Behind the tech of BfB Labs biofeedback card battler Champions of the Shengha

Do you tilt when you’re stressed out? Does the idea of competing on a big stage make you nervous?

Both of these things will make it harder to control your heart rate, something that’s disastrous if you’re looking for success in mobile card battler Champions of the Shengha, made by BfB Labs.

The hook is simple: you clip a sensor to your ear which keeps track of your heart rate. By breathing consistently and controlling your emotions, your character in the game can take advantage of a heightened magic state, which means you get mana to cast cards faster, and can cast more powerful spells.

The game’s design meanwhile seems tailor-made to make you lose your cool. The card battler has more in common with Clash Royale than Hearthstone, and rather than a full deck, you choose the eight cards that’ll show up in your deck, drawing new cards as soon as you cast them. Champions of the Shengha is in real-time too, so as you try to get your breathing under control, you’re also trying to cast minions and shields to mitigating the pounding an enemy is giving you.

I’m terrible at it, and came away feeling anxious from desperately trying to breath in several different ways to give a good showing, but the idea is definitely compelling, and we talked to Simon Fox, the design director of BfB Labs, about some of the tech behind the game. 

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“What we do (at BfB labs) is we put biofeedback technology into games, so all our projects use, in some way, data from your body to make a unique gaming experience” says Fox, mentioning that Champions of the Shengha is their flagship release to show what they’re made of.

“It’s got everything you expect from a CCG (collectible card game), deck building, duelling, and different archetypes for different play styles. In fact, the most unique thing about Champions of the Shengha is the way you gain mana and power up. You’re not ever waiting for your turn in this, you’re trying to get yourself into a mental state that you can imagine real spellcaster would, gathering your own energy so you can emerge as the victor.”

Fox mentions that by moving the gameplay to real time had a few challenges, where the team had to add casting time and attack speeds to spells and characters to stop matches ending in a flurry of attacks. Fox describes wanting to make the combat feel more involved, with the time-based system giving players tough choices: they want to protect their own powerful cards as they gear up to attack, while defending themselves against the enemies big hitters.

“We’ve been working on this now for a couple years. That included an IndieGoGo campaign which we did in Autumn of 2016 where we raised just over $18,000 to take this product out to a beta. For the last seven months, we have developing with our beta cohort and the IndieGoGo backers, iterating it where possible around what they’re looking for, until we started to see really good playstats out of our testers.

The game, which launched last week, is free to play although you need to buy the gadget, dubbed a Magic Transmitter, for £39.95, which you connect to any android phone or tablet with Bluetooth 4 or newer. By launching specifically on Android, and charging forty quid up front, the team are limiting their impact in a CCG market that’s already congested, but Champions of the Shenga isn’t anywhere near titles like Hearthstone or Gwent in terms of tone or gameplay, with the main draw being the technology.

With the tech being the most interesting part, Fox asks if it’s okay for him to geek out a bit and explain how it all works under the hood.

“What’s really interesting about this is that we’re taking from you is a relatively simple biological measure is your heart rate. We have a device, we call it "magic transmitter". The players have to wear it to play the game. In the sort of mythology of the game, what it’s doing is translating your magic power into the world of Champions of Shengha.”

“Your heartbeat by itself is actually not a terribly interesting measure, if we’re just looking at it at one point in time. If you had no pulse, that would be significant, and if you had a really fast pulse then me might think maybe you’re running or you’re really nervous or if you have a really slow pulse we might think you’re sitting still.

“In actual practice, you could be really nervous and have a slow pulse, you could an athlete running hard or a hard piece of physical activity and still have quite a low pulse. There’s no actual, real way to distinguish between the two just looking at the pulse at one moment at time.”

Fox smiles. “Stop me if there’s too much detail here."

“What we do, is we look at your pulse over time. This starts to get more interesting because actually your body is constantly tidily moving between nervous system states and there is a sympathetic relationship your cardiovascular system and your respiratory system. Basically what that means is, all the time you’re sort of switching between one of two modes. Either kind of a fight or flight mode or a rest and digest mode. You would call these in more [inaudible 00:05:59] terms the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. As you move into each, the character of your heart rate changes. When you’re in fight or flight, your heart rate kind of speeds up. When you’re in rest and digest, it slows down.

“The deep biology starts to get involved something called your vegal tone or vegus nerve which is either inhibited or disinhibited. We also, this has a relationship with your cognition. You’re in this sympathetic mode, you’re sort of fight or flight mode, your thinking could speed up a little bit and then rest and digest mode it might slow down a little bit. “

“I’ve been making games for awhile now, and I love the industry. What’s cool about this is that every game teaches you something. You know, you’re learning a skill when you play a game and you’re doing it in kind of an urgent way and that’s really interesting.”

“For example FPS games, what they’re primarily teaching you is pointing at things quickly, and it’s actually good to have really good response time and learn some interesting stuff about responding to lots of different data points at any one time, but we think our game is really cool because you’re actually learning a really meaningful skill alongside all the strategy and maths involved in playing a TCG. You’re really getting dug into this feedback loop of staying calm under pressure.

“Really this is taking data about how you’re feeling and putting it right into the game.”

This makes the game a unique proposition, and the team are already talking about licensing the tech out to other companies in esports.

“We have been talking to some other esports titles about getting the technology into the game, almost like a live stats layer,” Fox says. “Imagine you are watching someone play Heroes of the Storm and, you can see their sort of physiological and emotional state live compared to their gameplay.”

For BfB themselves, they’re focussing on their own launch, with a regular ranked play season that rewards players at the end of each season. However, the team are putting together some roadshow style tournaments, with the plan for the team to go around the country and putting on matches in the UK.

“This will also come along with a proper tournament structure baked into the kind of game itself. We can sort of run these remotely through a client. We don’t currently have any exact plans to start like an invitational with a prize, but we’d really like to that if we pick up the players to make it worthwhile.”

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