Form, Function, Fabulousness

Hey, Tim here. I’m responsible for the physical design of Fabulous Beasts, a half-digital-half-physical game of tabletop dexterity and world building strategy. It’s been my job to design all of the physical parts pieces that are used to build the towers, a task that kept me busy for the best part of the last year.

To find out more about how the game works, check out our Kickstarter — we’ve hit our funding goal but there’s still *just* about time to get a piece of the action before it ends at 10PM GMT today (Thursday 25th Feb).

So, let’s talk about design.

It’s been a very long road to get the game to the state its in now, a process of continual revision and refinement in order to find the perfect combination of looks, playability and manufacturability. Many meters of filament were printed along the way, many tubes of superglue split, many late night pizzas consumed, and many fingerprints sanded clean off.

At some point I’d like to write about my prototyping methods, as this is part of the process that I really find interesting to read about but is often hidden from view, but this post is about that age old struggle between form and function. About why the game looks the way it does now. And to know that, you need to know how how the game looked not so long ago…

When we made the first version of the game, a good year or so back, it was designed with a very different look in mind to the one it has now. We decided to aim for something with a very visible “designer” feel to it, something approaching modernist in terms of abstraction of form and the way those forms were driven by the processes that made them. Something that would end up looking more at home in The Conran Shop than in the aisles of Toys R Us. Our hearts were in the right place when we made this decision, with us chiefly wanting to create a game that would be kept on display when not being played, rather than being stuffed back in its box, but in hindsight we were perhaps went a little far.

old (left), new (right)

We started to invite people to play it and take it on our travels. The feedback we got from the hundreds of hours of playtests carried out all over the world gave some very useful insights for both the digital and physical aspects of the game. You can read about some of the larger changes made to the game design in this post, but the main issue I had to deal with was the fact that people weren’t warming particularly to the physical objects as much as I’d have liked. The design choices I’d made had resulted in an unwanted side-effect of giving the game a slightly sterile, unapproachable feel. Something nicely designer-y to look at but otherwise rather uninviting to touch, explore and, well, play with. Seeing as we were designing a game, which (shock, horror) kinda needs to be fun, this was less than desirable. Our 2D art lead Lyall shared similar reservations with the way the digital graphic style had developed (which we wrote about here), and collectively we realised that the game was lacking was the right kind of personality to bring the whole experience together. We needed to bring a sense of warmth without sacrificing the geometric art style we really liked.

Soon, it dawned on me that we were trying to solve a problem that had already been tackled by the vinyl toy scene; an industry that’s used to cramming buckets of character into relatively simple physical forms, creating designs that can be appreciated as both toys and artworks. The vinyl toy community is built around an appreciation of shape and form, but typically also coupled with a love of irreverence, dark humour or even social and political comment. Artists such as Gary Baseman, KAWS and Amanda Visell, as well as companies such as KidRobot and Toy2R, have proven that there’s a desire for these products. So I decided to progress my designs with inspiration from them: interesting character designs and refined forms that treat line, shape and detail with reverence. Strong, cohesive art styles and with perhaps a subtle nod to a darker side if at all possible.

Clockwise from top left; Amanda Visell, Gary Baseman, KAWS

I really wanted to keep the underlying geometric art style that I’d used as the basis to create the first prototype, as it’s a longtime personal favourite due to its focus on strong lines and clean shapes. It’s a style that lives or dies based on the talent of the artist, as limiting the polygons you’re working with makes each that much more important to get right. You need to cram in enough fidelity to make the object legible, but without straying over the line into something approaching realism. When dealing with a self-imposed limited palette in this way, each face, line and vertex becomes all the more important to get right. Everything needs to be just so in order to work.

It’s a style that’s mainly found in digital games (notable examples include Kentucky Route Zero, Chasing Aurora and That Dragon, Cancer), but I wanted to share a few key influences of this style from other disciplines just because I really love their work, and therefore you should too;

Clockwise from top left; Josh Brill (joshbrill.co), Naef toys (naefspiele.ch), Arran Gregory (arrangregory.com)

It’s an aesthetic that really nails the modernist ideal of being informed by the processes that are used to make it, as these kinds of forms really benefit from the use of digital techniques. So I settled on an aesthetic that utilised the strengths of digital polygonal modelling and 3d printing to create a set of shapes that really could only exist by working in these processes.

A second factor I had to deal with during the design of the prototype was stackability. After all, having objects that look nice but don’t stack well isn’t exactly going to make for a fun game. And on top of that you’ve got to think about difficulty. Make it too easy and you may as well just stack Lego. Too hard and, well, imagine building a tower out of angry cats. The only way to figure out the balance is through trial and error: starting with shapes that work aesthetically, printing them out, seeing how they play then going back to tweak. Then rinse and repeat, many, many times. There’s a lot of back and forth, for sure, and lots of late nights cursing the very invention of infernal 3D printers, but it means that I can really perfect the designs before they go off to China to be manufactured.

Working out height relationships between the two-part Element pieces
The new, higher detailed and slightly more voluptuous Bear

So armed with this new set of requirements I redesigned the entire game pretty much from the ground up over a period of a month. This revised direction was really galvanised when last year I was lucky enough to visit the studios of Toy2R in Hong Kong, and show the new designs to its founder Raymond Choi. Toy2R are one of the forefathers of the vinyl toy scene and are responsible for one of its most recognisable characters; Qee. Spending time with Raymond, hearing about his design ethos, influences and seeing how much he loved our beasts, made me realise that I was on the right track with the new designs. But it was seeing the beasts holding their own sitting next to some of the all-time greats of the vinyl toy scene that really made me happy that we had the design pretty well figured out. So this is how we’ve ended up with the aesthetic that you can see today; geometric-based to give lots of stacking potential, but gently softened through choice curves, and with key details picked out to bring warmth, character and fun. It’s a style that I’m very proud of, especially as it gives us lots of scope for designing extra beasts in the future.

King Bear next to the Qee family, at the Toy2R Studio

Once the aesthetics and stackability were sorted I needed to make sure they could actually be manufactured. 3D printing is both a blessing and a curse in this respect, as a lot of the flexibility in design that it allows just isn’t achievable using mass-manufacturing techniques. For instance, a great deal of the shapes and angles I designed into the first prototype just couldn’t be made using injection moulding machines, which are the machines used to make the vast majority of plastic parts that you find in the world today. So each beast had to go through a third stage of design, where details like draft angles, wall thicknesses and undercuts are all examined and adjusted as necessary. This part of the design process is definitely an art-form, and is something that will continue as we get ever closer to hitting the big green GO button on the machines over in China, but its absolutely essential in order for a quality product to come out at the other end.

To assist with the transition from 3D printing to injection moulding I’ve been doing a lot of resin casting here at the studio. Resin casting involves making silicone moulds from 3D printed masters, which are then filled with liquid plastic resin. Wait a few hours and you’ve got yourself a perfect reproduction at a fraction of the time and effort of making a 3D printed one. It’s a fairly specialist process, but one that can be learned via YouTube tutorials with a surprisingly affordable barrier of entry in terms of tool and material costs. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its downsides (it can be messy as all hell), but it meant that I could turn out the multiple copies of the game we needed to demo it to as many people as we could.

Resin casting in the workshop

So that pretty much brings us up to date, but the story is by no means done. There are new beasts being developed and new colours, finishes and materials to be experimented with. And once all that’s done I’ll be hunkering down to get everything millimetre perfect for the next treacherous summit to tackle; the manufacturing process….

***At the time of writing the Fabulous Beasts Kickstarter has 24hrs left! Head over here to get a piece of the action; http://kck.st/1POXqDV

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