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Next March, the DigiPen students who created the augmented-reality sandbox game Sand Garden will be attending Alt.Ctrl.GDC, an interactive space dedicated to “alternative control schemes and interactions in games,” at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The team received an invitation from GDC in December after faculty submitted the project to GDC’s judges. Sand Garden will be showcasing as one of 20 selected games at the exhibit.

(Update: Read an in-depth interview with members of the Sand Garden development team on Gamasutra.)

“Right after I’d finished turning in my final projects, I was checking my email one last time for the night, and I’d gotten an email letting me know that we’d been accepted,” says Taylor Riviera, the team’s lead designer. “It was just the burst of excitement I needed.”

Unlike a traditional video game with mouse and keyboard controls, Sand Garden consists of an Xbox Kinect sensor and digital projector connected to a large container full of Kinetic sand. The game challenges players to quickly sculpt a virtual terrain so that the land is suitable for small villages to grow and expand. Different village types can only thrive at certain altitudes, ranging from mountaintop peaks to low-elevation plains. The game also allows multiple people to play at the same time, letting them work together — scooping and rearranging large volumes of sand in tandem — to create the perfect conditions for each village.

“It’s a fantastic game experience,” says faculty member Ellen Beeman, who helped submit Sand Garden to Alt.Ctrl.GDC. “Your entire interface is the sand. You dig in with your fingers and try to quickly make the terrain that your villagers need — high mountains or low lakes. It’s tremendously fun and engaging.”

Team Psylight showed Sand Garden at PAX West earlier this year. Hundreds of convention goers stopped by over the course of the weekend to try out the unique experience.

A PAX West attendee sculpting terrain by moving kinetic sand
A convention-goer at PAX West plays with Team Psylight’s augmented-reality game project, Sand Garden.

Taylor thinks the reception at GDC will be even better than at PAX, since most of the attendees will be fellow game developers. “We had a lot of success showing Sand Garden off at PAX West in the fall,” he says, “but I think that was due to us sticking out with our unusual set up. However, in a room full of industry vets [at GDC], I’m willing to bet that more people are going to see that little bit of magic that we found while creating Sand Garden.”

Beeman agrees. “Alt.Ctrl.GDC is a showcase of games that use alternative controllers,” she says, “and Sand Garden is the most unlikely game interface ever — a big box of sand! I’m confident the team and this project will demo very well at GDC, next to some of the other most innovative games of our industry.”

I’m extremely excited to be showing a game at GDC. The full weight of that hasn’t really hit me yet.”

This isn’t Taylor’s first trip to Alt.Ctrl.GDC. While attending the convention in 2016 as a spectator, he says he marveled at the participants’ “drive to create something one of a kind.”

“That’s the same drive that got Sand Garden off the ground,” he says. “I’m extremely excited to be showing a game at GDC. The full weight of that hasn’t really hit me yet.”

Similar to PAX West, visitors to the GDC exhibit will get to experience Sand Garden firsthand. Because the sand is kinetic, it holds its shape like wet sand but doesn’t create a mess, and it’s easy to jump right in and start playing — even for players who may have never picked up a game controller before.

“Playing in the sand is universal,” says Taylor. “I haven’t known a single person that didn’t enjoy Sand Garden after getting their hands in the sand. I think that accessibility is a large part of what helps our game be successful.”

Check out our previous story on Sand Garden or watch a video of Taylor explaining the project in the video below.