based off a book property. We really believe in it, but still, you have to build that brand. Whereas everyone knows Halo, even non gamers. So, that was one of the first big challenges — how do we create awareness? The next big challenge was we didn’t have the team, we didn’t have the resources, but the one thing we had was really innovative technology which allowed us to create a user experience that is nothing like people have really done before. That’s what emboldened me to take this risk. This step was, I have a chance to do something totally new, and that’s kind of hard to say in the world of gaming.

PAX Prime 2015 | BattleKasters

Can you tell me more about how the Mixby platform works to make the BattleKasters experience unique?

Yes. The Mixby platform is something that Artifact Technologies built over the last three years. We had this idea that, with everybody walking around with their mobile devices, we could actually make place relevant. So, there’s the idea that you’re tied to the internet with your mobile phone, but you’re really just connected to everybody. Or you’re playing a game where there’s no recognition of where you are. So, we thought this idea of making the place come alive was something that would add a whole new dimension to gaming. And so, on our platform, we use two levers. We use what’s called “Geo Fencing,” where we go to Google Maps, and we draw kind of an invisible line around a city block, a stadium, a fan convention, whatever you want. And that then becomes almost like a digital velvet rope. So, you have an app that we’ve produced. When you walk in the real world over that line, you get a notification that welcomes you to a private, exclusive network. That network now has a broad range of possibilities. It can be something simply saying “Hey, welcome to this convention! Here are some things you might be interested in.” And the more you tell us about yourself, the more we can kind of curate almost like a concierge experience. So, that’s kind of the broad stroke. The other idea is that we can actually start connecting you in very specific ways with other people that might be in that kind of network, if they are using the same app. So, then the last piece of is at the place, the organizer has the ability to, as everyone walks into that Geo Fence, and they start communicating with each other, they’re able to look down and see all of that activity and actually use it to influence crowd flow. So, there’s a lot of practical benefits.

The other level that we have is something called “Bluetooth Beacons.” We use ones that were built in China by a company we’ve done a lot of R&D with. Bluetooth Beacons were integrated by Apple on all their idevices, which are essentially beacons themselves, and then Android adopted the technology. Then they started opening up third-party development of external beacons. Now, what you have is a Bluetooth connectivity, with the ability to put a beacon onto a wall, and then on a control panel tune how big the radius is and where the proximity for recognition is by the user on a phone. Now, what you have is a situation where, when I walk into a fan convention, I can be greeted and then told there’s some stuff to do, and then I can say, “Here are the things I’m interested in. I like Marvel, I like Halo, I like Telltale Games,” and then the map of the facility will actually show me hot spots. I can then go to a beacon, and, when I walk up to that booth, it will give me content that I can only get right there. So, that idea of validating presence — of rewarding presence — we took that into the world of gaming, and started to say how can we make a game that asks people to go on a scavenger hunt, looking for places around the con, and then take this book world and pull out some cool creatures, characters and mythological objects, and create a kind of “Magic: The Gathering meets Geo Caching” at a convention center, where we felt we had a lot of receptive audience.

PAX Prime 2015 | BattleKasters

How vital is reader awareness of Legends of Orkney to the BattleKasters experience?

Well, here’s the funny thing. The author of the book, Alane Adams, is a real proponent of literacy. She has a national foundation called the Rise Up Foundation, and they donate hundreds of books a week worth thousands of dollars to school libraries around the country — especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods — to try and promote literacy. And so, one of the things that occurred to her when she was writing this book is “How do I get kids, in this day and age — say 10-16 — to get off their mobile phones and read something?” What we talked about was this idea that, instead of trying to fight mobile, what if we tried to introduce them to a world that might interest them through their mobile phone? What if we could actually take what is supposed to be the enemy of literacy, which is mobile interactivity, and actually give them a really cool mobile experience, where they spend 30-45 minutes collecting cards, and every time you see a new card or get to cast a spell, you’re going to be a little bit more immersed in this world of the book series. One of the things it’s done is we’ve been able to end the game, placing the final beacon, and people go out and wander for the three or four days of the con, and, when they come back, about 20-30% of them want to buy a book. So, we’re using the game to create awareness of the book instead of vice versa.

PAX Prime 2015 | BattleKasters

What aspects of BattleKasters are the most compelling, in your opinion?

