Thursday, February 10, 2011

Announcing Project Umbra: Mixing metaphors (in a good way).

It's no secret that I am a gamer. I play board games, card games, video games, tabletop games... pretty much every kind of game this side of LARPs (I do have limits). As a gamer, I see games changing in response to technological advances, along with everything else in society. Video games, for instance, have transformed immensely into one of the richest new art forms available. At the same time, advances in small-run printing coupled with online fora for game reviews have allowed for many more unique board and card games ranging in complexity from stunningly simple (such as Zombie Dice) to mind-mindbogglingly complex (such as Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica).

What remains, however, is the conception that tabletop, board and card games are based on physical objects (dice, cards, boards, papers, tokens, figurines, maps, etc.) whilst video games are based on information processing. This divide means that the more complex games, like those mentioned above, require an awful lot of bookkeeping to play, dissuading all but the more passionate gamers such as myself. This is seen in extremes with many roleplaying game systems. The rulebooks for HERO System 6th Edition, for instance, cost $80 and weigh in at about 1,000 full-color pages. Players must keep track of endurance, body and stun damage, mental and physical defences, skill level allotments, initiative, position, etc., while the game master (GM) must keep track of all of this and more for each of the antagonists.

My question, then, is what power can be gained by mixing the physical and informational models. Let the computers do what they do best, keeping track of rules and statistics, while the humans do what humans do best: spin stories and build worlds. Of course, many tools exist that nudge in this direction, but very few embrace the fusion of information processing with physical metaphor and human creativity.

Enter Project Umbra: a suite of web-based tools for keeping track of stats and states in Shadowrun 4e. Players will be able to log in to a game hosted by a GM from their smartphones, and will be shown their damage levels, wound modifiers, initiative orders and other vital information. The GM, for his/her part, will be able to use an Android tablet (Honeycomb or later) to view and manipulate entire combats quickly and unobtrusively. Games won't have to be interrupted to ask for initiative rolls from each player in turn; they can simply tap a button on their phones to make that information available to the GM, keeping table talk focused on the characters rather than the rules.
A player can quickly see what games are available to them from their mobile phones using the web-based Shadowcloud client.
In the future, I plan on expanding Project Umbra to other roleplaying systems, but for now, focusing on Shadowrun 4e allows for the project to be developed organically--- that is, without having to understand the full scope before writing each line of code. The potential here is rather unexplored, after all, and so it's far from clear what the right approach will be to each problem.
A game master can quickly view and manipulate an entire combat by using an unobtrusive tablet, instead of a laptop whose screen blocks their view of players.
Like any truly community-minded project, Project Umbra is an open-source project based on open specifications and open platforms. The tablet-facing part of Umbra is based on the Android platform, and as such, can be run on any of the many forthcoming Honeycomb-powered devices. The web-based portion uses Google App Engine for Java (itself a derivative of the open-specification J2EE platform) to serve standards-compliant HTML5 content powered by the open-source jQuery and jQuery Mobile libraries. Communications between components are handled by JSON serialized data, generated by the Gson library. All Umbra-specific code is licensed under either the GPL or AGPL, as appropriate, and as such, is freely available to interested developers for reuse.

I think the potential for Project Umbra is quite exciting, frankly, and am looking forward to playing more with it and making the most I can of the technology. If you would like to be a part of the project and help in any way, please let me know. Just like any good game, Umbra isn't limited to just one mind.

Happy gaming!

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