Our undeniable bond with virtual pets

[From 1UP.com, where you can find several additional images]

Our Undeniable Bond With Virtual Pets

How games like EyePet and Kinectimals are changing the cute little face of virtual pet interactions.

By Anthony John Agnello

Something strange happens to you when you’re playing with the EyePet. After you’ve learned all the different ways you can interact with Sony’s cuddly little beast — you’ve fed the blighter, cleaned him, fed him, taught him how to conjure an airplane out of thin air by drawing it in his magic notebook — you start to wonder if there’s any real reason to continue completing the set challenges in the “game,” other than earning more trophies for your PSN profile. Then, just before you turn off the camera and your move remote for the last time, your EyePet looks out of your television, gives a little grin, and hops up in your lap. So you pet him a little. He purrs, circles around in front of you not-quite-like a cat or a dog, then lies down and goes to sleep. You smile and turn off the PS3.

It’s a trick, of course. Your EyePet doesn’t actually feel affection for you. The software in your PlayStation is running while the PlayStation Eye is showing you the room you are sitting in. Your lap just happened to be in the spot where your EyePet ended up after it followed the camera and detected the movement of your hand. The pet doesn’t need to be fed or cleaned. It won’t die if neglected. It isn’t necessarily pleased to be wearing that Sergeant Pepper costume you dressed it up in.

That your interactions with this augmented really game aren’t real, that this virtual pet is an illusion, ultimately doesn’t mean squat. Whether it’s because you want to achieve the game’s goals or because of genuine affection, your interest in your digital pet is grounded in the same emotions as care for a flesh and blood pet. This is why we continue to play virtual pet games. Our emotional bonds are real even if the critters aren’t.

EyePet is one of the two games releasing this fall that are changing the face of virtual pets through new technology. Sony’s creature, and Microsoft’s Kinectimals are both showcases for their respective publisher’s new motion controllers (and clear bids to win over family audiences). They are also the result of more than 15 years of evolving game design. We have been enamored with these beasts since Bandai’s Tamagotchi toy made virtual pets the cultural force they are today after becoming an international fad in 1996. A number of games allowed you to raise creatures, both real and fictional, prior to the release of that alluring little keychain, but the animal rearing in those works tended to be just one tool serving a greater mechanic.

The monster raising found in Dragon Quest V and further developed in properties like Digimon, Monster Rancher, and, of course, Pokemon shares certain characteristics with the devoted virtual pet experience, but they are very different. You don’t raise your Pokemon to be healthy, happy companions, but to be good fighters. Hey You, Pikachu!, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. From the still-going Petz franchise to Yoot Saito’s surreal Seaman and on to the Nintendo DS’s flagship puppy simulator Nintendogs, we never seem to tire of being responsible for an imaginary creature’s wellbeing. How have virtual pets changed over the years? What is the difference between a virtual pet videogame and an actual toy like a Furby or Aibo? More to the point: Why do players of every age keep going back to the console and portable pet store year after year?

Nicolas Doucet, producer at Sony’s London Studio, is one of the creators that helped give birth to the EyePet. He believes that it’s our fascination with technology, in addition to our desire for animal companionship that has driven virtual pets’ popularity. “[It’s] the mixture of a cuteness that does not exist in real life coupled with the coolness of the digital medium. There is something magical about seeing a virtual character made of pixels acting in a believable way.”

There’s no denying the thrill of seeing a digital character dynamically react to physical motion. The original pleasure of videogames is watching your input change something on screen; scrolling your Pong paddle; pressing right then “A” to watch Mario jump. Seeing the software respond not just to your input but to mimic pleasure or annoyance raises the satisfaction of play to a new level. As game designer and theorist Katherine Ibister says in her book Better Game Characters By Design, the pleasure we get from a virtual pet is not just watching the moments when it appears to connect with us, but when it scorns us as well. Not unlike an actual pet.

Jörg Neumann is, like Doucet, one of the game creators re-approaching virtual pet design in the motion controller age. Kinectimals, the Xbox 360 Kinect exclusive which Neumann is group program manager on, may have been given the most awkward E3 demo outside of a Konami press conference, but that shouldn’t diminish its accomplishments in making the virtual pet experience more tactile and (possibly) more engrossing. Like his competitor at Sony, Neumann sees a mutual fascination with animals and technology as the root for players’ continued fascination with digital creatures, but in addition to plain old fun, he also thinks people take sincere pleasure in responsibility.

“Humans have surrounded themselves with domesticated animals for thousands of years, and it is not at all surprising that the desire to be surrounded by friendly animals has extended into virtual worlds. When you give players direct responsibility over an entity, whether real or artificial, there is a sense of attachment you can’t help but experience,” explains Neumann. “These games do a really good job in creating the sense that the virtual pet really needs the player and then create a sense of responsibility and positive companionship.”

A careful balance needs to be struck in order for that sense of companionship to take hold, though. Great virtual pets needs to impress both a real and a romanticized ideal of pet ownership. The most obvious difference between the EyePet and Kinectimals is that one sees you caring for a creature not based in reality, and the other choosing from a variety of friendly, exaggerated versions of non-domesticated animals. Whether fictional or wholly imaginary, virtual pets are fantasies at their core, even in the case of more realistic simulations like Nintendogs. Because they are fantasies, though, virtual pet creators are able to create idealized relationships between you and your animal, building up your positive and negative reactions to the software through extremes.