We’ve done a lot of market research, and I’ve found when people finish the game, or even when they don’t, we’ve asked them to do surveys. One of the reasons we’ve been giving out prizes is we need people who have done a bit more than just play the game to give us advice so we can keep making the game better. Through that, what we’ve found is that, on the most basic level, people love discovery. They like the idea of a scavenger hunt using a map, wandering around until their phone rumbles telling them they have found the next clue, and then they get to make choices about collecting cards. That basic idea of discovery and collection has really strong connections in gaming. That sense of adventure is what appeals to almost everybody.

The next thing is the spellcasting. So, anything to do with magic and fantasy, you want to empower the player. We’ve created a deck of cards that has different runes. It’s simple, we tried to make this super casual to appeal to multiple people. Kids and even grandparents play it. When you go around on these quests to different locations, you’re collecting cards, and each time you go to a new place you’re learning a new magic spell. And we have light and dark spells. Light spells do things like allow you to collect an extra card, protect you for a period of time or foretell where all of the curses are on the map, so you can avoid them. But they only show you for 15 seconds, so you have to memorize it. Dark spells let you set traps, so, when someone walks into it, you steal one of their cards randomly. We also put a counter-spell which, if someone tries to set a Dark spell, you can leave another which will actually trap them. We have a whole range of cards, and, because we’re playing on a leaderboard, people are trying to not only get the best score but also are trying to inhibit other people from getting the best score. This idea that the action you are taking, by collecting cards and combining them into sets to cast a spell, then you shake your phone to cast it, changes the gameboard. It makes the game competitive and collaborative. People go out and play with their friends, and we see them leaving here and they make agreements not to cast spells against each other. We’re bringing basic social mechanics into the real world. The other cool thing is we have this gesture to cast spells. There is no other reason to shake your phone like that, so if people wander around to these hot spots, and they look around and see someone shaking their phone, they immediately recognize another player. Which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Then can go up and try and cooperate, or they can snipe people and wait for somebody to exclaim, “Damn, somebody stole my card!” Nothing else offers that kind of interactive intimacy and connectivity between players.

PAX Prime 2015 | BattleKasters

So, is BattleKasters a constantly-evolving experience, with new features and gameplay mechanics? Will it feature any sort of add on DLC?

That’s a really good question. One of the reasons we picked fan cons, beyond the fact it’s a great audience pool for us, is that the big ones are spaced about a month apart. So, what we do at each one of these is look at the control panel which shows us all the interactions everyone is making, which beacons they are going to, what spells they’re casting, everything. We’re taking all that data and all of our surveys, and, as soon as the con ends, we look at the data and make changes to the game, based on what people like and don’t like. Each time we go to a fan con, we not only add more cards, we also iterate content based on the data. The bigger picture here is we originally set out to use the cons to do all of that, grow the game and really perfect it, also stress test the technology. We’ve gotten to the point now where the experience is 98% accurate in terms of consistent experiences. When we get to the end of the fan season in October, we wanted to be able off site. Meaning, you get the game here and take it home. As we’ve been doing surveys with people, they were like “I have tons of games at home. I like this idea that I can play a game someplace.” So, we’ve shifted gears a little bit and decided, “Let’s lean into what’s really special about the game. Let’s embrace the old arcade model.” This idea that a game can be a destination experience. We have the technology where we can deploy anywhere, inside, outside. It doesn’t matter. So, what we should do is use the fan con as a way to build word, build buzz, get a core of players who love the game, and when we leave town we’ll go set up a version of that game in the city for free. Let the people who have played play again in a completely new environment. Then, when we come back around next year, we’ll bring a new version.

Now, we’ve gotten to the place where actually, here in Seattle, we’re going to have four or five¬†different versions of the game in different parks, in different public areas. So, when you download the app, you’ll have a directory — kind of like Yelp — that will tell you where the closest version of the game is. And each version will be dialed somewhat differently; some for families, much smaller and simpler, some on a college campus, and dial it way up. We can even do things where, with our leaderboard, you can have weekly events where we give away swag and prizes and whatnot. So, that’s the path we’re going down now. I don’t know where it will take us.

PAX Prime 2015 | BattleKasters

What are future plans for BattleKasters as it becomes more popular?

