When Alane Adams sat down to work on her book series, Legends of Orkney, she was writing for her 12-year-old son. But when it came to getting the word out about the book, she had to answer a hard question: how do you get kids really excited about reading?
The answer for her was to make the book, “The Red Sun,” into a transmedia property. Transmedia stories aren’t confined by technology. The one you’re most familiar with is probably The Matrix, which spawned a trilogy of live-action films, several animated shorts, and a video game that tied into the film’s events. Viewing all the properties together gave you the whole story, but the films stood on their own.
Rather than just creating an app about the book, Adams decided to create a game. BattleKasters is a mobile card game that uses location technology. It’s been playable at conventions all across the country this past summer, including PAX Prime in Seattle.
The story of BattleKasters doesn’t spoil the book; it borrows from the mythos. Witches have opened a doorway between Orkney and our world, and they’re letting monsters in. The player has to cast spells to eventually close the portal, called the stonefire.
Before the convention, beacons are placed around the convention center. These battery-powered beacons use GPS technology to broadcast their position. After players download the free BattleKasters app to their phone, the phone will vibrate when it’s in range of a beacon.
The beacons in question are small, unobtrusive white plastic discs that can attach to any surface.
At a beacon, players can get new cards and use them to cast spells. Some of the spells might not be so great for the player who comes by afterwards. Dark spells, like “Plunder,” can steal cards from players. But it’s a game of chance, because players can also use light spells to protect themselves, which will cause Plunder to backfire.
Focusing on either light or dark magic has its benefits. Later in the game, new beacons are unlocked and characters will try to tempt you to one side or the other.
Brent Friedman, the Chief Creative Officer of Artifact Technologies, says he’s seen parents and kids tackle this moral decision in different ways.
“One of the great thing that we’ve experienced has been when families play the game together. Kids take this very literally,” Friedman said. “When they are told to stay away from the witch and dark spells, they don’t want to do it. And of course their parents say, ‘Wait a minute, if we use this we can steal cards from other people!'”
When families play together, Friedman says, “It really challenges the agreement between the kids and the parents about whose game this is. And ultimately the kids always win.”
Teenagers, on the other hand, are all about the dark spells.
To casting a spell you shake your phone, a gesture that’s easy to spot in a crowded convention center, making it easy to find other people who are playing the game. The BattleKasters team has spent the last year ironing out the kinks and gradually adding new content to the game—including battles with other players, which will be introduced at New York City Comicon.
There’s potential for games like BattleKasters in classrooms as well, especially when it comes to creating activities around assigned reading.
We visited the developers, Artifact Technologies, at their office in Ballard. They’ve set up a BattleKasters experience in the neighborhood, and they walked us through a quick game. You can watch it in the video above.
Creating games outside of convention centers is something that Artifact Technologies has been experimenting with. At San Diego Comicon, the BattleKasters “game board” was set up in the historic Gaslamp Quarter. Facts about the Quarter were added to the app, so that players were guided on a historical tour while they played the game. Those beacons are still active, Alane Adams explained to me.
“When we come to these cities, we’d like to leave a permanent installation behind. [At San Diego Comicon] we left those beacons behind and people continued to play,” Adams said. “The beacons last for up to two years of battery power. So as long as they stay in place and somebody doesn’t dislodge them, then people can still continue to play the game at San Diego.”