“If you keep your Tamagotchi full and happy, it will grow into a cute, happy cyber creature. If you neglect Tamagotchi, it will grow into an unattractive alien,” reads Bandai’s old instruction booklet, and that design ethos of giving the player extreme feedback in their fantasy to evoke strong emotion persists in Microsoft and Sony’s new games. The fantasy must remain grounded though, and that’s a challenge Doucet and the his team was confronted with early in EyePet’s development.

“We had to research the way animals move and focus on believability,” explains the producer. “Despite the fact EyePet is a fantasy creature, we strived to make him come to life at every moment. Our biggest challenge was balancing the beauty of human hand animation with the interactive moment driven by a program. Only by making the two work in tandem could we achieve a beautifully animated interactive experience.” By making a completely imaginary animal, the EyePet team found they had a bit more freedom than they would if they had been trying to create just a cat or dog simulator, but that meant finding creative ways to keep the game from falling into the virtual pet Uncanny Valley.

“EyePet’s fur looks beautiful, almost nicer than a real animal’s. It moves elegantly. However, if we focused too much on fantasy, we risk cutting off the user’s emotional connection so we included familiar behaviors and activities easy to relate to: classic toys; sports with worldwide relevance. That way, we gave the player a dream but also an anchor. That’s key.”

Creating semi-real jungle creatures like the ones found in Kinectimals is almost more challenging than creating a lovable but wholly original virtual pet. The needs of making them seem real to the player, even the very young players that the game is aimed, are greater because of preconceived expectations. Jörg Neumann describes the process of balancing reality with fun. “It was challenging to create animals that look and feel real. We’re pleased by what we’ve achieved visually. We’ve created thousands of animations to achieve a level of believability. Our focus was less on trying to capture real animal behavior and more on creating an endearing, emotionally inspiring set of animals.”

It was essential, though, that the Kinectimals team kept the game’s animals from feeling like algorithms. “The moment the animal does something robotic, you break any immersion and believability you’ve built between animal and player. I clearly remember the first time we reached that moment when the Bengal Tiger ran up to the screen looking for the player. Everyone at the studio couldn’t help but fawn all over this tiger. It was embarrassing but very telling. When grown men, hardcore gamers, let out that ‘Awwwwww!’ we knew we’d found magic!”

Neumann’s words raise another issue that surrounds virtual pet design. Despite the success that virtual pets like Nintendogs have had with adults, they are more often than not built for and played by pre-adolescent children. Even beyond garish franchises like Ubisoft’s Petz series, children’s affinity for virtual pets has less to do with aggressive marketing (as in the case of Kinectimals’ plush collectibles) or cartoon exuberance (as in the case of the EyePet’s calculated friendly physicality) and more to do with their ability to connect with the imaginary creature. Unsurprisingly, kids are better at letting go the fact that their virtual pet is imaginary than adult players. Shaun Lawson and Thomas Chesney’s 2007 study “The Impact of Owner Age on Companionship With Virtual Pets” found, though, that it isn’t just very young players that the more easily connect with digital pets, but teenage and young adult players as well.

The study’s sample group of Nintendogs players between the ages of 16 and 22 all showed an increased kinship with their puppy than players above the age of 25. Lawson and Chesney concluded that, while more clinical study was needed to make definitive statements, a digital pet’s effectiveness is determined more by player temperament than age. Since both Sony and Microsoft want their virtual pets to be the face of shared family game time rather than a babysitter, the EyePet and Kinectimals were both designed in ways to overcome the virtual pet age barrier and reach players with the disposition to respond to the games.

“We used Microsoft’s User Research Department extensively during [Kinectimals’] production and tested almost exclusively with parent and child pairs, often with multiple children in the room. That way, we were able to assess how the experience was for A, the primary child player, B, the parent player (who could drop in an out of the game), and C, the parent observer, who would interact with the children, give tips, offer suggestions, etc.” This way, Neumann and the team could carefully build the experience to not alienate the adult while still engaging and not frustrating the child.

“What made Kinectimals more complex is that the game is controlled via the player’s body and voice. We had to ensure that people of all ages, sizes, and languages could play. There were quite a few surprises: People around the world throw differently, for example. Not only are there significant differences between male and female voices, adult and children’s voices, but also obvious differences between languages, accents, intonations, etc.”

The EyePet took a more traditional videogame approach in ensuring universal appeal by incorporating a familiar progression structure in the game. How do you keep the hardcore gamer parent engaged? You build in levels. “To design for as large an audience as possible, the game mechanics must be simple and satisfying, with a foundation based on a universal ‘feel good factor,'” says Doucet. “We thought about how boys and girls might play differently in addition to differences between child and adult. So there are two distinct paths for the player to follow in the game: One of nurture and one of challenge.”

Kinectimals will release alongside the Kinect hardware in November, so only Microsoft Game Studios knows for sure how successful their virtual pet is in creating a lasting bond with players. Now on its second release, the EyePet is more of a proven quantity, and while the game makes it clear that technology is still a barrier between full contact with a videogame pet, augmented reality holds great opportunity for bringing that barrier down.

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