When I was a kid, lengthy road trips meant my parents would fling one of those invisible ink travel activity books toward the back seat of the car and hope that the puzzles would keep me occupied until we reached our final destination. Microsoft thinks today's kids need dragons to keep them at bay when it's time to get from Point A to Point B.
The company has teamed up with movie studio DreamWorks to create a mobile game based around the How to Train Your Dragon series of films. Dragons Adventure World Explorer, released Monday, works on Windows phones and tablets; more significantly, it includes a mode that incorporates the world around you into the game.
Dragons Adventure's Training Mode taps into the location awareness features of Windows devices to modify your immediate surroundings into an extension of the fictional Isle of Berk where the game and the Dragon movies it's based on take place. Real-world conditions like street layouts, points of interest, weather, and the time of day are replicated by the game so that the journey you're taking on your dragon approximates the real one you're taking in the car.
Enter in your destination, and Dragon Adventures will create a game the approximates the travel time of your road trip. The idea, Microsoft producer of innovation and app development Pete Mauro explained to me, is to create a gaming experience that not only gets kids into the car with a minimum fo fuss but also ends at the same time the car trip does to avoid any "But I'm not finished playing yet" drama.
As Mauro and I drove around the San Francisco neighborhood where I work, I got to see the car play mode of Dragons Adventure World Explorer in action. Local eateries, pulled in using Foursquare data, popped up as medieval taverns as my dragon soared overhead. The Bay Bridge appeared as an extended land bridge. And the game used Weather Channel information to reflect the sunny sky of a July afternoon. Had our demo taken place closer to sunset, the game would have taken on a twilight look. And Mauro tells me a future version of Dragons Adventure will incorporate traffic data (with sheep representing cars, naturally).
In the car play mode, your dragon flys around using the gyro controls of your Windows 8 device. You perform a variety of quests--collecting a number of barrels, say, and bringing them back to your car, which is represented by a cart on the game's map. You're not restricted to the area around the cart--you can fly ahead or fly back at will.
Other games have tried to tap into location-awareness features to varying degrees of success. A couple of years ago, for example, I tested a mobile iOS game based on the Ghostbusters movie in which you could battle ghosts haunting nearby businesses and points of interest. (The only thing I learned from that game was that busting ghosts wasn't nearly as fun as Ray Parker Jr. made it out to be.) But by creating gameplay that's tied into both your location and your travel time, Microsoft is staking out new territory.
Of course, it's one thing to showcase the game when driving around a heavily populated San Francisco neighborhood. What about road trips that cover more desolate stretches of road--say, the long stretches of farmland on Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles? In those cases, Mauro says, Microsoft has created generic points of interest. "We will fill in less dense areas with [virtual] buildings so you can still have quests," he added.
Dragons Adventure isn't just built for car trips, incidentally. There's also an Explore mode, where you can send your dragon to different regions of the world, taking on assorted quests. (Again, these cities incorporate real-world data, as Mauro demonstrated an adventure that had us flying over a Dragon-ified version of the streets of Shanghai.) Complete enough quests, and you unlock more of the dragons featured in DreamWorks's two movies. Mauro says the game uses the exact models of dragons from the How to Train Your Dragon movies optimized for mobile.
Dragons Adventures World Explorer is a free download from either the Windows Phone Store or the Windows Store. There are no in-app purchases--"DreamWorks really wanted to think of new ways to bring games to market," Mauro said--though Microsoft is mulling over ways to turn some of the real-world data featured in the game into branding opportunities such as coupons or offers. That's a ways down the road, however.
In the meantime, Microsoft plans to create an SDK that any Unity developer would be able to leverage into apps of their own. Mauro sees possibilities for everything from first-person shooters to educational offerings.
It's certainly a lot more sophisticated than those invisible ink puzzle books from my youth.