Category Archives: WIT

Flower Power – A Transformational Game Project

In this article I will chronicle the design process and lessons learned in creating Trash Traders a multiplayer iPad game aiming to empower a sustainability mindset.

Introduction

At Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) multi-disciplinary teams work on projects over a semester to create an artifact. While attending I was the primary designer on the project which created Trash Traders.

Trash Traders is an iOS app built by a team of students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center in 15 weeks for West Virginia’s Steenrod Elementary. Trash Traders is an experience that has shown to be fun and promote discussions about living a more green life.

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A Transformational Puzzle – Angle Jungle

In this article I will chronicle my design process in creating Angle Jungle an award winning transformational puzzle. Then how I went creating the puzzles within the experience, and finally lessons learned.

Introduction

At Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) multi-disciplinary teams work on projects over a semester to create an artifact. While attending I was the primary designer on the project which created Angle Jungle.

Angle Jungle is an award winning educational puzzle game for fourth to sixth graders studying geometry. At the start of development our requirements were up in the air. Following discussions with our client we settled on the following objectives:

  1. Create an experience involving angles.
  2. Integrate the protractor tool.

Design

Our ideation process began with brainstorming based on the objectives of our project. We then went through two iterations of paper prototypes.

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From our paper prototypes, we choose to refine two based on feedback.

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In parallel we began the process of creating digital prototypes based off these paper prototypes.

Pirates Life – Digital

Our breakthrough moment came when Jesse Schell, a faculty member at the ETC, posed to us that though these games used angles, both could be played without thinking about angles. We needed to make an angles essential experience. This priceless notion lead us to create Angle Jungle’s progenitor which we called Treasure Hunter.

Treasure Hunter V1

Treasure Hunters mechanic encoded the relationship between the numeric and spatial representation of angles. This was achieved by having players use numeric representations to create spatial representations in-order to solve a puzzle. We believed this embodied a system where angles were essentialWe then began refining Treasure Hunter.

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After positive feedback from playtesting we next created a digital prototype.

In the above video players slot numeric values into a beam maker which creates a spatial value. A certain spatial value is required to hit an objective to solve a puzzle and receive treasure. This digital prototype then went through many more iterations.

At this point in development we had the foundations for an experience. What was needed next was to design that experience.

Experience Crafting

How does one go about creating an experience? There are infinite ways, but we began with considering the difficulty curve within our experience.

Difficulty Curve

The above graph is an abstract difficulty curve which displays a sequence of tense and release cycles of increasing difficulty. This curve would form the underlying foundation of our experience. 

Gameplay Elements

With an idea of what we wanted the experience to look like, next we conceptualized the elements within the greater experience. The inspiration for this process came from a number of sources including the learning materials of our target demographic.

Our aim was essentially to gamify our target demographics learning material. We would achieve this through gameplay elements which attempted to capture aspects of the kind of problems they faced in the classroom. These gameplay elements would form the core components of the experience.

More Motivation

Whilst conceptualizing our gameplay elements we also considered the possibility that the puzzle may not be intrinsically motivating enough for players. Therefore we created two additional supporting motivational factors.

Supporting Actor

A gender-neutral character that needed assistance (inspired by Jesse Schell’s Lens of Help). Given the use of supporting characters in educational experiences is common, and there exists research on the potential beneficial effects for players. We hoped this would augment learning within our experience.

Golden Expectations

In addition we created The Cabin. The Cabin would contain rewards in the form of treasures and trophies. The Cabin would act as motivational element by creating Golden Expectations (expectation of rewards) through the aesthetic use of empty shelves as well as serve as a measure of game progress.

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We also recognized the need to space out our rewards for better impact. We therefore arranged rewards into evenly spaced intervals.

All Together

Together these pieces could further flesh out the difficulty curve of our experience. The peaks of our difficulty curve would now commonly correspond to the introduction of gameplay elements, and the dips would be periods of rest at The Cabin.

The experience needed more though, it cried out for substance in the form of puzzle content.

Transformational Puzzle Complexity

With a high-level view, and the fundamental elements of the experience in mind we went about crafting a set of transformational puzzles.

This process resulted in a jumbled pile of puzzles. This was a good first step, but it did not fit the experience structure we wanted. We therefore turned to a mighty tool. The spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet consisted of columns of each gameplay element which we incrementally increased to raise puzzle complexity. This tool complemented the design process as we created more puzzles based on these new complexity constraints.

