Little Wanderer’s Wish: A two-week game prototype

Studying at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center has given me an opportunity to do something in life that I love the most — Building Game Experiences. I was presented with one such opportunity in my Building Virtual Worlds class. A team comprising of myself, Julian Korzeniowsky, Melissa Schoeller, Na-yeon Kim and Griva Patel built a game, which we called “Little Wanderer’s Wish” in two weeks.

Gameplay video of the game

So, what was this game all about?

Little Wanderer’s Wish is an immersive, collaborative, puzzle game. Two players are tasked to navigate through six different lands (mountain, city, forest, glacier, ruins, and factory) and collect star pieces. One player is given two PS Move controllers to control the movement of the character while the other player is given a physical book (designed and created with Makey Makey by Griva Patel). Turning the pages of this book, the onscreen environment changes.

Each environment has different terrain and structures within it, presented as silhouettes. These silhouettes are impassible, so the players must explore the various pages of the storybook to find open paths to progress through the level. Players will need to take into consideration the layout of multiple pages at a time, i.e. if they turn from one location on one page, they will fall to a new part of the level on the next page.

This game was built for the Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center’s CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment). This is a space where the players stand surrounded on three sides by projector screens. The game is then mapped across three projectors to give players a sense that the game is happening all around them. Also, the room has DMX lights installed to give good theming to the game and make the players feel more immersed in the environment.

Ideation and design of the game

Now that you have a brief idea of what the game is about, let me talk a little bit about how we came up with this idea. We started with the “TOY” for our game. We were all excited about using a book as a form of input for this game. We wanted to make sure that the book we create can behave as close to a real book as possible. When someone is reading a real book, the reader has the freedom to flip to any page at any time. We wanted to make a game that leverages this behaviour at the core of gameplay. The first thing that came to mind when we thought of an interactive book was to make an interactive storytelling game. We brainstormed a few ideas, but we were unable to come up with something that takes advantage of a physical book in a meaningful way.

Our finished book. Griva went through a couple iterations, but we settled on this. It was mounted on a table-side desk in front of the projector.

After a few hours of brainstorming, we came up with an idea of a puzzle game. Now, that we had a genre for our game, we were in search of a good theme. We had a multi-cultural team with a few international students as well. In one of our brainstorming sessions, we went around asking each one of us that why we are here and what made us come to another city or country? Unanimously, it was because we wanted to make a better career and wanted to achieve something that would not have been possible if we stayed in the city we grew up in. From this notion, we came up with the idea of a little character in our game, adventuring around the world in search of star that would enable the character to wish anything that they wanted. We consciously chose the character to be gender neutral and the artists made sure that the look of the character be as gender neutral as possible. This would help us appeal to all kinds of audiences.

Prototype of the book

In order to make the guest feel immersed in the game, we added DMX lighting that focused on the area where the guests were seated and the book was placed. These lights would match the colour of the onscreen environment. Also, each individual environment had it’s own unique music loop. When the player turns the page, the lights colour and the music would transition along with the environment. When we first tried this, it was very jarring and the experience of flipping pages wasn’t as enjoyable as we wanted it to be. After thinking about it, the sound designer, Julian, decided to make every piece based off of the same harmonic progression and the same formal structure. When the player turns a page, the song on the next page would start playing right where the previous page’s song left off. As for the DMX lights, instead of sudden change in colours, we decided to lerp the colours between the colour of the previous screen and the new colour. These two changes together created a very smooth, almost unnoticeable transition. This was definitely a “make-or-break” situation for us, but we were glad that it worked out really well.

Interim (1-week presentation)

It was time now for our interim presentation. Everyone loved the game and it had great potential to be a really good game at the end of two weeks. One feedback we got was that the puzzle seemed less of a puzzle and more like “Just explore the pages, till you find the right page” and then move on the correct page. After this, we sat together and thought of novel ways to make the puzzle more interesting. Two major things that came out of this brainstorming session were about making each environment feel more dynamic and have multiple ways of solving the puzzle. This meant that our level design had to be redone and Melissa, our level designer came up with an amazing new level design and we implemented that fairly quickly into our game to playtest the game again. Through the playtest, we realised that the game was extremely difficult now. The average time of completing the game had risen from 4–5 minutes during interim to about 15 minutes now. Also, some of the playtesters gave up midway and just couldn’t complete the game. At this time, we had to think about the length of gameplay we wanted and what kind of emotion do we want out of the players when they finish the game. We decided that we definitely did not want players to feel dejected or sad when they leave because they could not complete the game. Also, keeping the festival in mind, we wanted the average gameplay length to be about 5–7 minutes. After the playtest sessions, it was clear to us that the level design needed to be simpler, but the dynamicity of the environments was a great addition.

At the end of two weeks, we were able to develop a puzzle game with intermediate difficulty. The game had a few challenging moments, but these moments gave the players immense satisfaction on completing the game. The artist on the team, Nayeon, added beautiful movements in each environment to make the game feel more dynamic. The music as well as the lighting had a great effect on the overall gameplay as well. In the end, we were able to deliver a successful game.

The big day — Festival time

Final room for the festival

Because of the success of our project, Little Wanderer’s Wish was one of the thirteen games (of around eighty) to be feature in our school’s fall festival; a festival where family, friends, colleagues, and games designers were invited to play and experience the showcased games. When the list came out, we saw our name on it along with the room we were assigned, but the most interesting part was the note that was written alongside — it read “Deal with the new room”. We were given a small room instead of the CAVE and had less than a week to theme the room to fit our project. We took this on as a challenge and started thinking of ways to theme the room such that we can have the same experience for the guests as we had in the CAVE.

We themed the PS Move Controllers to look like stars.

We decided to try and theme the room like a children’s bedroom to go along with the magical storybook element of the game. We built real-life silhouettes (to echo the silhouettes in the game) out of cardboard in the shape of various things that would be found in a bedroom and pasted them along the walls. We placed lights behind them to make them pop out. On the right wall, we made a “star wall.” It echoed the look of a window, and players that won could place a star with their own personal wish on it. It also covered up a gross whiteboard. The rest of the setup included a small bed for the players to sit on, DMX lights (the colors changed whenever a player turned the page), a stereo, four speaker set-up, and a rather comfortable couch. In the end, I believe that getting a smaller room for our game was a blessing in disguise and we would not have been able to create such a magical experience with the CAVE.

Since we were no longer using the cave, we had to reformat our game. We decided to project it across a projector screen. There was one problem, our school did not have any, especially to fit the awkwardly sized space. This is the frame of a custom made projector screen that our team built(totally designed by Na-Yeon Kim).

My learnings

Working with the amazing team on Little Wanderer’s Wish for about three weeks, gave me some really valuable learnings. The game turns out to be really good when the whole team is equally passionate about the idea. Also, it is very important to trust and respect your teammates. There were a lot of things to be done in the game for a period of three weeks, but we could pull it off because everyone trusted each other within the team. I can’t stress enough how super important playtesting is. Our game would not have been so good if it were not for the guests input we got during our playtests. Lastly, I found it really helpful to keep your calm when things are not going your way. When we were assigned a new room, we were nervous at first, but what helped us was to keep calm and embrace the change rather than feeling sad or angry about it.

Festival Gameplay