When it comes to video games, they have a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to parents allowing their children to play on screens for long amounts of time. As such, even educational games are sometimes looked down upon. I, personally, feel that the future of children using mobile devices is going to be through toys that connect with mobile devices to provide a new type of experience - one that can be played both on and off the screen.
A recent example of this sort of game is Melbits PODs. Melbits POD is a physical, almost Tamagotchi-esque device that children can carry around and play with throughout their day. These toys react to movement, temperature and light, encouraging children to spend time and play with their PODs before connecting them up to mobile devices to see how their pet is growing and evolving.
I got the chance to sit down with Ivan Exposito, the co-founder of Melbot Studios and see how this toy is revolutionising the mobile platform. Ivan Exposito and David Montero (the other co-founder) came up with the idea for a new type of Tamagotchi, and Exposito designed the pod itself and oversaw manufacturing, alongside doing several other day to day management tasks.
“When David and myself thought about starting a new company we were super determined to create products that blend the best of toys with the best of video games. Right in the first brainstorms we came with this crazy idea of creating a gameplay that would involve sensors and videogames... soon after came with the POD idea.”
The Melbots POD is a unique concept, as sensory play is something that children respond to. In creating this sort of toy, there are a lot of processes that most game developers do not dive into, but surprisingly this game and toy did start out in the same way that most games start - with an actual video game.
“Since creating a piece of hardware can be a huge task, we started building the digital universe of Melbits first. Our team is really strong in developing console videogames so our first natural product was the console game... finally now the POD project is almost ready to hit the market and we are really excited!”
Much like traditional video games, Melbits PODs were also prototyped, with them taken to events, and feedback was then collected from players of all ages. Game developers often collect feedback in multiple ways, ranging from beta testers and events to more, so these toys being tested out in the same way makes a lot of sense.
“When we created the first playable prototype we did a series of user testing with kids and adults in AIJU, which is the Spanish institution that helps to certify and test toys, to validate the concept with experts. Since then we have tested the Pod in many gaming and toy shows and events, where people of all ages were giving us a lot of valuable feedback. Just before
our Kickstarter we also ran some more long term tests with beta testers that still today are getting beta app updates as we complete the final steps [of] development.”
When it comes to the pod itself, as previously mentioned, it is temperature sensitive, light sensitive and also detects motion - perfect for playing at the park, putting in the fridge, and other things curious minds might find themselves doing. These things can directly affect the pets within the POD.
“In essence, the POD is a simple system but there's a lot of complexity and technology involved. Our devs Miguel, Carlos and Mangel have engineered a secret magic algorithm that turns the powers of nature into magical digital creatures...hahah! Nah seriously, we have worked a lot to create a digital DNA of each Melbit and we map that to the different sequences of readings that we get from the sensors.”
Children, as many know, see most things as digital concepts once introduced to digital things. This is something that Exposito noticed too and used to his advantage when creating both the concept and PODs themselves.
“We are really inspired by small kids and how they don’t make any distinction about what's digital and what is not digital, when you see them trying to zoom in or out by pinching on top of a paper magazine page, you realize that the differences of toy and app are only in our minds.... “
The mobile app itself doesn’t actually work without the PODs, as the POD is used to create the pets that can be played within the app. You can’t really play one without the other, fully integrating these two different concepts together. Unlike other toys that have supporting apps, this app is one with the toy.
“The Melbits POD is a product that is composed by the toy and the videogame… as one single thing, there's no pod without the app and vice-versa, but the two of them together conform the game... I know it's a bit radical, and some people still struggle to see it this way, but we are 100% sure that this is the way to go.”
Now that Melbits PODs have been fully funded on Kickstarter, the developers have been approached by distributors in Japan and the USA, opening up doors for this toy to make its way into the hands and houses of children.
As I said at the start of the piece, I do feel that these types of toys will be the future of kids games, and this is something that the creators of Melbits believe in too.
“There always will be dolls, puzzles, wooden blocks and legos but we see that this type of "enhanced" toys can provide so many amazing game experiences that will be more and more popular. It is something similar to what we experienced in the sports category, there's a digital layer that makes everything more rich and interesting.”
You can purchase a Melbits POD on their website.