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Terracian Trails:

Profit Playground

Platforms
iOS, macOSAndroid, Amazon
Tools Used
Discord, MIRO, Unity, Audacity
Development Time
June 2021 - February 2022

Team Size

3

Role

Designer and Producer

Additional Contributions

Audio and Creative Direction,

Testing Setup and Administration 

Terracian Trails: Profit Playground is the first of two games First Community Credit Union of Houston (FCCU) hired me to develop with a team of my assembly. FCCU's desired outcomes and expectations for the project:

  1. Rebrand FCCU youth program characters, the Red Rangers, by creating a new franchise with a contemporary art style and appeal.

  2. Each game will facilitate the uptake of financial literacy for distinctive age demographics: ages 2 - 5 and ages 6 - 12 respectively. 

  3. The budget set aside for the project was minimal, requiring me to build a small, highly skilled and agile team of professionals.

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

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

Following a weeklong period of researching current trends and standards ​within the educational games space, I decided the games would be played on mobile devices, built in Unity, and the educational material would be scaffolded across both games.

Pre-Production

Challenge: How to facilitate the uptake of financial literacy in ages 2 - 5 in an engaging manner?

Solution: Introduce financial concepts in the abstract by providing activities featuring familiar and developmental patterns within a setting that mirrors our natural world.

I determined the game's design pillars to be fivefold:

  1. Accessibility - To account for various disabilities, languages, and reading capabilities amongst the player base, designs will visually and auditorily communicate everything the player must be aware of for a successful play experience, and any necessary text, such as for the game's settings, will be presented in single words in OpenDyslexic font. 

  2. Storybook Feel - The game's flow will embody the unfolding of a storybook narrative, with each character's section serving as a chapter.

  3. Environmental Storytelling - Presentation similar to point-and-click adventure games, with narrative expressed through visuals, diegetic UI, and context clues.

  4. Player Engagement - Activities will emulate nature based play and exploration, and serve to introduce the players to a new world and the characters who call it home.

  5. Education and Development - Gameplay will introduce abstract concepts of financial literacy through exercises that develop pre-literacy, memory, and cognitive abilities.

 

 

Having defined the design pillars, I began the process of world building, character development, constructing the game's narrative, and mocking up early game and UI designs. I facilitated the ideation process with paper prototyping, allowing me the ability to iterate quickly and cheaply. I always adhere to the motto "keep the work ugly", prioritizing getting the thoughts and designs down over the cleanliness of presentation, which would come in a later refinement phase of development. Below are some samples.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My focus being design and production required me to hire a Unity programmer and an artist/animator with experience in 2D and 3D to complete the team. I hired Jhon Vergara for the role as our team's programmer and Wren Stout as our artist/animator. I found their respective portfolios to be quite impressive, and each exhibited a foundational understanding of game design. Being fully remote, we lived in different time zones, so the priorities of our first meeting was to develop schedules, decide on preferred tools, and establish weekly procedures. Having logistics squared away, we then proceeded to collectively refine the game's designs.

Paper Prototype - Overview Ideation
Paper Prototype - Buck's Game 1
Paper Prototype - Buck's Game 2
Paper Prototype - Penny's Game

Paper Prototyping

Organizing the Team

Profit Playground Design Document

In addition to facilitating our one-on-one and collective design sessions via Discord and MIRO, I documented, organized, and refined the details of each of the game's designs prior to and after each design session. Working alongside Wren, I directed the redesigns of the Red Ranger characters by describing the world of the Red Rangers, what each character represented, their personalities, their motivations, the key thematic features of each of their designs, and provided visual references for each as needed. Collaborating with Jhon, I guided early development of the game's foundational structure by demonstrating a high level overview of the game's functionality and its various systems. Collectively, we would meet in MIRO's virtual white board space to perform a daily ideation process, working out the details of each of the game's parts, and establishing a shared vision of the final product. At the end of this two week ideation process, we had created a solid design document to guide our work, that could be easily updated as designs evolved, and would support our ability to iterate efficiently throughout the entirety of the development cycle.

Refining the Vision

Star

Beginning the game with Star was an ideal choice for three reasons:

  1. It seemed fitting for a kid's game based in a quasi-American Western Frontier setting to begin with taking care of a pet horse.

  2. Horse care could be organized into three parts--exercise, grooming, and feeding--with each acting as a tutorial, establishing gameplay controls, mechanics, and pacing.

