Puzzler Project Post-Mortem (Udacity VR Nanodegree)
This post mortem write-up introduces Puzzler, a “Simon” style game in Virtual Reality. The project is an assignment for Term 2 of the Udacity VR Developer Nanodegree.
The game and process used to plan, design, and build the game are presented below.
Design Process Overview
The initial phase involved planning and brainstorming. In this state, the project goals and scope were defined. This was followed by two implementation phases, one for gameplay prototyping and one for visual/story development.
The mechanic was implemented, tested, and tuned in a simple visual environment before a second visual development phase was even started. This was due concern over the gameplay decision to have the puzzle spin.
The visuals could be created with a spinning puzzle in mind and no effort was wasted if the spinning was too challenging and a different direction had to be followed. This decision proved to be instrumental in the success of the end product.
The conception phase started with a statement of purpose and the creation of a user persona.
Statement of Purpose
Puzzler is an immersive mobile VR puzzle challenge where users solve a familiar puzzle in a new way.
Annabelle, 28 — Digital Marketer
Annabelle is a methodical thinker and planner in her work life. She loves her career because of the ability to tell stories in a new way. She’s new to virtual reality. She wants a gentle introduction to the platform and is looking for a challenging and rewarding puzzle game to get her creative juices flowing during her commute or breaks.
Research and Sketching
A research phase was followed where a mood board was created to explore story ideas, color, and art style.
This was followed by an initial sketch. This sketch was used for the gameplay prototype.
For the visual development stage, a research phase was conducted, another moodboard was created, and sketches were created.
The gameplay prototype phase was executed to test the user’s ability to navigate the environment and solve the puzzle. The visual style was kept minimal in order to focus on gameplay and functionality.
Through the minimal design, the artistic motivation was to evoke Mayan ruins and Mayan culture.
The prototype phase was split into four sub-phases to design and test a specific aspect of the VR experience. Each sub-phase consisted of an implementation pass followed by a user test and refinement pass where the issues were addressed.
Phase 1: Scale and Mood
The first sub-phase was created to test the basic scale and mood of the environment.
The users were able to see and describe the environment. They had no trouble seeing the points of interest. The adjectives used to describe the experience were bright, colorful, and playful.
They felt about 4 ft. tall. This was adjusted in the refinement phase.
Phase 2: User Interface
A build with the Start and Restart panels was created where the users could interact with them.
The users were able to guess what the two user panels were for and felt they were appropriately sized. One user did have trouble reading the smaller text on the start panel due to the small size and color. Incremental changes didn’t address this, so this adjustment was pushed to the visual development phase.
Phase 3: Movement
A build was created where the user could move through the environment. The goal was to test the comfort of the rails-based movement through the space.
The users didn’t get sick or notice any issues with movement through the space.
One user was disoriented by the movement from the start position to the puzzle position. The timing was adjusted and the user was happy with the result.
Phase 4: Gameplay Prototype
A build was created with the spinning puzzle to solve.
The user was unable to solve the puzzle on the first try. After a few iterations, the problem was determined to be due to the symmetry of the orb arrangement. The orbs were laid out in a pyramid shape which led to confusion as they spun. The user kept losing track of where the starting orbs were.
The orbs were laid out in an asymmetrical layout, and the users were able to solve the puzzle within a few tries.
This was the most important discovery during gameplay prototyping and made the choice to break up the implementation the right choice.
After learning the need for an asymmetric orb layout, the Mayan theme was dropped. A more organic shape was needed, but the initial desire to tie the environment to mythic theme was kept.
A Viking theme was settled on due to the existence of Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of yore. More visual and research followed.
Additionally, the bright, playful mood didn’t fit with the new theme, so a different mood was needed. The adjectives of mysterious and cold were decided on for the art direction.
Phases 1, 2, and 3: Scale, UI, and Movement
Based on the new story and visual style, an ice temple was created using Viking styled art assets. The scale was user tested and adjusted.
The mood was described as cold and enchanting. This matched the goals of the new art direction.
The Start and Restart panels were designed using modern Scandinavian design principles and the font, Berling Sans was chosen as the typeface. The users found the UI too sparse, so 3D art assets were added to the panels to add some visual interest. There were a few legibility issues that needed to be addressed as well.
The movement was tuned with the help of the user testing. The initial movement into the ice temple was way too disorienting for all the users.
This was an interesting finding. The timing and scale were exactly the same as the prototype. The only difference was that there were just more things to look at. The visual interest encouraged the user move his or her head around to look at the scene as they moved.
This made the movement feel that much faster and disorienting, so the movement had to be slowed even further.
Phase 4: Final Experience Test
The final gameplay was put together in a build for Cardboard and Google Daydream. The users enjoyed the experience and played it through multiple times without being prompted.
The audio mix was adjusted during this phase.
The experience was described as immersive, fun, and beautiful, and all users tested wanted more levels in the game.
Breakdown of final piece
The user starts the game floating in space. The start menu sits in front of them. The environment peaks out from behind it. Snow falls in the space.
The outside of the hall has many visual points of interest as the player moves into the space.
Meant to be a hall of the Nordic gods, the hall interior is designed to be larger than life. Yggdrasil spins in the center, and the user must select the orbs on its branches in the sequence provided.
Upon successful completion of the puzzle, the ice wall animates downward and the user moves out of the space.
After moving out of the hall, the user can choose to restart the game.
The user can also turn around to view the hall interior.
The Puzzler project was a great learning experience. The user-testing centered approach yielded a much more polished product in the end. The choice to prototype the gameplay cheap and early in the process proved pivotal in the success of the project.
The user feedback was surprising at times and helped drive further innovations and improvements in the design. From small tuning changes to large changes in scope and direction, the project wouldn’t have been the same without the iterative user testing.
Future work on this project would be to build out more levels with different mythic themes for the different levels. In a game with puzzles of increasing difficulty, a symmetric spinning puzzle could serve as a later level in the overall game.