Daytona with Robots & Railguns: Hands-On with Anki Drive

Daytona with Robots & Railguns: Hands-On with Anki Drive

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too hard. Too easy, and players lose interest. Too hard, and they feel like they’re not getting better, and they give up. I feel like I’m learning to be a better racer, but it’s going to take me a while to beat the Hard AI consistently.

Then again, maybe I never will. Because Anki is collecting so much data on how humans play the game, and because all of the intelligence in the cars resides in the iPhone app—which the company can upgrade as often as it likes—the AI can just keep getting smarter. That’s probably a good feature.

I’m a little worried that the customization ladder in the app, which let players add to their cars’ firepower, shielding, and energy capacity using the credits they’ve built up, could eventually throw the easy/hard balance out of whack. I just purchased the EMP weapon for my car—part of an early-January update to the app—and it’s cool, but I feel a little guilty using it to immobilize the AI car, which isn’t earning its own upgrades as we play.

Other new upgrades include Reverse Drive, which lets you briefly drive against traffic; Horn, which forces other cars out of your way; and Kinetic Brake, which lets you stop on a dime, the better to trick opponents into passing you. At some point I may need to stop using the yellow car (“Kourai”) and earn some of these upgrades for the gray car (“Boson”) in order to restore the balance of terror.

My only real complaint about Anki Drive is unrelated to the technology itself. It’s about the racetrack. It’s made from a variety of vinyl that emits an extremely stinky chemical (doubtless some kind of volatile organic compound) that will fill your entire house. The smell is so strong that you can’t leave the track out between games; you have to roll it back up and put it away in the Anki Drive box so that you can resume breathing. I can only hope that the track will stop off-gassing at some point—and that Anki will look into using a different material in its second-generation product.

But that’s a minor criticism. When it comes to high-tech games, I’ll gladly admit to being a 10-year-old going on 40-something. For now, Anki has my attention—and it’ll be interesting to see whether and how the company’s experience with Anki Drive leads to more category-busting products down the line, as CEO Boris Sofman promises.

“Toys are a notoriously hit-driven,” Sofman told me in November. “You don’t know if it’s going to be successful, or if it’s going to be a two-year fad. We are trying to bypass all of that by making sure we are not competing on the same elements that toys traditionally compete on. We are coming to the party with this huge asset of defining everything in software.”

In the case of Anki Drive, there’s nothing preventing the company from introducing physical accessories like additional cars or more complex racetracks. But the app and the way it interfaces with the cars is the core of the experience, and if Anki can keep innovating, that experience will keep luring players like me back in.

Addendum 1/22/14: A spokeperson for Anki Drive says “the ‘new track’ smell is harmless and has passed all rigorous compliance testing.”

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The Author

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com.

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