  3. It would give us the design space to explore the possibilities of communication using only visual and audible cues.

Arranging the design goals into two groups gave us Financial Concept Introductions and Developmental Practice. These levels provide the following for each category:

  • Financial Concept Introductions: value of goods, exchange between individuals, investing resources, inputs and outputs, planning/preparing for the future

  • Developmental Practice: contextual relevance, spatial awareness, object differentiation, order of operations, matching, memory, reflex

Level 1 - Exercise

Star's Level 1 Mockup

I researched horses thoroughly prior to designing each of Star's levels, and relied on Wren's background in the equestrian arts to bring Star to life. The first three levels serve as a tutorial of sorts, and establish the game's tone. There are no failure states, but there are consequences for the player's actions or inaction. The narrative of beginning the day with caring for Star is established with the soothing backdrop of an early morning sunrise. The player collects a gold coin as a reward for the completion of each level.

 

Star's exercise level was designed to set the player's expectations for gameplay by allowing them the freedom to experiment with inputs, finish the game at their own pace (emphasized by Star's different speeds and expressions), and become familiar with the world with which they are engaged. Parallaxing topography, cloud movement, and the presence of wildlife are featured to give the sense of a living world.

Level 2 - Grooming

Star's Level 2 Mockup

Star's grooming level introduces the mechanic of tool use, something that will appear in later levels of the game. These hands-on activities provide a sense of tactile feedback while performing each task, and give the player an immediate sense of accomplishment. To ensure this activity matches the tasks of horse care as it is practiced in our world, I decided each tool's availability would be dependent on its predecessor having been used to clean off a specific layer of filth. If the player has not yet discovered the ability to pet Star, this level provides an obvious opportunity to do so, because who doesn't love petting the animals in a game?

Level 3 - Feeding

Star's Level 3 Mockup

Star's feeding level introduces the mechanic of dragging and dropping items into a target location. Being a matching game that has the player feeding Star each item that she requests presented an excellent opportunity to bring Star to life. Star's eye follows the player's finger movement, her ears twitch, and tail flicks as she excitedly awaits her desired snack. She will shake her head in disapproval if presented with the wrong food, and happily snatch up food that she is craving. The food items available to the player for feeding mirror those one might feed their horse in our world. Finishing this sequence will present the player with a victory screen of Star rearing up in joy, and unlock Penny's levels.

Penny

Having Penny be the next playable character made sense for the following reasons:

  1. Her name justifies introducing activities that have the player counting upward by a single unit, the best activity to build upon the actions of Star's third level.  

  2. Harvesting fruit provides an ideal framing for a counting activity, and appeals to a feature of her redesign: Penny's love of gardening and the outdoors.

  3. The counting activity of harvesting fruit would  parallel the adding of pennies up to equal greater amounts, starting with quarters, and eventually adding up to a dollar.

Penny's levels fulfill our design goals by providing the following for each established category:

  • Financial Concept Introductions: awaiting maturation of investments prior to redeeming value, parts adding up to a whole, making deposits, collection, value of goods

  • Developmental Practice: delayed gratification, spatial awareness, counting, recognizing change--color, shape, and size as signifiers, hand-eye coordination, object relevance

Level 1 - Apple Picking

Penny's Level 3 Mockup (Became Level 1)

As previously stated, cultivating and harvesting crops is a perfect activity to introduce the mechanic of collecting a set number of items. Narrative progression is indicated by the backdrop of a midday sky, the UI elements have changed from rough-sawn lumber to vine-wrapped stone, and details hinting at future tasks can be seen in the distance behind the apple trees. 

 

Collected individually or in groups of up to five, the player will fill a container with a total of twenty-five fruit, paralleling the action of adding pennies up to quarters. Every fruit has a full growth cycle from bud to ripe, those that go unpicked will become overripe and fall to the ground, and fruit can be squished if handled too roughly. In contrast to the original design, the number of buckets in the first level was reduced to one to introduce the player to the concept, set their expectations for what the game requires of them, and have an easy difficulty. The size of the fruit being collected also lends itself to the ease of the task of collection.

Level 2 - Tomato Picking

Penny's Level 2 Mockup

Unlike the differentiating nature of Star's levels, Penny's are a continuation of the same style of gameplay, but with additional factors contributing to their complexity. In contrast with the original design, the number of buckets for this level was reduced to two. Increasing the objective's number count and decreasing the size of the collected fruit builds upon expectations set in the previous level, provides a slight increase of difficulty, and gives the player a sense of advancement.

To advance to the next level, the player will pick ripe tomatoes, add them up into separate buckets of twenty-five before adding them together via a "+" into a large barrel of fifty. Symbolically, this is the adding up of cents to quarters, and then adding those quarters together to make a 50¢ piece. Blueberry bushes, the player's next harvesting task, can be seen in the background, foreshadowing the next level.

Level 3 - Blueberry Picking

Penny's Level 1 Mockup (Became Level 3)

The final level of Penny's section has the player picking blueberries, distributing them into four buckets of twenty-five, before adding them together into a larger bucket of one hundred. The size of the blueberries being the smallest of the three fruits and the increased collection quota provide the slight increase in difficulty the player may have come to expect. Again, this activity parallels the adding up of pennies into quarters, and adding those quarters up into a dollar.  Finishing this sequence will present the player with a victory screen of Penny posing with pride before the bountiful harvest, and unlock Buck's levels.

