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Terracian Trails:

Financial Frontier

Platforms
iOS, Android, Amazon Devices
Tools Used
Discord, MIRO, Google Sheets,
Milanote, Unity, Audacity, Murf,
Replica Studios
Development Time
February 2022 - October 2022

Team Size

3

Role

Designer and Producer

Additional Contributions

Audio and Creative Direction,

Testing Setup and Administration

Financial Frontier Marketing.png

Terracian Trails: Financial Frontier is the second of two games First Community Credit Union of Houston (FCCU) hired me to develop, and the sequel to Terracian Trails: Profit Playground. FCCU's desired outcomes and expectations for Financial Frontier:

  1. Rebrand FCCU youth program characters, the Red Rangers, by continuing to build out the world of the newly created franchise.

  2. Facilitate the uptake of financial literacy terms, concepts, and FCCU's Spend, Save, Share accounts program for ages 6 - 12. 

  3. Provide engaging content with a minimum playtime requirement of 15 - 20 hours.

  4. In addition to overseeing all aspects of design and production, I would publish the game to various platforms on behalf of FCCU. 

  5. It would need to be delivered to market by the end of 2022.

Pre-Production

Challenge: How to facilitate the uptake of financial literacy in ages 6 - 12 in an engaging manner?

Solution: Utilize the conventions and expectations of select contemporary game genres, which parallel the economic systems and practices of our world, and associate corresponding financial terminology with the player's participation in these activities at every opportunity. 

I mocked up designs for Financial Frontier during the initial ideation for both games in 2021. Financial Frontier would be a departure from Profit Playground in two ways:

  • Art Style - We would shift to a painterly style to appeal to an older audience and lean into the theme of a Western frontier.

  • 3D Environment - The shift from 2D to 3D would allow us to fully realize the world of Terracia and its occupants.

Similar to Profit Playground, I determined the game's design pillars to be fivefold:

  1. Accessibility - To account for various disabilities and reading capabilities amongst the player base, designs will visually and auditorily communicate the crucial information necessary for the player to have a successful play experience, and any necessary text, such as for dialogue, will be presented in the OpenDyslexic font and have accompanying voice-over.

  2. Storybook Feel - Game flow will embody the unfolding of a storybook narrative with inclusion of narration, dialogue, illustration, and a protagonist's impact on the world.

  3. Environmental Storytelling - Building a 3D environment allows greater opportunity for narrative to be expressed through visuals, diegetic UI, and context clues.

  4. Player Engagement - Activities will expand upon those introduced in Profit Playground, with a focus on exploration, community, and personal and financial growth.

  5. Education - Gameplay will teach worldly knowledge, financial literacy, and FCCU's Spend, Save, Share program through socio-economic activities and world interactions.

After defining the design pillars, I began expanding upon my earlier work of world building by creating additional characters, constructing the game's narrative flow, and mocking up system and UI designs. I facilitated the brainstorming process with paper prototyping, allowing me the ability to iterate quickly and cheaply. Adhering to the motto "keep the work ugly", I prioritized getting the thoughts and designs down over the cleanliness of presentation, which would come in a later refinement phase of development. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following the successful launch of Profit Playground, I had Wren and Jhon take a week off to refresh while I worked on early designs. Considering the development overlap of both games, I believed having some time after the publishing process of Profit Playground would help to avoid burnout. After a week of brainstorming, and with the team back together, we began our collective design process.

Paper Prototyping

Organizing the Team

Paper Prototype - Overview Ideation
Paper Prototype - Venture Valley Level Layout
Paper Prototype -  New Game Flow
Paper Prototype - Diagetic UI
Paper Prototype - Plant Stats, Details, and Presentation

To deliver on FCCU's expectations, the scope and scale of Financial Frontier was to be significantly larger than that of Profit Playground, requiring more of each us, and necessitating a month to be spent on our team ideation. At this stage, and throughout developmentI scheduled short daily meetings with each of them for one-on-one discussions outside of our collective design sessions. In addition to facilitating daily and weekly meetings/whiteboard design sessions via Discord and MIRO, I would incorporate Google Sheets and Milanote into my own creative processes to allow for improved communication, documentation, and development.

