At the recent Unity '11 Conference, buried among the exhibitors showing off their hardware to develop apps for and tools and services to make developers more money and pump out more pixels, one exhibitor was showing off a spiffy finished game on the versatile and capable Unity platform. With a twist, one even M. Night Shyamalan might appreciate, this particular game isn't just bits-and-bytes software; it's also a full-fledged physical toy with bells and whistles. Rather, it's a combination of the physical and digital side of interaction.
The game is Mechatars, developed by iLoveRobots, a robotics company with a focus on toys, partnered with Schell Games, a rising star in the game development world. The two companies share similar roots, with an origination from the Carnegie Mellon University. In 2007, the company was founded, and the products themselves debuted in 2009.
The basic puzzles pieces of Mechatars that create the finished picture involve the game software itself, the physical toys themselves and power packs, which add to the offensive and defensive abilities of the Mechatars. The toys themselves are the most distinctive parts of the game experience, since the online game, which is free and can stand alone, is still designed to enhance the capabilities of the toys. Besides, how are robotic toys that can — in visually striking ways that young kids and kids at heart can relate to — attack other players’ Mechatars when faced up against them, not cool and deserving of focus? Players can pick from three types of Mechatars so far, coupled with four different types of "separate purchase" accessories. Since Mechatars is a toy-based platform as much as it is a game, the target age for Mechatars is 6 and up,
The online game is built from the Unity engine and allows players to create an online identity to complement themselves and presumably their Mechatar, too. Graphics are clean and are complementary to the Mechatars brand, saturated with bold primary colors and smooth animation, from what I saw of the game. Kids should definitely find appeal with a consistent experience, a world online that helps create the "blended reality" iLoveRobots and Schell Games is aiming to create. The primary thrust of the game is for players to customize their avatars, earn or buy weapons and armor, and perform missions against the nemesis of the game, the Swarm. The arena is the primary location in the virtual world where players spend their competitive time, gaining experience and special attacks they can download to their Mechatar. However, don't expect a lot of depth with this browser-based game, as it's designed to enhance the physical component of the experience. One noteworthy feature that stuck in my mind is that players can ally or compete with other players, but only if they know a friend's ID number first. This simple but smart approach, similar to the ID-matching approach the Nintendo DS enabled with wireless play years ago, makes it easier for players and parents to know who their kids are playing Mechatar with online. Players can upload their experience via an included USB cable into their Mechatar and compete against other players and their tricked-out toys.
According to iLoveRobot representatives, Mechatars is as much about "offline play," taking the games into the backyard and getting physical playtime in with the toys themselves, whether they want to compete against other Mechatars or simply play on their own..
Mechatars went commercial Aug. 15, with more ways to monetize the gameplay besides enhancing the toys themselves. Mechra, the in-game currency, will be available to allow players to access special weapons and missions, but according to the game's creators, won't skew the game experience for non-monetized players. The MSRP for the basic Mechatars are $39.99, and the Power Pack enhancements are $9.99, while the game itself is free. Since the play value isn't confined within four corners of a screen and the play can go unplugged, it's easy to see why parents would be interested in considering Mechatars for their kids. Or even for themselves.