The next big feature we’re adding, and it’s been the hardest, is we’re adding a Pok√©mon layer to this. At the very beginning, we take an element from the story, this idea of a portal called a Stonefire that opens to this other magical realm. This let’s Witch Spawn, all of these different evil type creatures, flying and running, into our realm. In the game, you’re shown a little video of that happening, and are told you need to go collect all the wisdom of the land and find these secret words that will help us close the Stonefire. That’s sort of the first person campaign, if you will. What we’re doing is we’re saying all of those creatures are loose, and as you go around a con, you’ll get a rumble on your phone as you’re attacked by one of those creatures. They try and steal your cards, and you’re given options – turn tail and run or take it on. You take it on using Witch Fire spells you’ve gathered, and if you beat it, you own it. Once you own it, we open up another level of gameplay. When you’re sitting and not wandering around the con, you can deploy your creature out into the game world. You as the player dispatch it to try and steal cards, and those creatures will act like slot machines. Every time they take a card, they keep building up and up and up, so if you defeat it, you get this payout of all those cards. Then we are going to add in currency, so you can upgrade your creature. The last thing you can do is, if you get in trouble and you’re losing a fight, you can call for help. Other players get a notification, a flare that says jump in and help out. We’re going to be rolling out the first version of this at the NY Comic Con.

This is probably a no, but are there any plans to ever make a console adaptation of BattleKasters?

I think that we’re gonna take this as far as we can as a unique mobile experience. But, if it grows into something big, then sure, why not? We are adding the first iteration of our online companion to this. If you play here, you can go to a BattleKasters website, log on, and you will then see all of the stats of everyone you’ve played here. It will be determined whether you are a Light or Dark being, based on which spells you cast. It’s also an interactive map of this fantasy world, and based on which cards you collected, you will be able to unlock different areas. This will come with cool animations and excerpts from the book series. It will also be something that when there is a live event — if you played at PAX — there will be new cards that you don’t have access to which are being introduced at NY Comic Con. But, if you log on during the NY Comic Con, you’ll be able to trade with players. Then we’re going to phase out certain cards. We are really gonna leverage the card aspect, making it like Magic The Gathering, where there are cards that are really rare and special. Another example is if there are 4 or 5 places in Seattle, each will have 90% of the same cards, but also 10% of totally unique cards. When we first introduced the game we had 48 cards, and without any prompting, we had people spending hours collecting them all. The way our algorithms work, it gets harder and harder to get new cards. But they would do it, and they would come back and show us. Enough people started doing it that we decided we should make this an accomplishment. We’re realizing this idea that we can have regional specific cards.

PAX Prime 2015 | BattleKasters

Last question. What about the mobile environment appeals to you most as a creator, as opposed to consoles?

I feel like so much has been done on consoles that the temptation is to always do a more graphically impressive facelift. It’s just creating a bigger and bigger digital world for you to go crazy in. With mobile, I feel like we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg explored. I don’t know what’s really possible yet. We’re just kind of figuring things out as we go along, and I like this idea that there aren’t preset expectations. When I play a console game, I expect to be blown away by the visual and audio. In BattleKasters, we don’t even have audio, since there wouldn’t be a point in a convention setting. So, just think of how different that already is. Big games I have worked on have spent millions of dollars on their sound effects, audio mixing, cinematics, etc. We have none of that. We’re working on something much more tactile in terms of interacting with your space. One other thing I’ll mention — which has become part of why I think mobile is so cool — took place at San Diego Comic Con. When we were there, we did our gameboard outside. We looked at a place where you couldn’t move, and we thought that’s not gonna work. So, we said “Let’s do something different.”

Outside is a big, huge waterfront, and you’re funneled into the old town, the gaslamp district. So, we decided to overlay the game field over 6 square blocks. What is also there is a bunch of old, historic buildings. We made a deal with the historical society to have our booth in their courtyard. In exchange, we did something that at the time seemed like it wouldn’t be cool. When you walk up to a quest, they wanted something that said you’re standing on so-and-so location, built in so-and-so time period — a little blurb about where you were. So we did this, and what we found was people really loved it. They loved learning something about the place that our game took them to. That idea is going to be used in Seattle now, where you can opt in, if you want, and hit a little Eye button. This will show a shot of where you are standing, and show some info. But you can ignore it as well. That’s an example of something that couldn’t happen on a console. Those type of storytelling possibilities really excite me.


I would like to thank Brent for his time, Sparkpoint Studio for setting it up, and Geni Bela for the awesome featured image!

About Josh Speer

Josh Speer is addicted to two things in equal measure : Books and Videogames. He has a degree from the University of Washington in English with an emphasis on writing. He joined Operation Rainfall last year while following it on Facebook. His two giant life goals are to write his own series of fantasy / science fiction novels and to get into the creative side of the video game industry. He is beyond pleased to now have his proverbial foot in the door thanks to the opportunity provided by Oprainfall!