A digital-physical interactive installation that reinterprets and reimagines an ensemble of classic games: Connect Four, Arcade Basketball and Candy Crush, creating a familiar yet unfamiliar gaming experience.
Year: Sep 2019 - Mar 2020
Team: Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago
Role: Creative Technologist
Tools: Unity3D, Arduino, Digital Fabrication
Deliverable: Interactive gaming installation
In 2019, I joined the Museum of Science & Industry (MSI) in Chicago as a creative technologist, designing and creating the digital and interactive components in exhibit experiences. At the time, a temporary gaming exhibit - Video Game Get Down - was early in its development, envisioning a digital playground that featured games with unconventional interfaces and communal and inclusive play experiences.
I was tasked with creating an in-house game to be displayed in the exhibit, along with all the other games curated from the indie game communities outside MSI. Color Crush, my creative response to the exhibit goals, is a gaming installation that allows single or multiple players to throw tangible colored balls "into" a virtual gaming world — a game that blurs the boundary between the physical and digital resulting in a whimsical and communal gaming exhibit experience.
Although the exhibit was canceled due to COVID, Color Crush was shortlisted for Alt.Ctrl.GDC 2022, which is dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. The game was demostrated for a week in GDC and received rave reviews from attendees.
In addition, I was invited to speak about the design process of the game at the MUSEUMS, GAMES & PLAYSUMMIT on MuseumNext.
1. Provide opportunities for guests to play physical-digital games with an emphasis on games that they cannot play anywhere else.
2. Illustrate the purpose of play and how it connects us to others.
3. Draw connections between digital game playing and real-world skills, interactions, behaviors, and emotions.
4. Have fun!
Based on the exhibit initiative and after in-depth discussion within the exhibit design team, we prioritized the following design principles as the guiding experiential criteria for my gaming creation.
The game should possess these qualities to align with exhibit goals: fun, joyful, social, inclusive, educational.
The game should employ unconventional interfaces and interactions that are creative, intuitive, and immersive.
The game should bring out the unique voice of MSI and fit the varied needs of our internal teams.
To better understand the broader picture of the design context, I delved into relevant gaming communities, experiential design principles, and game design methodology, which kept me on track and also well-informed on my design decisions.
Alt.Ctrl.GDC is an annual gaming event that showcases some of the most unique, offbeat, and innovative controllers in modern gaming.
Former digital experience director in Digital Kitchen, our exhibit leader is a strong advocate for Design For Belonging.
An iterative and agile game design approach was employed under the overall waterfall exhibit development process.
Classic analog and digital games are powerful hooks for evoking fun as well as communal and nostalgic feelings. Riffing off of these time-tested positive gaming memories, but with a whimsical and clever twist, it's possible to create something brand new out of the familiar.
During brainstorming, I was drawn to the shared authenticity, simplicity, and playability between Connect4, Arcade Basketball, and Candy Crush, each initially representing a different gaming context (party game, arcade game, and mobile game). A reimagined mash-up of their affordances exudes elements of pleasant surprise and seems to ensure a good time together.
Multiple prototypes were made and evolved in the iterative process to answer various core questions: Would the game be feasible, playable, and most importantly, experientially sensible and sustainable?
Physical challenges quickly emerged throughout the early prototyping process. The following are some of the key findings and solutions.
Varied materials, sizes, and colors of balls are tested to find out which is the best prototype and for gameplay. Red, green, blue, and yellow are the most stable colors to be registered. Vinyl balls prove best for throwing but wear out a prototype quickly, whereas foam balls feel a bit too lightweight but can be prototype-friendly.
Off-the-shelf modular frame structure from a toy set saves time and resources for fast prototyping. But they came with certain joints that are limiting. I modeled and 3D printed the customized joints I wanted which further increased their flexibility for building the structure I wanted.
Though mostly workable, the Adafruit color sensor comes with its own whims and quirks. Through trial and error, I figured out an enclosure structure that can significantly improve consistency in color reading while also preventing violent direct hits from coming balls. The enclosure was also measured, modeled and 3D printed.
A modular structure is super beneficial for prototyping: I can quickly come up with structures of varied sizes and shapes and tweak and adjust as I see fit. They are also easy to assemble and disassemble, which proves very useful especially when dedicated prototyping spaces are scarce on the museum floor and the prototype needs to be transported and installed from place to place.
"All game designs were perfect until they were playtested", said game designer Reiner Knizia. As soon as I had a guest-ready prototype, I reached out to our Guest Experience Department and set up a team to help me facilitate playtest sessions and see how the game actually played out. The following are some of the key questions we hope could be answered through playtesting.
To get the most out of the playtests, we laid out a detailed evaluation plan trying to capture questions we would like to explore.
I documented in-game observations and post-game interviews while other team members facilitated interactions with guests.
Afterwards, we compared and collated our notes, synthesized insights and learnings, and developed a plan regarding the next steps.
As I finalized the regular (unfacilitated) play mode for the game based on previous prototyping, our Guest Experience team also started to work on concepts for some potential exhibit program options. Together we discussed the goals and possibilities for a facilitated program about game design using a modified version of the Color Crush software where facilitators could be given latitude and leeway to change some of the experiential aspects of the game so that they can guide a structured conversation around game design with guests.
The program goal is to allow guests to have an experience around game design by allowing them to make up new rules for the Color Crush game. In order to do this, it is desired to have adjustable parameters within the software that the facilitator can control to change the game in real time. Therefore, I developed a mobile software that allows facilitators to remotely change different parameters of the game to create a facilitated experience.
Our team quickly set up another round of guest-facing prototypes to test out the feasibility of a facilitated exhibit program. The video below is one of the recorded sessions that shows how the program works, with a very positive outcome.
In this program, guests will explore how challenges in games increase motivation. They will start by playing a collaborative connect three game by tossing colored balls into a basket above a screen. Guests will then discuss how they can make the game more interesting or increase their motivation to play by adding new challenges to the game. After playing the new level, guests will then find connections between designing appropriately challenging games and how challenges in their daily lives increase their motivation.
"This could be an ever evolving prototype throughout the exhibit. I really like the idea of a facilitated interaction that gets people thinking like a game designer. If we co-designed a game with our guests that could be a lot of fun."
VP of Exhibitions, Museum of Science and Industry
It's a great pity that right when we were wrapping up the exhibit design phase and about to enter fabrication and development, COVID happened and the exhibit was brought to an abrupt halt. We never got to see the opening day.
Yet personally, it was still a hugely rewarding learning experience for me. As my first milestone project working in a science museum, it helped me better understand the significance of my role in the team. Creating an in-house digitally mediated interactive experience proves to have great benefits over outsourcing it to a design agency, as has been the case before I joined MSI.
First, being part of the internal core design team allowed me to collaborate closely with our exhibit developers, guest experience staff, and other critical stakeholders in a synergetic and synchronized way. With conversations happening back and forth constantly, It was much likely to create exhibit experiences that are rooted in our exhibit vision and operational needs.
Second, even though our exhibit development process follows a traditional Waterfall Model, I was able to take initiative and adopt an agile and iterative process for my game. Fast iteration and sufficient playtesting are crucial for game design. Having easy access to real guests on our museum floor is therefore hugely beneficial.
Third, the museum has tons of built-in resources that can help me with prototyping. Our Fab Lab, for example, provides fabrication tools that are useful in my process of making prototypes.
Museum of Science and Industry
VP of Exhibitions
Sr. Creative Producer
Sr. Physical Designer
Guest Experience Team
Katie Schweiger, Dillon Dreiling, Chris Berg, Amanda Allen