Intro: This is a game that I designed for midterm and final project in Major Studio 2 class at Design and Technology, Parsons The New School For Design.
Micromonia is a casual puzzle game about the microbiome. There are two goals of this game. First of all, it is intended to create a playful experience. Secondly, it is designed to educate players on the importance of balancing their microbial ecosystems.
This game is inspired by microbiology. Microbiology is still a relatively nascent field, but microbes in the gut may hold key to many diseases ("Bacteria in the Gut May Hold Key to Many Diseases"). In fact, a human being is 90% microbes ("Our Microbes Are under Threat - and the Enemy Is Us"). There are many different types of microbes, each conducts a specific function, such as digesting fiber, breaking down protein. A balanced microbiome is all about population control ("Balancing the Microbes in the Horse's Digestive"). A population explosion of one type of bacteria may make the environment less habitable for the rest of the microbials who as a consequence will be unable to perform their specific tasks. Therefore, keeping each microbial population in balance is crucial to a human’s overall well-being, and this important fact inspired me to create this game.
Can this game create a playful experience yet achieve the goal of educating people about the importance of balancing their microbial ecosystems?
For this project, I am interested in investigating in how to make a casual puzzle game that is as compelling as causal games like Candy Crush yet able to convey a meaningful and educational message. I am interested in investigating in if causal games with the ease and flexibility they offer can provide interesting potential for deployment in educational settings ( "Is There a Place for Casual Games in Teaching and Learning?: The Snakes and Ladders Case" ).
Casual games are characterized as games with simple rules and gameplay that do not require long time commitment or special skills from the player( "Is There a Place for Casual Games in Teaching and Learning?: The Snakes and Ladders Case" ). Even though casual games are simple, they can be very compelling and addictive to play. Since my game is deigned to be a causal puzzle game, I was looking at one of the most popular games in the same category, Candy Crush, as a reference for my game. One of the aspects that make Candy Crush so successfully as a casual puzzle game is the juicy components of the game. The game offers players immediate and constant player feedbacks, such as the word “Delicious” appears right after you match the candies. According to the psychology of Operant Conditioning by B.F. Skinner, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence that an individual finds rewarding ("B.F. Skinner | Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology"). The positive player feedbacks in this case act as a positive reinforcement that further encourages the act of playing itself, which is what makes Candy Crush so additive. This gave me important references when I developed my game. Candy Crush also provided me inspirations in the graphic design aspect of my game. I designed my game in such an adorable and delightful style because I wanted my game to appear playful and friendly to the players instead of too "educational".
One casual puzzle game that has also been successful in educational learning is Bookworm Adventure/Heroes, made by Popcap, the same company that has made widely popular casual games such as Bejeweled and Peggle ("Dr Jonathan Reed - Child Neuropsychology"). In Bookworm Adventure, the rules are simple: players create a word out of a grid of letter tiles, and each word the player create becomes a weapon for your bookworm to use to battle other monsters. The game has a lot of juicy components similar to those in Candy Crush. The juicy components, such as immediate and constant player feedbacks and playful graphic style, have made the game compelling and appealing. More importantly, certain mechanics makes the games more playful and educational at the same time. For instance, players get rewarded for the complexity of the words they create, which further encourages advance vocabulary learning. Another dimension to this game is that at the end of each battle with the monsters, players have to include a certain power letter title into the word they create, which become gunpowder that can burn the monsters to death. This piece of mechanics makes the game even more challenging and learning vocabulary more playful. Therefore, how to use game mechanics to convey both playfulness and educational messages is a challenge for me to further investigate in this project.
The target users for Micromonia would be similar to those for causal games such as Candy Crush/Two Dots/Bejeweled. In order to find out the demography for casual puzzle games such as Candy Crush, I conducted an user research. The rows highlighted in yellow are the target users who match the profiles of casual puzzle game players. The general finding is that in this sample research, the demography that plays Candy Crush like games is female, casual gamers (non console or PC games associated), professionally noninvolved in the creative field.
Based on the user research, I created the user personas for Micromonia.
The premise for this game is that the balance of your microbiome is crucial to maintaining your overall well-being. Your microbiome is currently out of balance, weakening your natural defense mechanism. You have to rebalance your microbiome to restore your natural defense mechanism before pathogens invade your body.
There are 5 different types of microbial populations represented by microbes of 5 different colors and shapes presented in a circle (red, yellow, orange, blue and green, as illustrated in the circle placed in the center of the image below). The concept of a balanced microbiome is translated into this hypothetical situation that a balanced microbiome needs to contain all 5 types of microbes, and each type needs to have a population of either 2 or 3. The game system generates 5 scenarios of unbalanced microbiome, and the 5 scenarios are presented to the players in the order of increasing difficulty. For instance, in the 1st scenario, there is only 1 microbial population that is out of balance; in the 5th scenario, all 5 microbial populations are out of balance. The idea that an continuously unbalanced microbiome would keep weakening your natural defense mechanism is represented by a continuously diminishing health bar under the unbalanced situation. Furthermore, the more unbalanced your microbiome is, the faster your health or natural defense mechanism deteriorates. For example, during the 5th scenario when all 5 microbial populations are out of balance, your health bar diminishes much faster. There are a number of actions that the players can take, such as eating an apple, shaking hands, to rebalance the microbiome (as illustrated in the bar placed on the right hand side of the image below). Taking the actions to add or subtract microbes, embodies the idea that daily routines and activities affect the composition of your microbial populations. At last, players have to complete all 5 scenarios to rebalance the microbiome before pathogens invade the body.
