Introduction: Angle Jungle was built by a team of students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center in 15 weeks for our client 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
Can puzzle complexity serve a transformational goal?
In this article I will consider this question, by first describing the design process used to create puzzle complexity which serves a transformational goal. Next I will contemplate the results of that puzzle complexity which is contained in the game my team created.
Angle Jungle is an educational puzzle game for fourth to sixth graders studying geometry. Initially our requirements were up in the air, though we eventually settled on the following rather vague objectives:
From our paper prototypes, we choose to refine two based on feedback.
We parallel we began the process of creating digital prototypes based off these paper prototypes.
Our breakthrough moment came when Jesse Schell, our Professor, posed to us that though these games used angles, both could be played without thinking about angles. We therefore needed to make angles essential to the experience. This priceless notion lead us to create Angle Jungle’s progenitor, which we called Treasure Hunter.
Treasure Hunter we believed embodied a system where angles were essential. At its heart a mechanic that encoded the relationship between the numeric, and spatial representation of angles.
We then began refining Treasure Hunter.
After positive feedback from playtesting we next created a digital prototype.
This digital prototype went through multiple iterations.
At this point in the development process we had the beginnings of a game. The game cried out for something more though. It cried out for a greater 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 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. We therefore created two additional supporting motivational factors.
A gender neutral character than needed assistance (inspired by Jesse Schell’s lens of help). Given the use of characters in educational experiences is fairly common, and that 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 our players reward 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, periods of rest at The Cabin.
The experience needed more though. It was a skeleton crying out for substance in the form of puzzles. It cried out for depth, and complexity.
With a high level view, and the fundamental elements of the experience in mind we went about crafting puzzles, inspired by our source material and gameplay elements.
This process resulted in a jumbled pile of puzzles which though was a good first step, did not fit the experience structure we wanted. We therefore turned to a mighty tool.
The spreadsheet consisted of columns of each gameplay element which we incrementally increased to increase 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:
Certain puzzles contributed to a 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)
Several puzzles had one gem solutions (solutions which required only one angle gem on more complex levels meant less interaction with different angle values within a puzzle)
Both these issues were detrimental to our goal of building familiarity with the angle system, therefore further puzzle analysis was required. Our analysis was twofold:
Angle Distribution Analysis – A spreadsheet of counts of each angle value used throughout the experience
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.
So what objective was our experience serving? Though we began with a vague set of requirements. 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.
Protractor Tool Usage
To solve a puzzle a player had to work out the angle that was required to be made to hit an objective. This provided a natural opportunity to introduce a scaffolding tool, the protractor, a measurement device that’s original purpose was designed to aid in angle measurement.
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) through out the experience, initial levels would allow brute force approaches to be rewarded in order to draw in the player with easy rewards.
Considering the support of such ‘brute force’ (choices made without solid reasoning) approaches, the following criticism was raised:
What if players are not doing the thinking you want?
In defense of brute force we responded with a number of counter points.
Absolute mindless play is rare, so given the 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 this method eventually called the game stupid 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. As puzzle complexity increased we intended that the balance naturally shift to incentivize a ‘logical’ approach (choices made based on solid reasoning) given it is more efficient than a brute force approach.
In addition, we believed the benefit of a slow increase of complexity would naturally create skill appropriate ‘teachable moments’, which could be capitalized on by teachers, as students reached the boundary between brute force and logical. A complexity design of this type I called transformational complexity given the experience it created during gameplay.
The results of this process we believed created an experience that contained:
Suitable learning and puzzle complexity curves
An appropriate pattern of tense and release
Rewards interspersed appropriately
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)
Relevant and hopefully effective motivational elements
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.
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?
During Spring break we had the chance to playtest a digital prototype of our game. The game consisted of five puzzles, and the intention of the playtest was to see if our target demographic and client (Colonial School) liked the game, and their thoughts. Feedback from both the teacher, and our target demographic was as follows:
Kids like the game
Thought it was easy, wanted more challenge
Understood the mechanic immediately
Completed the game within 5 minutes
When asked about characters they wanted they mentioned all kinds of animals they saw in the jungle
Again asked for a wrestler
Had no major complaints about art or mechanic or story
One kid wanted dragons
One kid recognized it was a maths game but kept playing
Asked for more levels!
Teacher liked the game
Said reverse angle gems (move in opposite direction) would be fine but only on advanced levels
Wanted some source of competition so star rating system should have a total for students to compete against each other
Teacher said using games to teach angle of shapes would be fine
Teacher said students are not taught physics at their level (leaving physics out is a good idea)
At the start of week twelve polishing the game was on the forefront of our minds. In this regard, design wise we continued to struggle with small, but vitally important decisions namely considering the visual representation of angles during gameplay and the introduction our scaffolding tool (the protractor from week eleven).
We met with Jessica Hammer on Thursday to get a perspective on what we had done and the issues facing us. She told us the following:
Clarify our learning goals and sort it out into a table
Make red and blue gems beam movement uniform, so red always goes anticlockwise, and blue always goes clockwise
Reconsider the visual representation of clockwise movements
Interest in protractor tool introduction and suggested we put it on level three where we introduce no new things and so cognitive load is not high
Jesse to the Rescue!
Following this we met with Jesse Schell on the evening of the same day. Being the masterful designer he is, Jesse gave us a suggestion of displaying the spatial representation of the angle.
Jesse’s suggestion was when the beam rotated clockwise, the beam maker would make the full 360 degree representation pop out, and be subtracted from when the beam moved past 0. In the case of the beam rotating anticlockwise the sector would grow as the beam moved anticlockwise.
We implemented this feature, then spent the rest of the week playtesting the levels we had, and weeding out one gem solution angles.
Starting Week 11 we finished creating digital versions of our remaining puzzles. In addition we began working on the various aspects of the game that we presented to our playtesters at the end of Week 10.
We added a map to replace the original level select screen. The new map would serve two functions.
It would display the progression of the game to the player
Create a more visually appealing method of level section
We also implemented a reward system in the form of trophy’s added to ones treasure room after completing a ‘boss level’. We hoped such an addition would add a motivational factor for completing the game.
Later in the week Jesse Schell played the game, and suggested a new way to show treasure room. Instead of having trophys placed on the desk, have shelves arranged in a geometric way with numbers on them to reinforce the central theme of angles. In addition to this we considered including random treasures which we hoped would add a surprise factor.
During Week Ten we prepared designs for the final levels of the game. These levels were in line with the complexity metrics we established during Week 9.
During this process we also documented our puzzles, and their solutions. This document would not only help recreate these puzzles during development, but could be handed off to teachers as a supporting document.
Meanwhile we began preparation for The Entertainment Technology Centers playtest day. This would involve members of our target demographic visiting our project rooms to playtest our game. For this day we came up with a number of questions to ask our playtesters as well as prepared video and screen recording equipment to capture gameplay footage.
On Playtest day we had five groups of playtesters. Each group played the game for approximately fifteen minutes. We then conducted a short interview with them, and found several good insights such as:
They really enjoyed the game, we never had a case of a bored playtester
Even when playtesters got stuck they cried out for help, and we had cases of playtesters working together to solve puzzles
The protractor tool was useful, but since there was no clear tutorial playtesters found it by mistake
Playtesters liked the art, music as well as the treasures we would reward them with
Playtesters didn’t object to the main character, but found certain animations weird