Puzzle game that helps students practice organic chemistry

 

Mechanisms

December 2015 - May 2016

Overview

Pillar poster for Mechanisms; designed by the team to serve as a reminder of the core experience

  • I directed the project team of five developers: one producer, two programmers, one artist, and myself as the designer. In addition to design tasks, my overhead responsibilities included:
    • Working closely with Julie Winter, Alchemie's CEO, to translate her concept of an organic chemistry game into complete vertical slice to show to chemistry professors.
    • Communicating with engineers to iterate on the back end chemistry rules sets as well as the front end user experience as we learned more about organic chemistry.
    • Communicating with the artist to develop overall look and feel, useful visual feedback and animations, etc.
    • Meeting with organic chemistry experts to make sure gameplay matched existing chemistry models.

    • Consulting game designers and artists external to the project to get feedback on transformational content and gameplay elements.

Pillar poster for Mechanisms; designed by the team to serve as a reminder of the core experience

An early draft of the overall gameflow

The overview of an early proposal for the feedback system

An early diagram of the first puzzle's possible solve states 

A proposal for energy-based feedback from the first prototype 

Project Direction

Design Documentation

A description of how energy levels in the first prototype might work

Challenges

Storyboard describing how bonds automatically reform

Design storyboard for bonds that are shifted incorrectly

Storyboard for a new move: reveal  resonance in a molecular structure

Negative feedback iteration

Design storyboard of the basic movement tutorial

Design storyboard for a correctly-formed bond: player input, visual feedback, etc. 

A reminder to the team that while we are not subject matter experts, we know enough to be able to ask some of the right questions

A selection of the chemistry questions that the team came up with as we learned more about organic chemistry

  • Mechanisms is a puzzle game designed by Alchemie and produced in part by Schell Games.

  • The game is designed to help college students in organic chemistry classes practice fundamental concepts like resonance, arrow pushing, and relative acidity.
  • This six-month research project's goal was to create a vertical slice proof-of-concept for the game. It was funded in part by the National Science Foundation through a Small Business Innovation Research Grant.

  • While the eventual target audience for this game will be organic chemistry students, this prototype was geared toward presenting the concept of an organic chemistry game to chemistry professors. 

  • My design tasks were mostly grounded in coalescing the information from the team, subject matter experts, and other stakeholders into a series of playable prototypes. After each round of prototyping, I would also organize playtests and iterate on the prototypes based on the feedback we received.
  • I generated design documentation for the team to consult as we worked on each prototype iteration. Subjects of this documentation included:
    • Backend design: what moves can the player make and are they correct, improbable, or impossible in the context of the puzzle
    • Player input and affordances: what can the player move, where can the player get more information, does it feel good to make moves
    • Tutorialization: what needs to be tutorialized and how, what do we assume players in the target audienceknow going in
    • Grading: what puzzle answers were correct and why, how we show it, how we suggest improvement
    • Visual feedback: does the player know whether their move is a good one, do they know why the game responded in the way that it did, is the feedback visually appealing
    • Audio feedback: what audio do we use and why, does the audio help the player learn more about the experience, does it get repetitive over time
  • None of the members of the development team began the project with a strong background in organic chemistry. We worked very closely with Alchemie's CEO Julie Winter and her colleagues in academia to make sure that all of our design decisions were chemically sound.
  • The rules of organic chemistry are complex and extremely dependent on context. As non-experts, this made the task of designing the back end particularly difficult for us. We went through several iterations of simplified rulesets to be sure that any move that a player made to make or break a bond correctly modeled organic chemistry. 
  • There is a wide range of opinion as to how to model different aspects of organic chemistry, which elements are important to teach, and what order to teach them in. Even within the constraints of three puzzles, we had to put a lot of thought into which concepts to incorporate into gameplay and which to leave out to simplify the model. 
  • Since the target audience for this phase of the project was chemistry professors, it was important to focus on translating organic chemistry into gameplay in a way that made sense with their curriculua. This made it difficult to get feedback about the educational aspects from non-experts; we deliberately left out the scaffolding that we knew that professors didn't need, which made the game difficult to play without a strong chemistry background.