From Bits to Atoms: Creating A Game In The Physical World

Some of you may recall last year’s post about 3D printing and my general disappointment with consumer-grade additive manufacturing technology. This was the start of my year-long quest to turn bits into atoms. Since that time there has been much progress in the technology and I’ve learned a lot about manufacturing. But first, a little about why I’m doing this, and my new project titled: Ether Drift.

Ether Drift AR App

A little over a year ago, I met a small team of developers who had a jaw-dropping trailer for a property they tried to get funded as a AAA console game. After failing to get the game off the ground it was mothballed until I accidentally saw their video one fateful afternoon.

With the incredible success of wargaming miniatures and miniature-based board game campaigns on Kickstarter, I thought one way to launch this awesome concept would be to turn the existing game assets into figurines. These toys would work with an augmented reality app that introduces the world and the characters as well as light gameplay elements. This would be a way to gauge interest in the property before going ahead with a full game production.

A lot of this was based on my erroneous assumption that I could just 3D print game models and ship them as toys. I really knew nothing about manufacturing. Vague memories of Ed Fries’ 3D printing service that made figurines out of World of Warcraft avatars guided my first steps.

3D printers are great prototyping tools. Still, printing the existing game model took over 20 hours and cost hundreds of dollars in materials and machine time. Plus, 3D prints are fragile and require a lot of hand-finishing to smooth out. When manufacturing in quantity, you need to go back to old-school molding.

You can 3D print just about any shape, but molding and casting has strict limitations. You have to minimize undercut by breaking the model up into smaller pieces that can be molded and assembled. The game model I printed out was way too complicated to be broken down into a manageable set of parts.

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later--An expensive process!

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later–An expensive process!

So I scrapped the idea of using an existing game property. Instead, I developed an entirely new production process. I now create new characters from scratch that are designed to be molded. This starts as a high detail 3D model that is printed out in parts that molds are made from. Then, I have that 3D model turned into something that can be textured and rigged for Unity3D. There are some sacrifices made in character design since the more pieces there are, the more expensive it is to manufacture. Same goes for the painting process–the more detailed the game texture is, the more costly it becomes to duplicate in paint on a plastic toy.

We're working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

We’re working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

So, what is Ether Drift? In short: it’s Skylanders for nerds. I love the concept of Skylanders–but, grown adult geeks like toys too. The first version of this project features a limited set of figures and an augmented reality companion app.

The app uses augmented reality trading cards packed with each figure to display your toy in real-time 3D as well as allowing you to use your characters with a simple card battle game. I’m using Qualcomm’s Vuforia for this feature–the gold standard in AR.

The app lets you add characters to your collection via a unique code on the card. These characters will be available in the eventual Ether Drift game, as well as others. I’ve secured a deal to have these characters available in at least one other game.

If you are building a new IP today, it’s extremely important to think about your physical goods strategy. Smart indies have already figured this out. The workflow I created for physical to digital can be applied to any IP, but planning it in advance can make the process much simpler.

In essence, I’m financing the development of a new IP by selling individual assets as toys while it is being built. For me, it’s also a throwback to the days before everything was licensed from movies or comic books and toy store shelves were stocked with all kinds of crazy stuff. Will it work? We’ll see next month! I am planning a Kickstarter for the first series in mid-March. Stay Tuned to the Ether Drift site, Facebook page, or Twitter account. Selling atoms instead of bits is totally new ground for me. I’m open to all feedback on the project, as well as people who want to collaborate.

DIY 3D Printing Is Not Ready For Prime Time

For the past few months I’ve been working on a project that involves creating a series of plastic miniatures that work with an Augmented Reality app. Creating toys from 3D models built for a game seemed a natural application for 3D printing. The idea being I make a positive out of a game model with a 3D printer, then use that to create a silicone mold for resin copies (a very old school process). To figure out how this all works, I’ve spent a few months immersed in additive manufacturing.

My first stop along this journey was to my local 3D printer store. I visited DeezMaker in Pasadena to see their BukoBot in action. This is a hobbyist printer that uses the same sort of filament printing technology the pioneering MakerBot does. The staff at DeezMaker gave me a good crash course in the different models, usually ranging from $600-1500. The software used to run the machine, Slic3r and Repeiter Host, are free and open-source.

A friend of mine has a BukoBot and was willing to do a test print of a figure. The first step was to ready the in-game model for printing. 3D printers need a model in STL format, which is a simple conversion process from most 3D programs. However, the model itself must be completely solid. You can’t have any holes, floating one-sided polygons, and other non manifold edges. Slic3r (the software used to ‘slice’ the model into vertical chunks used for printing) detected these problems in the STL file and spit out a series unhelpful error messages. The artist that built the model was able to fix these problems in Maya while running it through the slicer to check for errors.

With a cleaned up model file in hand, I visited my friend’s house and we began the print. It took a few hours to slice the model and set up the print area properly. This involved scaling down the model a bit to fit on the printer’s bed and messing around with the machine to get it aligned properly. Soon, the print began, and we waited with giddy excitement.

Some 20 hours later, my print was finished and the end results were…..well not that great.

A BukoBot print of a 3D model

In the BukoBot’s defense, this was a single material print. For complicated objects such as this figure, you need to use a support material. This is a water-soluble substance that is printed underneath overhangs and other floating features. When the print is done, you submerge the object in a bucket of water and wait for the support material to dissolve. Otherwise, it’s going to print ‘fluff’ material to support the model and you’ll have to break it off by hand.

In reality, these kit printers kind of suck. The engineering tolerances are pretty loose–especially in the BukoBot’s case as the printer is built, in part, by 3D printers. A lot of the pieces such as those that guide the printer head aren’t very precise and result in skewed prints. The printer is also prone to erroneously burping up large blobs of material, throwing off the accuracy of the print. Finally, the object lies on an open bed and cools rapidly to room temperature which warps the material. The end result is kind of a disaster, even on the most simple of objects.

My next step was to see what options were available for high-end 3D printing. I considered services like Shapeways, but their turnaround time was too long and they have draconian limits on file size and triangle count. I talked to a few different places that had professional-quality printers, and eventually printed my model using a uPrint SE by Stratasys at TekPro Group in Woodland Hills.

Sure, the printer costs nearly ten times what the BukoBuot does, but you get what you pay for. The end result is simply amazing. The uPrint uses the same FDM process as the BukoBot but is much more precise. It still took over 20 hours to print, but in this case it’s worth it.

Side by side comparison of uPrint and Buko Bot print

If you look closely you can still see some roughness to the surface. I gave the printed model back to the (elated) artist and he’s working on smoothing it using acetone and sanding. Before we do a resin cast it may be necessary to carve more detail into the figure as well as use putty to fix a few errors we didn’t catch in the modeling phase.

A closer look

Low-end kit 3D printers may be disruptive to the high-end machines. Certainly the quality and fussiness of printer kits reminds me of personal computers from the Homebrew Computer Club era which disrupted mainframes. At the surface, the war between professional and kit printers seems to be torn from the pages of The Innovator’s Dilemma.

As it stands now, kit printers just aren’t ready for prime time–by far. Newer models have shown dramatic increases in performance, but we are still probably a generation or two away from approaching the quality of high-end machines like uPrint or Objet. Meanwhile, the search is still on for a consumer application for 3D printers that will make an audience beyond hobbyists and manufacturing actually want them.