Switchblade: A Cure for the Hunch?
Managing Editor Jon Wood recently sat down with the guys from Blue Orb, the company that has created Switchblade. Switchblade is a program that allows gamers to use an XBox 360 controller to play World of Warcraft.
Like many MMO players, over the last few years I find that I've developed the "gamer's hunch" whenever I sit down at the computer. You know the symptoms, your shoulders come forward, one hand goes to the mouse while the other hand goes straight for the WSAD keys. I've tried other things, like kicking back with the keyboard in my lap, but it's always seemed too big and bulky to be comfortable. Is it going to stop me from playing games? No. Does it keep me on the lookout for something that can help? Of course.
With that in mind, I sat up and took notice when ads started appearing on this site for the Switchblade, a device with the tagline: "Play World of Warcraft... With a 360 controller". The ad actually shows a guy suffering from "the hunch", and how using their product could help to alleviate it. I mean, the guy looks so happy in the after shot... Now, I want to be clear right now that this isn't a review of the product in question, that will come in time, but the ad did make me curious enough to book an interview with the guys over at Blue Orb, the company that developed the Switchblade.
I was joined in the interview by the company's VP of Business Development, Aaron Lavine and their Lead Software Engineer, Ahron Moyer. They told me that on October 16th, they launched this new piece of software that would do as the advertisement states, let gamers play World of Warcraft using an Xbox 360 controller.
"We noticed that there was a lot of downtime in MMOs," I was told, "that make you not want to hunch over your keyboard. We're trying to add a level of comfort to the gaming experience".
What does it cost?
It's a free download, and it's available for download through X-fire. "X-Fire has been an incredible partner," Moyer said of the company. "We're very pleased with the results [of the launch so far]".
So, how does it work?
According to Aaron and Ahron, the system is pretty customizable, but they told me a little bit about the default settings, and I have to say that I was intrigued:
One of the sticks on the 360 controller serves the same purpose as your mouse, while the other allows directional movement. I went on to ask them about combat. How will the 360 controller allow players to make all of their available attacks and actions? The answer was surprisingly simple:
There are four buttons on the 360 controller, X, Y, A & B. There are 12 available actions on the action bar. The first four are mapped to X,Y,A,B, to activate the next four (1,2,3,4), you press the left trigger to activate the next four (5,6,7,8) and the right trigger activates the last four (9,10,11,12). The D-Pad on the controller can be used to move through the various action bars.
So, how would people use it?
Aaron told me that throughout the summer, they employed "usability studies" (think focus group) to test the product. They found that people who weren't MMO players tended to use the controller pretty much 100% of the time, while more MMO savvy players seemed to prefer to use it in conjunction with a keyboard. It's important to note here that using the Switchblade software doesn't disable the keyboard or its functions, and it can still be used to play.
So, how do you make money?
The business model for Switchblade is advertisement based, meaning that it's free to the user. This can, however, be a mixed blessing and really depends on how it's handled. If, for example, using this software somehow forced players to look at ads while they were gaming it might cause problems. Fortunately, that isn't the case. The ads appear on the Switchblade menu and do not, I am told, interfere with gameplay.
World of Warcraft is only the beginning of Switchblade's planned penetration into the MMO biz. In fact, Blue Orb is planning to launch versions (called "blades") for: Guild Wars, Tabula Rasa, Lord of the Rings Online and Hellgate: London in mid-late January and beyond that they are looking to expand to 25-30 blades.
How do the game companies feel about this product?
As it turns out, Blizzard isn't affiliated with Switchblade, but the guys were very quick to point out that they have spoken to Blizzard about it and they are aware of the product. "We're not trying to be coy," Aaron told me, "we're full disclosure".
While some MMORPG gamers might be resistant to bringing console elements into their PC experience, this is an interesting product that, at the very least, has the potential to help those of us who might be developing the "gamer's hunch".