Two additional considerations came to mind during this process:

  1. Include drops in puzzle complexity when introducing new gameplay elements to allow for more effective tutorials.
  2. Have the majority of learning occur early when complexity is low.

The result of this work was a structure of thirty levels which we then playtested.

Although initial playtests were largely positive they revealed two design issues:

  1. Lack of Angle Diversity – High occurrence totals of fewer number of angle values in the total experience meant a lesser exposure to different angle values.
  2. One Gem Solutions – Solutions which required only one angle gem on more complex levels meant less interaction with different angle values.

Both issues were detrimental to our goal of building familiarity with the angle system. Therefore, two methods of analysis were used to solve these issues:

  1. Angle Distribution Analysis – Counts of each angle value used.
  2. Angle Solution Analysis – A comparison of solution angles against angle values used.

These methods revealed a number of such ‘issue’ levels.

Angle Analysis Results – First Pass

The result of iteratively applying this analysis was that both the complexity and angle diversity was maintained and improved. This ultimately meant a better attempt at achieving our transformational goal.

Occurrence Totals of Angle Values

Transformational Objectives

At the end of the project we ended up with a concrete primary transformational objective, and several secondary transformational objectives.

Primary Transformation

Build familiarity with the angle system by having players practice solving puzzles using a mechanic that has an encoded relationship between the numeric and spatial representations of angles.

Academic Support

Secondary Transformations

In addition to our primary transformational objective we took the opportunity to introduce a number of secondary transformational objectives in manners that were natural extensions of the core experience (providing the experience with more puzzle content).

Protractor Tool Usage

To solve a puzzle, players had to work out the angle that was required to be made. This was difficult for some playtesters and therefore provided a natural opportunity to introduce a protractor scaffolding tool.

By making this tool available we built in the protractor in a manner that was of a natural clear benefit to our players. We hoped by doing so to build familiarity and appreciation of the tool by creating a puzzle environment where it was undoubtedly helpful. Playtesting showed that this strategy ‘seemed’ to work.

Sharon Carver – ‘I especially like the meter that shows the full 360 degrees while the player is working on selecting angles.  It would definitely be worth testing the impact’

Anticlockwise/Positive & Clockwise/Negative Angles

Introduce the notion of positive and negative angle values.

Anticlockwise/Positive & Clockwise/Negative Angle Addition

Introduce both anticlockwise and clockwise rotation, and angle addition and subtraction.

Angles Above 180

Expose students to angles greater than 180 degrees.

Design Considerations

Whilst exposing students to our core mechanic (an encoding between the numeric and spatial representation of angles), initial levels would allow brute force approaches to be rewarded in order to draw in the player with easy rewards.

Allowing for such ‘brute force’ (choices made without solid reasoning) approaches, resulted in the following criticism being raised:

What if players are not doing the thinking you want?

In the defense of brute force, we responded with the following counter points:

  1. Absolute mindless play is rare, so since the use of numeric angle values are essential even with a brute force approach, players are likely to at least reason about this aspect of the game.
  2. Supporting brute force approaches makes the experience more accessible (we had first graders reach level 22 with help!).
  3. Brute force approaches are only reasonably satisfying in low complexity puzzles (playtesters who solely practiced a brute force approach experienced frustration on more complex puzzles).

Most importantly though, we admitted that when complexity was low players would not have to think ‘much’. This was intentional. The experience allowed it for a deeper purpose.

We intended to combine that brute force motivation together with puzzle complexity as a transformative tool to incentivize a ‘logical’ approach. As puzzle complexity slowly increased the experience would naturally create skill appropriate ‘teachable moments’ for teachers to capitalize on.

Results

The results of this process created an experience that contained:

  1. Suitable learning and puzzle complexity curves
  2. An appropriate pattern of tense and release
  3. Appropriately interspersed rewards
  4. An exposure to a wide variety of angle values 
  5. A mechanic where angles were essential (encoded the relationship between spatial and numeric representations of angles)
  6. Relevant and effective motivational elements

This combination resulted in:

  1. An engaging enjoyable experience
  2. Naturally occurring skill appropriate teachable moments
  3. An environment fostering collaborative play

The transformational puzzle complexity in Angle Jungle can be best exemplified by the following diagram (note it dips at times of gameplay element introduction).

Number of Gems against Level

Well what did the games design ultimately translate into? Get a glimpse in the following promotional video (I’m happy to share raw footage on request).

