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D&D of the Future: Why Virtual Tabletop Gaming is Going to Be Awesome [Video]

By Wesley Fenlon

The ePawn Arena could be the first piece of technology to actually bring physical and digital gaming experiences together at an affordable price.

Compared to the $15,000 Microsoft Surface, the upcoming second-gen table's $8400 price is a bargain, but still way too expensive to be the high-tech board gaming platform of our dreams. Lop $8000 off that price, though, and we are in. That's exactly what a French company called ePawn intends to do with the ePawn Arena, a display that performs tracking and recognition of physical objects placed on its surface. While the Microsoft Surface consists of a touchscreen, processor, and all kinds of fancy hardware, the Arena derives its processing power from an attached PC, smartphone or tablet.

ePawn's being coy about its tracking technology, but claim it can recognize up to 100 objects on screen at one time. Based on their demonstrations, the tracking is every bit as fast as they claim. Even unfinished, it looks awesome. This is the D&D board of the future.

There are two really interesting things about the ePawn Arena: what it means for traditional gaming and how it works as a piece of technology. If neither of those concepts immediately grab you, think of it this way: you could spend $400 for a 26-inch TV capable of revolutionizing how you play board games. Now watch this video.

Technology: Cheap Parts and Your Own Smartphone

ePawn's demonstration illustrates how its screen can recognize and even interact with objects placed on its surface. It doesn't just know a pawn is on the screen--it can judge rotation, distinguish between "teams," and create graphical effects based on the physical manipulation of those pieces. So how does all this work? ePawn's CTO says "Arena employs a sub-LCD tracking layer that is capable of detecting the ePawn tags attached to their game pieces."

ePawn insists that it does not use RFID or infrared, so the tags work with some other technology. Whatever it is, it needs to be cheap. ePawn claims the Arena can register up to 100 objects, which will be ample for almost any game involving little plastic pieces. Outfitting each of those pieces with a tag, or buying figures from ePawn with said tags already attached, will be a determining factor in the device's affordability.

Still, it's off to a good start on pricing. ePawn wants to sell its screen for around $400. Test models measure 23 inches diagonally, but the retail version will reportedly be 26 inches across. That's big enough to support just about any board game. The Arena costs about as much as a TV because it basically is a TV--it actually uses a USB port to run software on an external device, and apparently smartphones and tablets are powerful enough to run games on the big screen.

The Arena can also be connected to a computer. Realistically, tablets and laptops would be ideal for setting up and powering games--their screens are large enough to handle whatever setup configurations Arena requires. As long as USB 2.0 is fast enough to feed all of the necessary data from a device over to the Arena, ePawn's developed an appealing platform: game designers won't be coding software for some funky closed system.

As long as you can code a game for iOS or Android the PC, you should be able to handle Arena no problem. And that's where things get tantalizing: you can download games, app style, and be playing in minutes.

Virtual Gaming, Physical Reality

ePawn's CEO sums up the Arena's greatest challenge in the video above: he has to convince game companies to play ball. The Arena has a lot going for it. The digital assets of games will be extremely easy to develop--as easy as it was to make games like Ticket to Ride and Carcassone on the iPad--but the physical pieces will remain problematic. What board game company would be willing to produce figures specifically for the Arena? Probably none.

If ePawn can make its own tags and work with game designers to create custom software, the concept has a chance. This is more practical for tabletop games like D&D and Warhammer than it is for more limited boardgames. With tabletop games, players often have their own custom figures already; slapping those figures with tracking tokens and using them in tandem with a downloaded ruleset and campaign could work pretty well.

This does bring up some gameplay concerns, however. If the screen is basically a display with tracking tech built in, will all forms of menu navigation have to be done on the device providing power? Will software realistically be able to offer a digital gaming experience with rule tracking, automated turn progression? ePawn didn't include a touchscreen like Microsoft Surface's; that's the only reason Arena is actually affordable.

We've already seen Settlers of Catan as a prototype gaming experience on Surface, and a student project called Surfacescapes proved that far deeper games (like D&D) could work on the platform as well. The problem: it takes a lot of work to design the intricacies of those game systems into a device. Surfacescapes took semesters of work, but the results are impressive.

Even as a simpler technology than the Microsoft Surface, the potential for the Arena display is still exciting. It adds depth and animation to the concept of a traditional game board. It can change every time you play, and at 26 inches the Arena's easily big enough to fit a group of people around. Designers can even rethink how they use a game space and incorporate that into gameplay itself. Normally in a board game you can see the whole board at all times. Sometimes new pieces or tiles are added as the game progresses. With a digital board, gamers could traverse endless "boards" or "screens" without ever knowing how vast the digital dungeon they're exploring may be.

From a cost perspective, the $400 Arena could potentially provide gaming experiences that are less expensive than equivalent board games. The average boxed game runs upwards of $40. If the software and pieces combined cost less, Arena would be a worthwhile investment for regular gamers. Tabletop players might even prefer the way ePawn provides tracking off the screen itself and translates those movements into a digital landscape.

Ultimately the reliance on a tablet or PC for the digital gaming experience--controlling and automating how the game functions--might make the experience too unwieldy. The Arena's greatest potential lies with games that can be played without the need for extensive software work--just a virtual playing field for physical pieces to hop around on. As the technology grows cheaper, the digital side can evolve and work its way into the table at an affordable price.

When that day comes, tabletop gamers can look forward to placing tiny little electronic tags on each and every one of their hand-painted figurines. Hybrid digital and physical gaming may never be more than a niche, but it's going to be one awesome niche.