Refining the Vision

Financial Frontier Spreadsheets
NPC Interaction Layout Sample, Made in Milanote

When meeting with Wren, I directed the designs of new characters, regions of the world, level spaces, environmental features, buildings, flora, technologies, UI, and player items by communicating their relevance, presentation, key thematic features, and providing artboards to serve as visual references.

Financial Frontier Artboard Sample 1
Financial Frontier Artboard Sample 2
Financial Frontier Artboard Sample 3
Financial Frontier Artboard Sample 4
Financial Frontier Artboard Sample 5
Financial Frontier Artboard Sample 6

When meeting with Jhon, I guided development of the game's foundational structure by demonstrating a high level overview of the game's functionality and systems.

Early Design Document

After this monthlong process, we had established a shared vision of the final product in a design document. Made in MIRO, the above document could be easily updated as designs evolved, thereby supporting our ability to iterate efficiently throughout the entirety of the development cycle.

The New Player Experience

Though the world of Terracia, its Venture Valley region, and the Red Ranger characters who occupy it, had been introduced in Profit Playground, I operated under the assumption that most players of Financial Frontier may not have played its predecessor. This proposed a question: how might we introduce new players to this world, without players of Profit Playground feeling that they are receiving repetitive information in their first minutes of play? 

The solution I came up with was comprised of four parts:

  1. The game opens with a cinematic, the narrator of which describes events that precede and succeed the story of Profit Playground, thereby tying together Financial Frontier's narrative.

  2. The narrator is one of several new characters, most of which will be introduced to the player during the tutorial, before they encounter any characters from the previous game.

  3. Prior to the tutorial, the player will gain access to a character creator, allowing them to give a face to the faceless character whom they had played as in Profit Playground.

  4. The first half of the tutorial will take place in the new Wild Wood region, allowing them to explore a fantastical location before traveling somewhere mundanely familiar.

Opening Cinematic

Opening Cinematic Storyboard

While mocking up the cinematic, I determined a few design parameters:

  1. The presentation of each scene would be similar to that of an illustrated page in a picture book.

  2. To facilitate this experience, the player would have control of advancing from scene to scene.

  3. Each scene would have voiced narration and subtitles that could be toggled on or off.

  4. Music that matches the tone of the narrative being told will loop in the background of all scenes.

  5. The scene count would be below 20, and the narration of each kept short to retain player attention. 

 

Having defined the framework, I drafted a storyboard of 18 scenes, with each featuring an elaborate description to inform Wren's production of the corresponding illustrations. After a back-and-forth of concept art, final illustrations were chosen, I reduced the number of scenes to 17, and pared down the narration of each scene to the appropriate lengths. I then revised the storyboard for Jhon to reference for his building of the cinematic, and began work on the cinematic's voice-over.

Due to budgetary and time constraints, I decided to utilize AI voice tools Murf and Replica Studios to produce all necessary vocal work. All formatting and additional production that was required for the VO and background music I implemented with Audacity. After a few tweaks per feedback from the playtesting sessions I organized, the cinematic was complete.

Character Creator

Character Creator Mockup

The initial concept for the character creator was for it to be portrayed in 3D and feature an abundance of customization options. After much deliberation with the team, it became apparent that numerous constraints made this impractical. Taking all factors into account, I began to consider the problem and a feasible solution.


Problem: How to provide ample character customization options and permit us the ability to display character profile images in game, without overburdening the team?

Solution: Present the character creator in 2D format, from the perspective of the player character painting a self-portrait.

 

This decision aligned with the game's painterly art style and gave our team flexibility to properly implement our designs. I created a mockup for playtesting purposes, iterated on the design based on player feedback, and we implemented the design that proved most successful. Wren produced several dozen customization options for each feature, while only needing to produce corresponding 3D assets for the most visible features of the low poly character models. Jhon created a system to sync up the player's choices in 2D with their 3D representations on the player character's model, and setup the player character's 2D portrait to display in our dialogue and player information systems.

Tutorial

Tutorial Windows Mockup

While I enjoy allowing players to learn the game's systems through play instead of through prompts telling them what to do, it is a designer's job to prioritize the player's fun above their own. To alleviate potential confusion and frustration amongst the lower ages of the target demographic, I felt it necessary to include a tutorial to introduce the world, its systems, and provide crucial information popups that can be referenced by the player at will. Feedback from playtesting before and after the implementation of the tutorial elements affirmed the necessity of their inclusion. 

