by Elyse Joseph
Three figures dressed in bright robes and pointed hats dance around a glowing, neon green circle, reading from spell books as they go. It is dusk. Colorful smoke billows up from the cauldron at the center of the circle. The spells are, of course, not real. Nor is the smoke, nor the books.
The cauldron contains a fog machine and LED lights which project colors onto the white vapor. The circle on the ground glows because of black lights on scaffolding above. Under the book covers are phone screens feeding the players instructions: which direction they should dance around the circle, when to twirl and when to raise their spellbooks to the sky. They are playing “Magia Transformo: The Dance of Transformation.” Though it is a game, UCI Department of Informatics assistant professor Joshua Tanenbaum and his team designed it not to feel that way.
Tanenbaum had been interested for years in the way that costumes affect people’s interactions with characters and wanted to create a game in which the characters were built by costume selection, with specific traits and abilities tied to each article of clothing. Though the idea was not impossible to execute, there would not be enough time to design such a complicated system.
Computer game science student Natalie Nygaard approached Tanenbaum in the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, her final year at UCI, wanting to make an experimental game for her honors thesis. She was interested in Tanenbaum’s work with costumes, so Tanenbaum suggested a simpler version of the idea he’d had for years. Together, they decided that witchcraft would be the theme, in a game of combining elements signified by wearable costume pieces.
“What if we had three players, and the players would change costumes,” they thought, according to Tanenbaum, “and depending on what costumes they wore they would unlock different spells which would reveal different things about the magical world.”
As they brainstormed ideas of garments for players to combine, they had to consider the number of possible pairings they would have to account for and which kinds of apparel would fit players of various body types. They considered hats, belts, brooms, spellbooks, cloaks, staffs, medallions and robes. But ultimately, numbers determined that they needed to whittle down the possibilities; with all of the costume elements they’d thought of, they had millions of combinations.
“A lot of game design,” says Tanenbaum, “is a process of scoping your original idea into the thing that you can get away with making in the time period you have with the resources you have.”
Eventually, they narrowed the scope to six hats, six cloaks and three players. Variations of the same combinations of elements with different wearable items would be considered the same, meaning that, for example, a dark hat and air cloak would functionally be the same as an air hat and a dark cloak. This yielded 20 possible combinations with a total of 400 possible spells. This was manageable. However, it was not enough for players just to put on the costumes; they had to have something to do.
With the help of Ke Jing, a UCI Ph.D. student who specializes in augmented reality, camera vision, tangibles and hardware design, the expanding team fabricated the physical world in which players would interact.
The players’ choice of hat and cloak determines what kind of spells the players can cast in the game. The six elements comprise two categories. Fire, energy and air are the elements of the Golden Societies; and water, darkness and earth represent the Hidden Order. Each element has an opposite — fire to water, energy to darkness, and air to earth — and each corresponds to one hat and one cloak.
The players watch their spellbooks carefully. Each contains a cellphone in a space cut out of the pages. The screens display instructions which the players will have to follow closely if they are to succeed in casting their spell. The Microsoft Kinect, a motion sensor above them, tracks their movements by identifying the cellphones in the spellbooks to determine whether the players have successfully completed the dance to cast their spell. They begin to move in a circle around the cauldron pouring smoke and light from below.
Though a fog machine is fine in open spaces, the cauldron’s smoke is replaced with strips of fabric blown upward and washed in LED light to avoid setting off fire alarms indoors, as the smoke cauldron did once during a trial. The entire California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology building where the trial took place had to be evacuated. The event plays a part in the mythos of the game itself now, as the spell “your cauldron sets off the fire alarm.”
In spring of 2017, the team submitted the game to IndieCade, the premiere international festival of independent games, and a jury deemed it worthy of a place in the gaming festival. “Magia Transformo” was only displayed for one day because there were no available rooms that could accommodate all the equipment necessary, but the game was a success. Each spell-casting session lasted approximately 15 minutes, plus around five minutes for setup to allow players to choose their costumes and learn the rules of the game. Players had to sign up to play in advance in 20-minute slots, all of which were full within the first ten minutes of the event.
One young boy played with his father and brother and enjoyed the game so much that he wanted to play again. One person dropped out after the sign-up sheet had been filled, so the boy was able to play the game twice.
“At IndieCade, there are literally hundreds of amazing games to play, and so for this…boy to decide to spend another 20 minutes playing our game when he could play any one of a hundred better games than ours felt pretty good,” says Tanenbaum.