Back in April, I participated in the Sifteo Early Access beta program and provided my first impressions of the Sifteo cubes gaming platforms. Five months later, the cubes have launched publicly and I have returned to share my second impressions.
Little appears to have changed with the Sifteo cubes hardware since my first experience with them back in April. Quality assurance was a primary hardware concerns during my first review. In particular, I noted that my Early Access cubes had dents, gouges, and scrapes along the border surrounding their screens. Later, I realized that the damage appears systematically along the lower right-hand borer of the cubes and was informed by Sifteo employees that this is a result of the manufacturing process. As the image below demonstrates, all six of my newly received cubes suffer from the same symptoms. I would say that the damage is less pronounced in the newer cubes than my original ones. However, the problem has not been fixed and my concern is that customers will demand higher quality, especially when each cube is running at a price of nearly $50.
A potential misconception that I pointed out in my first impressions article was that people might think of the cubes as mobile devices. Since they are tethered to a computer (within a 20 foot wireless range) in order to operate, the cubes are indeed more like a home console than a mobile platform. This is more of a foundational problem and therefore I would not expect it to be fixed in such a short period of time. However, I do think that allowing the cubes to operate via an iPad, smartphone, or independently would be a tremendous improvement to their mobility and overall appeal.
Along similar lines, I also voiced concerns over the audio for the cubes, which originates from the tethered computer rather than the cubes themselves. This is a concern that I would not expect to be addressed at this point either, but onboard audio would make an important contribution to the gameplay experience, especially in games that feature audio feedback as a primary component.
On the other hand, I may have noticed some improvements to the cubes. For one, it seems that my new cubes have a more snappy and less mushy screen click than the ones I originally tested. It is hard to say whether this is a product of hardware changes or the individual cubes I received. I reported that my cubes heated up after a few minutes of play in the past, but no longer notice this problem. I had trouble with the viewing angle on the original cubes. The effect of rotating a cube or viewing it from any angle other than head-on would make it difficult to see what was displayed onscreen. However, in my new cubes, the screens appear to be better visible at any orientation. There is still some viewing angle effect, but it feels less pronounced and disruptive than before.
Sadly, not much has changed about Sifteo’s software since my first review. A few minor games were released over the past few months, but there is still no must-have, hardware-selling game on the platform. The titles worth mentioning (and playing) at the moment are Chroma Shuffle, Blok 9, and Moon Marble. These have more complete experiences than the others and have been improved over time with added modes and levels. Yet, I am still concerned that, without compelling software, the cubes will fail to attract a large audience, sustain players’ interest, and attract new developers. The release of the Sifteo SDK is imminent, but it remains to be seen what third-party developers will bring to the cubes and when.
On a side note, I did notice that the music has been revised in some of the games. For instance, the Axel F reminiscent theme from Chroma Shuffle is gone. I hope it was not removed because of my first review, because I was serious when I said it was cool.
Another thing that I would like to mention is that the cubes feel more fun and engaging when using six, rather than three. The system’s software supports up to a maximum of six cubes simultaneously, although three is the standard amount included in Sifteo’s starter package. Having used six cubes now, I can say that the experience is improved over three. I see greater potential for compelling interactions (especially for multiplayer games) when using more cubes as opposed to fewer.
A final point worth mentioning, which seems to be on the mind of many journalists and potential customers, is price. The cubes are priced relatively high for what they are currently offering, with each cube costing roughly $50. Hence, the cost of the complete cubes hardware is comparable to many more mature gaming alternatives, such as the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo 3DS, and iPhone. The cubes’ current software is priced at $1, $2, $5, or $8. While $1 or $2 per game seems reasonable, anything higher seems extremely unreasonable. This is especially true relative to iOS games, which tend to be priced at $0.99 and offer higher-quality, more developed user experiences.
At this point, it is anyone’s guess as to the success and longevity of the Sifteo cubes. I believe that price and software will play critical roles in shaping the future of the platform. I do feel that the relatively high cost of the platform will deter many potential customers, especially as it is compared against more robust, similarly-priced alternatives, such as home consoles, handhelds, and smartphones. High-quality software is a must-have if the cubes are going to capture and retain the interest of users.