1. Concept Sketches: I started off with some concept sketches to illustrate the game mechanics. The original idea is that 5 different microbial populations are presented in a 3 X 4 matrix, and players need to take as many actions as possible to add or subtract microbes to rebalance the microbiome under a time limit.
2. Paper Prototyping: From there I made a paper prototype to see how the game mechanics plays out. The 5 different microbial populations are represented by 5 different color coded paper. I also made a data organization of what each action does.
3. Initial Interface Design: Next, I designed 5 microbe characters and made some initial interface design.
4. Initial Digital Prototyping: I programmed the 1st prototype in Unity 3D. The prototype was exported into web browser, so make sure to install Unity WebPlayer before viewing. To view the 1st prototype of the game, please visit here.
5. Play/Test and Iterations: Once the 1st digital prototype was created, I went through rounds and rounds of user play/test before I arrived at the latest version of the prototype.
The whole game of the latest prototype was rebuilt into Unity 2D due to the issue of low rez texture in Unity 3D. So besides that, what has been improved from the very 1st prototype to the latest one?
1. Added A Premise: To recap, the premise for this game is that the balance of your microbiome is currently out of balance, continuously weakening your natural defense mechanism, and you have to rebalance your microbiome to restore your natural defense mechanism before pathogens invade your body. Adding a premise really helps me to make the game clean and coherent, and get rid of the unnecessary components.
(1). Based on the premise, I deleted the original score system that the less time you use to rebalance the microbiome, the higher the score you will get (as illustrated in the image below). The score system does not tight into the whole premise, and in fact, it seems random to even have a score system to start with.
(2). Secondly, instead of just designing a random game-over scene, I redesigned the whole scene to incorporate part of the premise that if you have an unbalanced microbiome for a prolonged period of time, pathogens will start to invade your body (as illustrated in the two images below; the 1st image shows the game-over scene from the 1st prototype, and the 2nd image illustrates the game-over scene from the latest prototype).
(3). Similarly, in the latest prototype, I redesigned the game-win scene to incorporate part of the premise that a rebalanced microbiome will benefit your well-being.
2. Added More Player Feedbacks: According to user testing results, I added more player feedbacks to the gameplay itself. The 1st video clip below shows the gameplay from the 1st prototype. One of the user feedbacks is that there is no player feedbacks when the microbe is in balanced or unbalanced state.
Therefore, in the latest prototype shown in the video clip below, I added a mechanics that when one type of microbe is in an unbalanced state, the whole population of that type of microbe will oscillate until it is balanced. In this example, the yellow microbe vibrates until it is balanced. This small addition of mechanics not only gives players feedbacks of how well they perform but also assist them in achieving the goal of this game. In this way, this mechanics is intended to encourage players, and make them feel that they are making progress.
3. Added A Playthrough: One of the most important things I learned from designing this game is user-centered approach. Originally when I designed the 1st prototype, I assumed that players would read the text instructions before proceeding the game. However, from the results of user testings when I simply observe players' reactions and responses to this game, I concluded that the text-heavy instructions add extra burden to players' memory load, and players usually could not care less about the instructions. The results of user testings make me realize that the key to designing this game, or any other products, is that it should not make users take extra efforts to understand the product. Therefore, how to design something intuitive for the players to easily understand the game mechanics without reading a huge chunk of text instructions became a challenge for me. Instead of proceeding with my own assumptions, based on players' feedbacks, I added a play-through tutorial session where players can read up a bit of narrative intro while playing through an easy level of the game. The images and the video clip below shows how the game went from having a text-heavy instruction menu to having a play-through session where players can fully understand the game mechanics before playing.
4. Iterations On UI Elements
(1). The main game board was redesigned based on the results from user testings. In the 1st prototype, microbes are presented in a 3x4 matrix. According to the play/test feedback, because the game board resembles that in a 3x3 matching game, such as Candy Crush or Two Dots, where players interact with the objects placed within a matrix, the matrix-shaped game board in the 1st prototype triggered the same player responses. Players were attempting to interact with the microbes in the matrix, instead of interacting with the action buttons on the righthand side. Therefore, in the latest prototype, the main game board was redesigned into a circular shape where microbes are randomly positioned, so that the user interface would not trigger the same player response that has been shaped by games such as Candy Crush.
(2). Other UI iterations include making a button look more like a clickable button. First of all, I added shading to the icons. Secondly I added an additional piece of mechanics that when the mouse hovers over the action icons, the icons will change in sizes. Moreover, I placed the action icons in the center to make them more prominent as opposed to the add/subtract data.
(3). There also have been a lot of iterations on the graphic design aspect, and for instance, the landing scene has been redesigned multiple times as shown below.
Below is the latest prototype created in After Effects by Eliana Feng:
Throughout the designing and production process, a question that I have been constantly asking myself is that have I validated my hypothesis? Has this game achieved the goal of creating a playful experience while educating people about the importance of balancing their microbial ecosystems? Upon completing what I have achieved so far, I believe that there is still a long way to go before this becomes a full-fledge game. The general feedback is that players understand the importance of balancing the microbiome through gameplay, but the meanings of taking the actions, such as eating apples, or shaking hands, to rebalance the microbiome still does not come out through gameplay. The gams has been perceived positively in terms of playfulness. However, there are still some elements that I need to iterate to reinforce the idea of "positive reinforcement." For the next step, I hope to continue play/testing and iterating on this game. As Micromonia is designed to be a casual game, this game will ultimately be programmed onto iPad/iPhone devices.
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