Lessons Learned

So what can we take away from this experience. First some classics:

  • Paper prototypes are your friend!
  • Ask yourself can I play this game without thinking about the core subject matter? Is the subject matter essential to the experience?
  • Consider experience curves from the get go to help structure your experience
  • Study your target demographics source material, and use it as an additional source of inspiration in your design process
  • When introducing new gameplay elements introduce it in a low complexity environment to make learning easier
  • Have most of learning occur early when complexity is low
  • When designing scaffolding tools try to design them in a manner that is of a natural clear benefit to the experience
  • If extending your experience is necessary, do so with natural gameplay elements that can serve transformational goals
  • Guess and check is not the enemy of education. In fact, I believe the availability of simple strategies can create accessibility to larger demographics

Additionally, whilst designing this educational puzzle game one question came to mind.

How can puzzles serve transformational goals?

At present my thoughts are twofold:

  1. Well designed puzzles can create engaging experiences for players which designers can use to piggyback onto to achieve a transformational goal.
  2. Puzzle complexity with brute force motivation can be combined into a transformative tool to create skill appropriate teachable moments at the boundaries of brute force and logical gameplay strategies.

Golden Expectations

As part of the educational game project my team was working on we were required to build a reward system. This system took the form of a trophy room which would display trophies that players had earned. After playtesting though we found we had created an expectation for treasure which we were not fulfilling. The following is a gameplay video where our players would collect treasure chests at the end of each level.

So in order to fulfill this expectation we created additional art assets which we would use to fill up our empty room. We faced a dilemma in this regard. We did not want to force players to see treasure added to the room at the end of every level. This would be far too disruptive to the game experience. So how does one fulfill the expectation of reward without forcibly having the player see the reward appear?

Well one thing helped us in this regard. We already designed fixed reward intervals through the trophy system which forced players to go to the trophy room and observe the new trophy being added to the trophy room.

Fixed Visitation

In our experience we had periods of fixed visitation where the player would be guaranteed to be seeing the Trophy Room. Looking at the experience more methodically we were giving trophy’s at the following intervals (we had thirty levels).

One and thirty were absolutely necessary since they began and ended the experience. The others were decided based on difficulty curve which was designed in previous weeks. Again we asked ourselves the question. How does one fulfill the expectation of reward without forcibly having the player see the reward appear?

Continue reading Golden Expectations

How Improv is Relevant

Improv is a skill we use every single day, it is a facet of how we deal with the unknown, and its development has incalculable benefits to our lives. Whilst at The Entertainment Technology Center the following exercises I found most useful:

I Own This Place

In this exercise we would receive a card from a pack of playing cards which would assign us a number. Based on that number we would adopt a status between extreme high and low.

Learning the concept of high, and low status as well as their traits has allowed me to reflect on myself. Not only do I better recognize status traits in others, but I intend to use this knowledge. I aim to exhibit higher status, and avoid lower status traits as I feel they are essential for many things including leadership positions which is what I aim for in my career.

Different Language Conversation

This exercise involved sitting in a semi-circle, and talking to each other in different languages.

My take away was a reinforcement of how paying attention despite not understanding is important. In and out of the industry we will have conversations where we don’t understand the ‘lingo’ of the speaker, such as when listening to highly technical speakers. Listening intently in those cases improves the conversation by respecting the speaker, and allows for a smoother transition to a language one does understand.

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GDC 2017, Game Design Workshop

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this years Game Developer Conference (GDC). Whilst there I had the pleasure of attending its Game Design Workshop.

The Game Design Workshop took place over two days. Both days included a general session, and an elective. I attended both Day 1 & Day 2. The following is a brief account of the experience. If you are an aspiring designer, and have the opportunity to attend the workshop this is a must do event!

Day 1

SiSSYFiGHT

On the workshops first day we played SiSSYFiGHT. After playing a few rounds, we were asked to come up with a new theme for the game. This involved each team member writing sticky notes, grouping them then voting on a theme.

With a theme of ‘artists vying for attention in the art world’ we added a steal mechanic. The steal mechanic would allow the attacking player to gain the points the other player lost. We quickly found that this mechanic made the game go on infinitely.

We then changed our chosen mechanic to Favor. The Favor mechanic gave a single point to the player of our choosing. This mechanic was better balanced, and encouraged cooperative behavior.

