Here at Quest Atlantis, progress runs two ways. On the one hand, we constantly look forward, designing and prototyping new ideas on a daily basis. Simultaneously, we’re also mindful of the work we’ve already done and the ways that it can be improved, often based on the feedback and experience of thousands of Questers who push our work in directions we never thought of. This emphasis on the user experience – and adapting to it – is applied to everything we do, from missions and Quests, right down to the physical layout and aesthetic of each world.
Since its original construction in early 2008, the Ander City unit (technically named “Math World”) has undergone multiple evolutions, each time adding new Quests, plot elements, and missions… and all the 3D components that go along with them. As previously mentioned, this dynamic process is one of Quest Atlantis’ strengths, but at the same time, it presents a unique management challenge: that of tracking the ebb and flow of ideas and elements that go into a constantly evolving world, and attempting to streamline them. With Math World, we decided to streamline through a complete overhaul of the physical environment, while keeping the most recent version of the narrative fully intact.
To that end, the first goal of the redesign was to imbue Ander City with a “sense of place,” or a physical identity and history. After reviewing the unit narrative, and its emphasis of issues of parks, baseball, and bicycles, I decided to evoke a small-town motif, and create a unified aesthetic that would evoke that response in players, without ever explicitly stating it.
After assembling a collage of reference photos, I was able to identify reoccurring patterns that would act as visual cues – things that seem to scream “small town.” One-to-two story buildings. Lots of brick. Old, white, wooden churches. A bandstand in the park. Brick everything. A 200 year-old town hall. Did I mention brick?
Another major aesthetic change was the introduction of the autumn season to the world – orange and yellow leaves, falling from the sky and settling on the ground. While this was a relatively simple effect to achieve on a technical level, the result is a further enhancement of the mis-en-scene. By introducing something as simple as falling leaves, we have created a climate and a time of year for Ander City, further enhancing the Election Day-based narrative. Moreover, in the final version of Ander City, when players are able to see the effects of their choices, the seasons will have progressed: the trees will be green, the leaf piles will be gone, and summer will be in full bloom, creating the sense that the players are participating in a dynamic world.
In addition to the visual enhancements, Math World underwent a number of structural improvements as well, most notably the relocation of the park to the center of the world. As the fate of the town’s park is a major narrative point for Math World, it made sense to have it centrally located, so that the players would feel more invested in their decision. Additionally, the park now serves as a central hub for players, creating a space for players to interact and discuss the challenges facing Ander City.
The third benefit of this centralized placement is that it allows users to quickly navigate their way around the town – the wide open space makes it easy to locate a player’s next objective, especially when coupled with distinct physical structures. Just as omnipresent Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World helps park guests orient themselves, we have included several unique buildings that are visible from any location in town –the church, the town hall, the diner—allowing efficient player movement (and making it easier for teachers to help students find their way!).
Finally, throughout the redesign process we were extremely conscious of ways to improve the performance of Quest Atlantis on student computers. Due to the widely varying hardware configurations in schools around the world, we simply had to take our best shot at making Math World as resource efficient as possible. While I’ll spare you the more mundane technical details of “vision limiters” and polygon counts, you may find it interesting to note how many of the buildings are simply flat fronts.
At the same time we were striving to create the illusion of a living, breathing town, we also were aware that it would be a huge waste of computational resources to actually build a complete town, so we did what Hollywood has been doing for years… we cheated. Borrowing a page from the production design adage “only build what the camera can see,” we’ve create a world where walls only extend halfway around the house, roofs are floating in midair, and trees “on the horizon” are actually 1/10th scale models placed 20 feet away. As a result, we’re able to achieve a 20 frames-per-second rate even without any hardware acceleration, which is nerd-speak for “hey! It runs pretty smooth!”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat lengthy look behind the scenes of the upcoming Mathworld revision – if you’d like more of these types of design-specific write-ups, just let us know in the comment section below. See you in Ander City!