Introduction: Angle Jungle is an award winning puzzle game built by a team of students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center in 15 weeks for Pennsylvania’s Intermediate Unit 1. Angle Jungle has value to first graders and above, its primary purpose though is as a supplement for 4th to 6th graders learning basic geometry.
Platform: iOS | Time: 15 weeks | Role: Game Designer | Team Size: 4
Design Goal: The goal of the project was to achieve the following transformations in our target demographic:
Primary Transformation: Build familiarity with the angle by having players solve puzzles that use a mechanic that encodes the numeric and spatial representations of angles
Introduce positive and negative angles
Introduce clockwise and anticlockwise rotation
Introduce angles greater than 180 degrees
Build familiarity with the protractor tool
Design Challenges: We faced a number of design challenges during this project:
Protractor tool introduction
Finding an mechanic which made angles essential
Crafting fun and engaging puzzles
Crafting additional sources of motivation
My Contributions: As the game designer on the project I took the lead on directing our creative efforts. My efforts helped create a well received, fun, and engaging experience which made a good attempt to achieve our transformational goals. Other areas I made significant contributions in were:
An ideation process that created the main mechanic of the game
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.
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:
From our paper prototypes, we choose to refine two based on feedback.
In parallel we began the process of creating digital prototypes based off these paper prototypes.
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 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 essential. We then began refining Treasure Hunter.
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.
How does one go about creating an experience? There are infinite ways, but we began with considering the difficulty curve within our experience.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We also recognized the need to space out our rewards for better impact. We therefore arranged rewards into evenly spaced intervals.
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:
Include drops in puzzle complexity when introducing new gameplay elements to allow for more effective tutorials.
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:
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.
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:
Angle Distribution Analysis – Counts of each angle value used.
Angle Solution Analysis – A comparison of solution angles against angle values used.
These methods revealed a number of such ‘issue’ levels.
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.
At the end of the project we ended up with a concrete primary transformational objective, and several secondary transformational objectives.
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.
Sharon Carver – ‘The actual angle choices at the various levels and the angle meter seemed to work well and COULD promote learning of the concepts and spatial relations of angles, as long as students don’t game the system’.
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’
Introduce both anticlockwise and clockwise rotation, and angle addition and subtraction.
Angles Above 180
Expose students to angles greater than 180 degrees.
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:
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.
Supporting brute force approaches makes the experience more accessible (we had first graders reach level 22 with help!).
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.
The results of this process created an experience that contained:
Suitable learning and puzzle complexity curves
An appropriate pattern of tense and release
Appropriately interspersed rewards
An exposure to a wide variety of angle values
A mechanic where angles were essential (encoded the relationship between spatial and numeric representations of angles)