A creativity toy lives and dies on the things you can do with it. Gary's Mod, for instance, has been around for so long because it allows you to play 100s of different player-made game modes. RoboCo is a creativity toy, crossed with a logic puzzle, that manages to be one of the most addictive experiences I've ever had, which is quite surprising considering that the preview material only contains 3 campaign levels to try out. Never the less, RoboCo will keep you entertained for hours with the simple thought of "I can do better".
RoboCo is a new game being developed and published by Filament Games, a game studio with a history of educational games from a broad spectrum of different subjects. While I have never played their back catalog, I can say with a reasonably small amount of doubt that this may be their first truly captivating educational game. Normally when you think of an edutainment game, the best possibility that pops into your mind is something like The Oregan Trail. An interesting game with some tenuous connection to historical fact. With RoboCo, the educational aspect is much more stealthy than that.
The main point of RoboCo is to construct robots intended for very specific purposes. For example, the first robot you must construct has to deliver a sandwich to someone in a cafe. You're given a fairly light tutorial about the basics of controlling and building your robot, then you mostly have to figure things out for yourself. If you're not invested in the game you can easily scrape by most of the tasks. Each one has 4 objectives, one main objective which is usually simple to complete, and 3 others which are a bit more of a challenge.
When you first start you need to simply tackle thinking through how you logically would go about completing the task. What physical actions are required to do what has been asked of you? Once you've figured that out, you then need to build the main body of your robot to the right size requirements. It can't be too big to navigate the area, but if it's too small it may not reach high enough to complete certain tasks. Then you need to figure out which mechanical pieces will be needed, such as pistons to push things, or motors to rotate things.
The first iteration of any given robot is going to be clunky and probably won't work. That's the interesting thing about RoboCo, it's not the sort of game you can just immediately work your way straight through. You're going to get the balance of your robot wrong, you're going to guess the dimensions of your robot wrong. Hell, the first time I built my Sandwich Bot I just pushed the sandwich along the floor until it was vaguely near the table and then called it a day. It's on further iterations of each bot that things start to become interesting.
When I first got through the challenges, I did the main requirement and moved on, and by the end of the 3 levels, I wasn't getting the game's appeal. Then I decided to give the harder elements of each level out. I then proceeded to spend hours trying out numerous different things until I got each challenge perfect...well, okay so I only got the first one perfectly but what do you want this game is hard. It's truly engrossing in a way that's almost hard to explain. When you try something and it doesn't work, you just feel like you want to try something else until it finally does work.
The sense of accomplishment when you finally get your bot to do what it needs to is overwhelming. It's also amazing the different ways you can come up with to complete a task. While on my first attempt at a wood-cutting challenge I tried using pistons to elevate the saw. On my next run, I realized that there was an elevator item that was much more efficient for what I needed. As you learn to construct and refine your bots, you go back to older challenges and look at them with fresh, more knowledgeable eyes.
If there's one criticism I have for RoboCo it's that right now the tutorial is a little too light. Overexplaining things would defeat the point of an educational game, but it wouldn't be a step too far to explain how you're supposed to use certain blocks. The elevator mechanism I mentioned earlier, for instance, took me a good 30 minutes to figure out. Having said that, it's possible that figuring these things out on your own is sort of the entire point of a game about teaching people to think logically.
You can also design your robots from an Aesthetic standpoint, so of course, I gave my first robot the most apathetic possible face possible. This is the element that will make RoboCo such an entertaining experience when it does finally come out. I know I'll be making something truly wacky and then forcing my friends to pretend to care when I share it on Twitter. I can't wait for more from this game, and if everyone else finds it as enthralling as I do then they're about to be sneakily educated in the ways of logic and robotics. If this is what the Boston Dynamics lads get up to all day then you can sign me up.
TechRaptor previewed RoboCo on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.