Combiform controllers are the Voltron of social gaming, but the idea isn’t catching on

Combiform controllers are the Voltron of social gaming, but the idea isn’t catching on

There is a mode in Strike Gunner S.T.G., a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up for the NES and SNES, that allows two players to link together their individual ships to form one advanced craft. This unique twist on multiplayer inspired Interaction Designer Edmond Yee to create his own vision that would lock multiple players together in a shared space.

That vision is Combiform, a controller that connects to PC and Mac, with planned support for Android and iOS devices - should its Kickstarter goal be reached. Combiform is a handheld device that can act as a stand-alone game controller or, more interestingly, connect to other Combiforms via magnets to create new game play experiences. What if there was a game like Strike Gunner S.T.G. where you physically combined two devices, and as you did, the jets on-screen would likewise combine? Combiform does that.

It’s a fascinating new way of looking at multiplayer, but Combiform will likely remain nothing but an interesting experiment.

Putting on your best interface

Yee didn’t begin his work on Combiform with video games in mind. He is an MFA graduate of the USC Interactive Media program, with an undergrad background in Human Computer Interaction and Media Arts from the University of California, San Diego.

“I consider myself more of an Interaction Designer. My work focuses on a sub-field in Human Computer Interaction research called Tangible User Interface,” Yee told the Penny Arcade Report. “Game design is something that interested me because designing an engaging gaming experience is not about making a work process flow as natural as possible, unlike traditional user-centered design thinking. That is, in a typical situation of designing interfaces, efficiency, accuracy and invisibility are the key.”

“For instance, nobody would be happy to drive their vehicle with a Wii remote, but playing Street Fighter 4 with your USB racing wheel could be a fun and challenging experience,” he explained. “It is the possibility of the disconnection between efficiency and effectiveness that interested me.”

Yee has focused his efforts on bringing players together in a way that directs their actions to each other, not to another object, such as a TV. He wanted to create a shared experience device that made interaction the focus, as opposed to two or more users separately focusing on a tertiary device, like a television.

This created a deeper bond between players, and though that bond can be difficult to explain in words, Yee summarized it thusly: “Think of it like Twister plus Beer Pong plus Wii or Kinect.”

Killer app

There is a game – or more accurately, game prototype – shown in the Combiform Kickstarter video that demonstrates the immense power and potential of Yee’s controllers.  That game is called Switch, and it looks exactly how a game on a new platform should look: fun.

In Switch, two players hold together four Combiform controllers in a square pattern. The controllers’ magnets keep them grouped together, as two colors flash across the surface. Blue Combiform controllers are safe, but the two controllers that flash purple need to switch places. For example, if you were a player and the purple Combiforms were on your right and left hand, you would need to break the square and reverse which controller went where, so that the controller previously on the right side would now be on the left, and vice versa.

The game runs on a computer and counts down the time players have to switch out purple Combiform controllers, but there’s no TV or other distractions. The fun here comes from playing with your partner, and it’s that physical element that’s lacking in current multiplayer experiences. You play a multiplayer game with someone, but rarely, if ever, interact with them; there is a disconnect between the ideal of playing with another person and the reality that game design often lacks a device that brings focus to said player instead of a TV.

The problem is that it’s the only game that looks truly fun, and goes beyond simple gimmick. Other prototypes shown in the Kickstarter video have players performing such actions as connecting two Combiform controllers to form a handle, and pumping air into a balloon animal. It’s cute, but it feels like Combiform is trying to use a Wii Carnival Games mini-game as a selling point, and it doesn’t work. There is another prototype in the video that shows Yee’s version of Strike Gunner S.T.G., but in that case we’re back to focusing on the television instead of each other. Only Switch stands out as the big winner for Combiform.

Yee told the Report several times that the games are just prototypes at this stage, and neither Android nor iOS is currently supported. The team plans to release an open SDK if the project if funded, so that plenty of apps can come forth and support the controller. After all, what is impressive hardware with no software to run on it?

Rallying cry

The answer to the above question seems to be “not much.” This is the second time Combifrom has been on Kickstarter; Yee and his team backed out after they realized they had failed to properly explain the product, and are now back with new info and a finalized model for the controller. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Kickstarter has only raised just over $4,000, with only 18 days to go.

Yee said part of the problem stems from the fact that Combiform is a peripheral, not software. “Hardware projects are inherently difficult to find angel funding or VCs [for]. They are not what’s ‘hot’ now. In a sense, I understand. If I was a traditional investor, why would I take so much risk when I can take less investing in software startups?” he asked. It’s clear the future is bleak, and that weighs on Yee.

“At this point, the campaign is obviously not going so well and failure is more or less expected. We have tried taking the traditional route of getting this funded with no luck,” he said. “I have invested tens of thousands of dollars into this already. In a sense, if it failed badly, I need to put this aside for a while and find ways to sustain myself.

Yee said the Combiform was “95% done” with regards to R&D. Now he just wants to convince people it’s worth using. He said it’s difficult, largely due to the nature of Combiform and how users don’t know what they’re missing until they’ve used it.“Imagine the feeling of watching someone riding a roller coaster before you have tried to ride it yourself. I thought it could be a fun experience, that I could enjoy the wind blowing on my face, and it would feel like a bird flying high. Wrong. It was the most horrifying and painful experience that, for some reason, I did enjoy! Extremely awkward experiences that I cannot really describe to other people through words or any medium - not even pictures or videos; this is exactly what Combiform is chasing after.”

Time will tell if that chase is a wild goose one.