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Tabletop tech? “We’re only scratching the surface”

Zai Ortiz and Nolan Bushnell are heavyweights in the world of film and gaming with a common goal; to deliver immersive storytelling through board games, the likes we’ve never seen before. That’s the aim of X2 Games, and that’s what its first release, St Noire is capturing with Amazon Alexa

When you put the brainpower and foresight of the founder of Atari and creator of Pong in the same room as those of a Hollywood creative director and the name behind Iron Man’s J.A.R.V.I.S. hologram system, the result is always going to be worthy of attention.

This is the exact set-up over at X2 Games; a relatively new name on the tabletop gaming scene, made up of a team of gaming and entertainment fanatics, who just so happen to be some of the biggest heavyweights in the field of storytelling.

Gaming nerds will of course know Nolan Bushnell for creating the video game industry when he founded Atari back in 1972. Bushnell gave the world the first blockbuster video game with Pong, before going on to start-up more than 20 companies across Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile Zai Ortiz boasts a hugely en- viable Hollywood career, having served as a creative director and 3D visionary for some of its biggest titles, as well as playing a major role in the success of the design and visual communication studio, DarkMatter.

Together, and under the joint venture banner of X2 Games, the two are about to launch the first fully immersive Amazon Alexa-powered table top game in St Noire: a title in which players take on the role of detective in piecing together clues and solving a crime in a murder-mystery adventure developed for the 21st century gamer. And yes, the result is certainly worthy of an attention that makes one thing very clear – tabletop games as we currently know them are just the tip of the iceberg of their potential for immersive storytelling.

“We are working in a nascent hybrid gaming space – it’s like the Wild Wild West,” Zai Ortiz, president, chief creative officer and co-founder of X2 Games, tells ToyNews. “We have this sense of ‘we get to make up the rules,’ and as such, we took our collective knowledge of graphical interfaces and digital game design, then applied that to a board game, where our only technology is sound via Alexa.”

This has made for quite the unique development process for both Ortiz and Bushnell – as well as the ‘small but perfectly placed’ team around them, who have according to Ortiz “felt more like explorers or mad scientists than designers.”

There’s something about the tabletop gaming space that attracts creativity from the farthest flung corners of interest. One of the hottest titles of the moment here in the UK, for instance, is an ornithological game titled Wingspan, that takes a scientific look at the behaviour of birds, through a deck-building system.

At the other end of the scale, you have a game like St Noire.

“We both felt we were at this incredibly exciting turning point in the tabletop industry, where leading-edge, prodigious technology was available but no one was really taking advantage of it in a meaningful way – especially when it came to tabletop gaming,” explains Ortiz.

“We had many conversations about where we wanted tabletop gaming to be in five years, 10 years, 15 years. Not just what kind of games we could make but how could we make them? What was the most exciting new tech that wasn’t being properly utilised? That was when we started looking at AI.”

St Noire is billed as the world’s first voice-controlled murder-mystery board game. Half of the game is played with a physical game board, cards and tokens, while the other half is played on an Al- exa-enabled smart-speaker. Using Alexa, players can question a group of “unsavoury suspects” to figure out who is lying about their whereabouts on the night of the murder. It’s a first of its kind crime story.

“The entire game is voiced by professional actors and features a full cinematic soundtrack,” continues Ortiz. “In addition, the re-playability is incredible, as it’s nearly impossible to have the same gaming outcome twice.”

Not only does St Noire promise to “do away with that annoying Alexa voice,” by using only professional voice actors, but it also promises to deliver an experience far more cinematic than any before it. For X2 Games, it would seem, hybridity is the number one mission. What else could you expect from an alliance of minds from the world of videogaming and film?

“Nolan and I come from somewhat different backgrounds,” says Ortiz, “but what really brought us together was the idea that our respective fields – movies and games – were merging more and more everyday, yet people were still developing games for the gaming sector and movies for the movie sector,” he muses.

“We felt it was such a false binary. There was this entirely new hybrid world where you could merge the two in a way that was exciting, engaging and relevant to the user, and that’s exactly what we decided to do.”

But this isn’t a ‘bells and whistles’ project for the team, not by any stretch of the imagination, and while St Noire does utilise Amazon Alexa in a way not seen to date, it’s not the technology that sits at the centre of the game, but the players themselves. This is the philosophy of those at X2 Games, and something they are keen to maintain along all stages of evolution of the tabletop gaming space.

“Our project at X2 is to create games that people will play for years,” continues Ortiz. “Games that almost everyone could get into because they commit fully to one thing: the game play. There is an immense power in the social aspect of gaming, and the shared, social component of game play isn’t just some afterthought or separate ‘game mode,’ it is the game play.”

So why is now the right time to be exploring what can be done with technology in this shared, social space? Of course, Ortiz has a philosophical response to this, too.

“The short answer is: the technology is finally here,” he says. “We are in a place where technology and hardware is catching up to our imagination, and it’s coinciding with this incredible resurgence of tabletop gaming.

“The unique thing about tabletop gaming is that it’s social in a completely different way to video games or movies. You’re physically there with your friends – playing, interacting and engaging.”

St Noire is available for pre-order on Amazon right now. It will be landing on the Amazon platform, as an Amazon exclusive in July this year. Once its contracted run with Amazon has come to an end, the game will be rolling out to retailers the world over. A keen gamer himself, Ortiz understands the importance of having games available on global platforms to global audiences, and this includes online and brick and mortar retailers. The UK will also be factoring heavily in those roll-out plans for the team.

As for the future, X2 Games has big plans. It’s a company not shy of outlining its desire to become a global name in the future of gaming. However, it insists that seeing this mission fulfilled won’t come at the expense of maintaining a curated team of specialists “selected for each being specialists in their fields.”

“Yes, this approach means we won’t be churning out titles. There’s no pressure to do that. I had enough of that life working in Hollywood. We have got three titles as well as this under development at the moment – including two separate AI-powered tabletop games – as well as interactive visual story- telling projects, so five in a year is a realistic portfolio,” states Ortiz.

“I believe that we are only just scratching the surface of the future of AR, VR and MR (Mixed Reality) in tabletop gaming here. As AI matures even further, we will develop more and more complex games that use a physical tabletop as its foundation.

“We are working on some pretty exciting things in this regard already, but I can’t quite talk about that just yet. Ask me again in six months,” he concludes. For now, we have a world of AI waiting to be explored.

About Robert Hutchins

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