Game Review: Dokobots

I’ve been playing with Dokobots on and off since being introduced to it at WhereCamp. I liked it off the bat, but I don’t think there’s much to keep the player coming back over time. I have a few thoughts on how that might be fixed.

The game goes like this: there are robot parts scattered all over the world, from a ship that crashlanded here. You have a scanner you can use to find robot parts, and batteries, which allow you to reactivate them. Once you activate a robot, you can give it a name and a mission (some of mine so far are looking for strong drinks, dance music, and stir-fry). Then, you help the robot with its adventures by adding photos and map markers to a journal. You can only have one active robot at a time, so it’s strongly encouraged to drop the bot off to be found and entertained by someone else. They’re little tourists, traveling from iPhone to iPhone around the world.

I like:

  • The art! It’s a cute game. Someone clearly put effort into dreaming up a number of fun robot designs.
  • I know from WhereCamp that the developers thought about how to make this a game you could pick up and play anywhere in the world, and I think these considerations put the game on a solid base. It probably makes more sense in an urban area, but there’s something to do anywhere you can go outside and walk around.
  • Doko Air: a feature that lets you send a robot off to explore the world.
  • The photo tool. Most of the gameplay centers around taking little travel photos of the robot in different places, and being able to scale and reposition the bot in the frame makes this more fun.
  • The magnet: this is another nice consideration for how the game works out in the world. If a battery or robot piece is someplace you can’t physically reach (like the middle of a highway) you can pull it closer with the magnet tool.

I was less happy with:

  • The reliance on user-generated content. All of the activated bots are named and described by other players, and all of the storytelling comes from what people put into the journal entries. This makes the game easy to expand, but it also means that there’s a lot of uninteresting bots wandering around, with just one or two items in their journal, and unless you have a pack of eager players in your area, any bot you drop off will probably just sit there until you stumble across it again yourself.
  • The lack of interaction between players who are in the same space, or between robots at all. I can’t hand a friend my dokobot, or batteries or parts, when we’re in the same room, even though this would be a completely natural activity. Instead you drop off the bot, and the other person picks it up. Also, dokobots are basically invisible to each other—I could have a dozen sitting around my apartment, and the gameplay would be exactly the same. This seems pretty contrived.
  • There are way too many inactive bots available to pick up. In any area I scan, I find several, including ones that are “rare” west coast only or other sub-groups. I currently have 24 inactive bots in my workshop (holding area), and I have no idea what to do with them, since I can’t trade, discard, or combine them into other things. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make people walk around a while between picking up parts. Having only one or two appear in each scan might be more balanced.
  • The graphics and the game text indicates that dokobots have different structures, but all of them have the same abilities in the gameplay (recording their location and taking pictures). Why can’t the headphone-wearing music lovers record audio snippets? For that matter, why do all bots have cameras? Couldn’t some be text-only terminals? This is another area of the game that feels artificial, instead of innate to the story.
  • This might be a bug: Doko Air currently allows you to put robots you don’t currently have in your possession on a flight. While that was useful for retrieving a bot I sent to Singapore, it doesn’t really make sense to allow it.
  • The scanner is kind of annoying to work with when I’m walking for more than a block or two, because every time my phone goes to sleep, the view zooms back out and in again to find my location. Unless the scanner has been sleeping for a while, it makes sense to start from my previous location and slide the map over to the new spot.

So, how might I fix the things I didn’t like about the gameplay?

The first one is that I would hire a couple of writers to craft interesting adventure stories for bots that players could participate in. There’s an underlying problem called participation inequality: the proportion of users who are deeply engaged in creating content is much smaller than the set who are interested enough to browse around a little. Many people might install Dokobots and scan around a couple of times, but far fewer will add several journal entries, actively seek out other people’s bots, and so on. You need a pretty big player community for that to generate enough good content to keep the more casual players coming back, but providing your own story content for people to latch onto helps bootstrap this.

What might those stories look like? Maybe my DrinkyBot needs to get to Toronto to meet the Cocktail Mixing Master, and while it’s there, the two of them won’t just take pictures of the drinks, but collect recipes, then go back out into the world to share the details of that fabulous Negroni. Or there’s a little bot who lost its puppy (also another bot) and players need to use their scanners to help find out where the puppy is, then get the bot to the same place. These don’t have to be terribly complex, just detailed enough to give people something to play with. It could even require that players have to go online and try to recruit other people in the right city to help out. I’ve seen techniques like that work well as part of ARGs. And a locative game like this is a kind of alternate reality experience: there aren’t really robot parts all over the street, but we’re going to pretend there are and see what happens.

The last thing I would do is spend some time thinking about how the game story fits into the player’s world. If my neighborhood’s streets are scattered with electronic rubble, isn’t someone going to want to clean that up? What does it look like when there are several dokobots in my local pub, or at the soccer game? Is everyone okay with helping these tourists along? Do the bots ever get bored and want to go home (but they can’t, because their ship exploded)? The game as it stands now is basically a collecting activity: you get more batteries, and different types of bots to activate, and sets of pictures and paths on a map. Once you’ve collected all the things you can, what happens next?

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