Gameplay Structure

In addition to including many of the gameplay mechanics of Profit Playground, Financial Frontier would need to introduce several new core features to better embody the complexities of socio-economic structures. Aside from the aforementioned, these fit into three categories:

  1. Information -  creating the foundation of the gameplay experience.

    • Dialogue - all NPCs feature dialogue trees with voice-over and player choice.

    • Player HUD and UI - time of day, day of the week, direction, character statuses, inventory notifications, equipment, and available player actions are shown on screen.

    • Dynamic Environments - the player's actions improve their world, as can be seen in the change of their surroundings.

  2. Wealth Generation - providing the core loop of the player character's financial growth, and the player's educational growth.

    • Banking - the game's banking system simulates the mechanics of the American banking system.

    • Food Forest Gardening - the player produces crops by practicing regenerative agriculture, planting food forests comprised of plants that effect one another.

    • Foraging - the player collects plants and minerals for use in cooking and trade.

    • Cooking - the player crafts recipes using ingredients that have been grown, collected, or purchased.

    • Trade - the player exchanges goods for currency with various NPC's.

    • Trivia - the player can play trivia games to break up the core loop and have an opportunity to put their knowledge to the test for a payout reward.

  3. Progression - presenting the player with investment opportunities that will impact the game world and increase gameplay efficiency.

    • Upgrades - the player can upgrade their equipment, abilities, and home via services provided by various NPCs.

    • Town Building - the player can improve town infrastructure, construct buildings in empty plots of land, and unlock new areas. 

Information

The player receives necessary information from three main sources: dialogue, UI, and the dynamic environments. 

Dialogue

Buck, Penny, and Star Tutorial Dialogue Mockup

As part of the design of the world, all significant information, and its presentation to the player, I wrote a few thousand lines of text for the game. In addition to writing the lines for the dialogue segments, I designed the dialogue tree structure and context for their appearance in the game, which I would then pass on to Jhon to implement. 

User Interface

Player Inventory Mockup
UI & Camera Perspective Mockup
Player Status Mockup

Important information displayed onscreen includes the time of day, day of the week, the cardinal directions, player actions, player inventory, player stats, and environmental prompts. A focus of my designs was to display most of this information in the form of diegetic UI.

Dynamic Environments

Early World Systems Mockup

The narrative of Financial Frontier revolves around the theme of personal and financial growth being achieved through actions that benefit the world of Terracia.  Accordingly, the player actions of building gardens, planting native trees, and investing in developments for the community will increase a "green score" that accumulates in the game's background. There are four tiers of green score, each of which triggers a world state. As the score improves, so too does the state of the Venture Valley region, where the player will spend the majority of their time. 

Wealth Generation

The core gameplay loop has the player growing, gathering, and crafting products to sell in exchange for the world's currency, which they are incentivized to deposit into one of four different bank accounts. The loop is supplemented by optional trivia and horse riding activities that introduce variety, and provide an alternative way to earn currency.

Banking

Early Banking Mockup 1
Early Transfer Mockup (a)
Early Transfer Mockup (b)

Financial Frontier places banking at the heart of the gameplay loop, with the concept of budgeting being the focus of the design. There are four accounts available to the player: Spend, Save, Share, and Loan. To avoid losing money in their travels, large sums of the player's pocket money can be stored in the Spend account. The Save account will generate interest, growing the money deposited within, and all upgrades are purchased with money in this account. Any community improvements the player chooses to make will be paid for with money deposited in the Share account. Lastly, the Loan account tracks the balance owed to the town's credit union, and includes calculations of interest on missed payments (strikes), three of which can trigger a game over.

Food Forest Gardening

Food Forest Gardening Mockup 1
Food Forest Gardening Mockup 2
Food Forest Gardening Mockup 3

Food forest gardening is the player's main source of wealth generation. Modeled after the permaculture design concept of building gardens to emulate the layers of a forest, the planting system utilizes the concept of companion planting, which takes into account the interactions different plants have with one another when planted in close proximity. I designed the system to function similar to an armor set in RPGs, with each plant synergy providing a boost in stats for the production of the garden. The player can also invest in passive buffs that increase the stats of the entire garden, allowing for greater efficiency.