Game of Games

The first elective I chose was Game of Games run by Marc LeBlanc. For the elective we created a system (we did a card game) with a single rule. Our rule had players first play two cards of the same suite. Then play another two cards which had to add up to the higher of the last played two cards. We then were instructed to merge our game with another.

Fortunately the merge was easy as the other game employed a rule that was similar to ours (it was another card constraint rule where the total of the two cards needed to add up to an odd number). We repeated this system merge process four times, until finally we had to merge sixteen different systems.

During this ‘ordeal’ the hardest part was merging a card based system with a dice based system. Our first attempt to tackle this merge was setting up two asymmetric games which were played simultaneously against each other, but this was not a satisfactory outcome.

Equipment

We continued to struggle until Marc LeBlanc allowed us to cut from the system during merging the only constraint being to keep the core components (the dominoes, dice, and cards). At that point we brainstormed and came up with a method of dealing with this which was to combine the system through a medium they all shared, which was numbers.

What we created was a game which involved matching numbers based on eleven dice that were initially rolled, and remained fixed throughout the game. Cards, and dominoes played sequentially, and had to get a pair of numbers that matched the dice’s number to be able to claim it. The winner claimed six out of eleven available dice.

A Messy Attempt at Rules

By the end of  the workshop Marc LeBlanc introduced the MDA Framework, an awesome way of design a game.

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Educational Interest

As part of my Masters in Entertainment Technology I am working on an educational game project at The Entertainment Technology Center. My team aims to essentially create a living 360 degree angle system for fourth to six graders to interact with whilst solving puzzles. We hope that through our demographics interaction with this system we will:

  • Clarify misconceptions about the system
  • Build a familiarity with the system through puzzles which require students to use estimation

In approaching this problem we have gone through an extensive ideation process, and the result is that we finally nailed down a core mechanic that makes considering angles essential. The following is a prototype of what we came up with:

Currently in our project we are at a point where we have to create the puzzles that will make up the heart of our educational game. To do this properly requires the creation of an interest curve; but not just any interest curve! As well needing to be an entertaining experience we must go one step further, and include the element of educational value.

Design Process

With the objective of gamifying the material that our client uses to teach their students we began designing an interest curve. The first part of this process is to study the material which took the form of common core sheets.

We looked at each of the sheets, and broke down the different tasks involved which were as follows:

  1. Create an angle using a protractor
  2. Obtuse, acute, right, and straight problems
  3. Visual identification of obtuse, acute, right, and straight
  4. Identification of obtuse, acute, right within different shapes
  5. Given a protractor diagram identify the angle
  6. Estimate an angle between two points
  7. Find the missing angle given a total angle
  8. Find supplementary angles
  9. Finding complementary angles
  10. Find missing angles in a cross shaped
  11. Find angles in portions of a circle
  12. Find the angles in a triangle

Next with these tasks we looked at what tasks were best suited to the game we have created which was 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12.

In parallel we created a number of game elements to help us create these problems:

  • Clockwise Gem
  • Anticlockwise Gem
  • Beam Generator
  • Power Gem
  • Receivers & Obstacles
Game Elements

We then identified what is essentially our core gameplay challenges that our player will face:

  • Dragging angle gems into beam generator/receivers
  • Remove angle gems from beam generator/receivers
  • Value deciesions between angle gems
  • Clockwise angle gem addition problems
  • Anticlockwise angle gem addition problems

Given our design and students curriculum, we made some assumptions about these challenges:

  • We consider clockwise movement a more advanced topic
  • Increasing complexity means increasing challenge, which can be achieved with more mirrors, angle gem slots, and receivers with obstacles

Now with these elements we imagined an interest curve.

Continue reading Educational Interest

Building Trust

How can we build trust as game designers? This is a question I’ve been asking myself, and in doing so came across an awesome video by James Everett, Lead Game Designer at Magic Leap (talking at Game Connect Asia Pacific).

In the above video James discusses the following.

Saruman vs Hobbit

Don’t be a Saruman, someone who ‘dispenses wisdom’ from an ivory tower. Instead be a hobbit. Be a comrade, a facilitator, filter, and collaborator for the people around you.

Trust

Everett breaks down trust into two components.

Logical

The logical component is based on the societal structure that we expect from normal, rational human beings, comprised of:

  1. Contractual obligations
  2. Past behavior
  3. Following social norms
  4. Following the law

Emotional

Emotional trust is:

  • The default in healthy teams
  • Reciprocal
  • Pleasant and efficient

Everett then discusses three ways in which designers can build or break trust.

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