Virtual Pets is a series of prototypes made over my time working with Sifteo to explore the possibility of a caretaking game. The cubes are of a small size that fit in your hand. We thought there was potential to make a single cube into something cute and endearing that you could build a personal relationship with. The Original Sifteo Cubes is a video game system consisting of three or more cubes with screens that can sense being near each other, tilted, turned over, clicked, and shaken to interact. More information can be found on the product wiki entry.
The first prototype is Butterfly Gardens. It is a project I inherited to take a caterpillar virtual pet experience and make it more of a game. I explored existing virtual pet and animal games as well as other media that centered on caterpillars. I tried to include the colorful progression of a caterpillar’s life that is exhibited in Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”.
This used the cubes as a container, like an aquarium, with a vibrant environment in it to hold the creature. The player starts with a caterpillar that is very hungry. The caterpillar must be fed at set intervals to finish its transformation into a beautiful butterfly. After you have successfully raised one butterfly, you could raise more that would all live together in one garden. The more butterflies you had the more your garden was filled with flowers colored the same as your butterflies. This end state was a trophy case of your adult pets that would also serve as a relaxing screen saver for your Sifteo Cubes system when not in use.
The second prototype evolved from Butterfly Gardens and moved towards a more active creature with more direct caretaking. My Pet Dragon explored raising a creature that could have different attributes to be encouraged as it grew. The game expanded with an adventure mode in which the dragon would encounter different characters in the world and react to them. This latter concept proved to be the most interesting part of this game and was turned into the storybook experience Oogor’s Day.
The third prototype, Petface, explored using the entire cube as one pet object to move from the cube as a lifeless container to a more approachable object with personality. The hope was that this removal of a degree of separation would bring about more direct and natural interactions such as brushing or hugging your pet. A face took up the entire cube screen with the physical elements of the cube acting as the outer body of this creature. Each cube was therefore one pet and could react to the other cube pets around it. One cube is set aside as a tool cube, holding all the objects and actions that could affect a pet. Instead of raising a pet that grows, these pets came with personalities that are physically shown with accessories. Their personalities would be most visible in their reaction to objects you played with them with or their reaction to their fellow pets. This was later useful when the team made the emotion and face swapping game Cube Buddies.
The Original Sifteo Cubes are not always turned on and this proved to be the hardest part of designing an engaging pet raising experience. There was no way for the system to remind you to go back and look after your pet or about the changes occurring like you could on a mobile phone. The small screen space meant that it is not ideal to use the cubes as a container like on a Tamagotchi or mobile phone. There is very limited screen real estate to convey information to the player. Unfortunately the cubes have buttons on them but not touch screens so the degree of touch sensing is very low. No real life pets wants to bond with you by having you poke them. The interesting parts of pets interacting with each other and other characters are not about pet raising and were spun off into other games. I found emotional engagement was easier to make using story and interactions with others rather than direct interaction with the player in the Original Sifteo Cubes system.