Foraging

Foraging Mockup

Foraging is a staple of a game in this genre, made possible by the exploration a 3D environment can provide. Considering this and the narrative of the game, it was included in the designs from the beginning. Profit Playground had featured gem stone collection, a feature I thought made for a good throughline for both games, and the collection and sale of wild plants could further supplement the player's wealth generation. Additionally, the foraged plants could be incorporated into the cooking system. 

Cooking

Cooking Mockup

Cooking was determined to be a fundamental aspect of the core gameplay loop early on in production. The challenge was deciding to what extent, and at which point in the player's progression it should become a necessary action to increase the player's wealth generation. After conceptualizing and testing a few ideas, I concluded it should function as an upgrade tree, first providing basic recipes, and growing to encompass more valuable recipes as the player invests in their cooking skills.

Trivia

Early Financial Trivia Mockup
Early Nature Trivia Mockup
Financial & Nature Trivia Mockup

The two trivia minigames support our education design pillar, provide additional avenues of currency accumulation, and introduce variety into the core gameplay loop. To reinforce planning for the future, I decided each trivia game would become available to the player only once per week on Sunday and Wednesday respectively. The trivia difficulty is structured into four tiers, each possessing a pool of twenty-one terms and definitions from which ten are selected at random. Correctly answering questions in a tier will reward a payout of coins per correct answer, with greater difficulty tiers offering greater rewards, and answering all questions correctly within one tier will unlock the next trivia tier.

Progression

In addition to wealth accumulation, player progress can be measured by upgrades made to their character's home and building out the town of Budget Branch, both of which are actions tied to the aforementioned "green score" affecting the environmental visuals of the Venture Valley region. 

Upgrades

Marshall Money Tech Tree Mockup

Upgrades are paid for with currency deposited within the Save account. As the document on the left shows, the upgrade tree has mandatory and optional upgrade paths based on the player's preferences and priorities. Considering the target age demographic, I felt this was necessary to allow for guided progression, thereby decreasing the chances of the player over extending themselves beyond their available resources and capabilities. However, the player retains autonomy when deciding how to invest their savings.

Town Building

Community Garden Mockup (a)
Community Garden Mockup (b)
Community Development (a)
Community Development (b)

Currency deposited within the Share account is utilized by the player to improve the Venture Valley region via town building. Comprised of tree planting, structural development, and unlockable zones, each addition improves the aesthetics of the Venture Valley region, increases the green score, provides more economic options to the player, and provides additional areas to explore. Taking our scope and timeline into consideration, all development locations would be predetermined, marked by flags, with player choice limited to specific structures and a selection of tree varieties.

Market Readiness

With the game nearing completion, I could turn my attention to preparing for its publishing. As with Profit Playground, the game would release on the App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon App Store. While coordinating with FCCU to develop a marketing campaign to announce its launch, I began to lay the foundation for each platform's store listings by:

  • Writing the game's description

  • Listing important features

  • Capturing screenshots in the various dimensions of each applicable device

  • Preparing the game to be vetted for COPPA compliance and ESRB rating 

Once these steps had been taken, I proceeded to work with Wren to finalize the game's icon.

Game Icon

Financial Frontier Game Icon Mockup
Financial Frontier Game Icon

The design of the game's icon came later in development after playtesting determined that Star was the most popular character, and that she would standout to children both familiar and unfamiliar with the game series. The intent of the design was to communicate an expectation of the play experience, capture one's attention with stunning visuals, and to give the player a sense of the game's world. As we neared launch, and with our work load lightening, we shifted our attention to finalizing the design I had mocked up in MIRO.

Anchor 2

Launch Trailer

Having completed the game and the majority of preparations for publishing, I began producing a launch trailer. My goals for the trailer:​​

  1. Display the gameplay.

  2. Communicate the mood and tone of the gameplay experience. 

  3. Attract the attention of adults and youth alike.

Post Launch

Following a successful launch, I monitored analytics, collected user feedback, and implemented, tested, and deployed updates.

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