Sifteo Cubes ditch brute power for engineering, and present a funky challenge for developers

Sifteo Cubes ditch brute power for engineering, and present a funky challenge for developers

My family and I have been playing with a set of Sifteo cubes for the past few weeks. (Disclosure: they were provided by the company) As gaming consoles go, they don’t get much weirder: The cubes are self-contained screens that sense each other, know when they’re being moved, and can react to your touch.

The games involve lining up the cubes in interesting ways, moving elements from one cube to another, and solving puzzles. I have a houseful of kids, and we fell in love with the system. There is a game where you must get to a set number, say minus four, and each cube has a number and a series of mathematical operations around their edge.

So if you line up 3 and 5 with a minus sign, you get 2. You need to move the cubes around until they final number matches the goal. There is no penalty for failure, so my kids were comfortable experimenting, discussing what to do next, and moving the cubes around the table. It was math, but it didn’t feel like it.

Each cube has a single AAA battery inside, and the brains are located in a small breakout box that communicates with every cube within range. You connect this box to your PC via a USB cable to buy and download new games. The box also provides the sound, also the small speaker is rather tinny.The loading times are also longer than I would like, and often tested the patience of the kids, but overall they had a blast with the games, including a RPG-like experiences where linking cubes allowed you to see more of the game’s grid-based map. A set of three cubes and the box is $130, and you can purchase extra cubes being sold for $30. If you want a more expansive experience, $200 gets you the breakout box and six cubes.

I brought the set to the Penny Arcade offices as well, and quickly had a crowd around the table, playing with the games. There is something interesting going on here, and it has nothing to do with the hardware's modest processing power. This is a triumph of engineering over brute strength, which makes them a fun toy for developers looking for a unique challenge.

A redesigned system

The first iteration of the Cubes uses your computer for the brains, and they were redesigned with the breakout box in mind, making the whole thing truly portable. “We know that we have the platform figured out. This is the platform, the hardware, the game system that we’re going to move forward with,” Colin Crook, who handles PR for Sifteo, told the Report. “We’re very confident about that… it’s all about the content right now.”

Games are sold through the company's official store, and consist of a variety of odd puzzle, adventure, or edutainment titles. It’s an odd system to develop for, but a surprising amount of my contacts in the indie space were familiar with the cubes. Sifteo has a clever way to draw developer support: They hold game jams where developers live, and they simply invite them out to play.

“We try to organize in regions where there’s a good group of game developers and invite people in. It’s a very organic process to invite people in, get them working on the SDK, and then get a working game out of that session. It shows what the cubes can do, what the game styles can do, what the mechanics are like, and then usually they go off and build stuff on their own,” Crook said.

That hands-on experience is necessary. You have to sit down and actually play with the damned things to understand what they’re all about. “It’s so tactile, it’s such a physical object, and disparate screens that merge together,” Crook explained. “It’s a unique system, right? It’s different than what people are used to developing for.”

The power of limitations

I caught up with Jim Crawford, who developed the pleasantly insane Frog Fractions, and had recently participated in one of these jams. He had a lot to say.

“In the current generation, your app runs on a 72 mhz ARM microcontroller with all of 16k of RAM, located in the central hub, and the cubes talk to the hub. 16k of RAM means scripting languages like Python and VMs like .NET are out of the question, and you're definitely developing in a systems language like C,” Crawford told me. “Also, the GPU of each cube is restricted to a very specific set of visual capabilities.”In many situations these things may seem like a deal breaker, but Crawford waxed positively lyrical about the SDK. “All that said, the SDK is really quite well-designed. A polished emulator, easy-to-use deployment tools, and a clean C++ API that allows you to get a game up and running with remarkably little code,” he explained. “Watching my fellow jammers, the experienced programmers seemed at home very quickly, and the people who maybe took a C++ class in college still managed to get a running game by the end of the weekend, which was way better than I expected.”

And that well-designed SDK and limited system is, oddly enough, fun as hell for developers. “Also, I can't speak for most developers, but for a certain breed of developer, developing for a restricted system is just fun. Several of my programmer friends still write code for the Commodore 64 and the Atari 2600,” he said.

If you’re interested in the guts of the system, Sifteo released a detailed write-up on the design of the hardware called “How we built a Super Nintendo out of a wireless keyboard.” It's fascinating stuff.

I asked Crook if he though developers were scared off by the relative lack of power in the Sifteo system. “I don’t think so,” he said. “There’s a ton of technology packed into the cubes. It’s an engineering miracle that they exist. In terms of things like game play, leveling, graphics, things that game developers are used to developing with on traditional systems, this may not be for them, and that’s okay. The graphics are always going to get better, but this is never going to be an first-person shooter type of deal. We haven’t seen that type of pushback from developers, they see it, they get it, and they can either see themselves developing for it and the games they want to make or they know it’s not their cup of tea.”

The cubes may lack brute power, but all the technology they do include works incredibly well. It never feels like they have problems seeing each other, and they interact in a satisfyingly direct way. I'm told they don't talk through Bluetooth, but a proprietary technology developed at Sifteo.

This is the sort of thing that's we rarely see in games: Technology that changes how games are played, not just how they look. The game selection is growing, and with regular game jams more developers could become interested in the system. The platform offers a unique way to interact with the content, and I'd love to see what more developers can do with the technology.