Buck

Buck's activities are next available for the following reasons:

  1. As with Penny, his name grants the ability to have a lesson focused on the counting of single items within greater numerical chunks.

  2. Breaking up larger dollar amounts into smaller dollar amounts would provide the inverse lesson of Penny's activity while highlighting the parallels between them.

  3. Buck being an adventurous collector of rarities for trade, as per his redesign, gives us the framing of cracking open geodes into gems of various sizes and rarities.

Buck's levels fulfill our design goals by providing the following for each established category:

  • Financial Concept Introductions: dividing large sums into groups of differing values, value of goods, rarity defining value, making deposits, collection, distribution

  • Developmental Practice: categorical organization, spatial awareness, object differentiation, order of operations, contextual relevance, hand-eye coordination, matching

Level 1 - Cavern Entrance

Buck's Level 1 Mockup

When development of Buck's levels first began, I toured cave systems around Austin to gain a sense of the ambience one feels when delving deep into a cave system. This investigation informed my production of the soundscape for each level, and allowed me to better contribute to the development of each level's environmental design. Narrative progression is indicated by the backdrop of sunlight from an afternoon sky, and the UI elements having changed from vine-wrapped stone to tarnished metal plating.

These levels reintroduce the tool and matching mechanics, along with the added complexity of sorting and distribution. The player must uncover geodes, crack them open, and organize the assortment of gems found within. Starting with lower value gems, the player gains access to gems of increasing value as they descend into the cave system. I thoroughly researched gemstones, gemstone mining, and the gemstone market to ensure the value based on each gem's rarity and the complexity of their respective cuts mirror that of their value in our world. 

Though numerical values are not shown, value is implied by each gems frequency of appearance. Each geode represents a large dollar amount with each gem--amethyst, sapphire, emerald, ruby, and diamond--representing the 1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 dollar bills that may comprise it. One could also interpret the gems as representing a corresponding combination of coinage--penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and 50-cent piece--that may constitute a single dollar; a parallel which scaffolds upon the practice of Penny's levels, and symbolically unites Penny and Buck as siblings in the world's lore.

Level 2 - Cavern Depths

Buck's Level 2 Mockup

The player descends into the cavern depths, where the only light to work by is cast from two torches brought down by Buck in his descent; a detail made apparent to the player by an interstitial animation that plays during the loading screen between each of Buck's levels. The background features dirt and stone of numerous types, providing a sense of this being a middle ground where various elements of earth have formed and come to rest. It is here that the ruby is introduced into the mix.

Level 3 - Cavern Bottom

Buck's Level 3 Mockup

The player reaches the cavern bottom, where a warm and slightly ominous glow emanates from a distant magma flow that is framed by a composition of basalt tinted igneous rock. The final level introduces the diamond to the assortment found within the geodes, allowing the player to collect all five gems. Once their task is completed, they will ascend to the surface, be shown a victory screen with Buck standing triumphantly before the haul of gems, and unlock Marshall Money's levels.

Marshall Money

Ending the game with Marshall Money was appealing for three reasons:

  1. Arriving in the evening to help the elder leader of the Red Rangers seemed fitting, perhaps serving as a metaphor for growth achieved from time spent with the game.

  2. We could introduce the Red Ranger's town, Budget Branch, and the new Red Ranger character, Trustee, whom I had created to be Marshall's mule companion.

  3. Marshall's responsibilities as leader of the Red Rangers gives context to the player's activities up to this point, and sets up the narrative for Profit Playground's sequel.

Marshall Money's levels fulfill our design goals by providing the following for each established category:

  • Financial Concept Introductions: collection, distribution, planning/preparing for the future, parts adding up to a whole, subtraction, trade, community investment

  • Developmental Practice: assembling complex systems comprised of individual parts, organization, cartography, contextual relevance, spatial awareness, object differentiation

Level 1 - Preparing Trustee

Marshall Money's Level 1 Mockup

The overarching narrative of Profit Playground's gameplay is communicated to the player through Marshall Money's levels, which have the player preparing for an expedition. Narrative progression is indicated by the backdrop of sunlight from an evening sky, and the UI elements have changed from tarnished metal to a well crafted structure of wood and nails. 

 

Each level features a two part structure, an assembly mechanic, and camera movement. Level 1 has the player collecting items that will be used to prepare Trustee to be hitched up to a wagon. A wide angle shot was chosen to allow enough space to distribute the items across a variety of spawn points that are randomized with each play. The camera will only display a portion of the environment, requiring the player to pan the camera using the arrow buttons at the bottom of the screen. If the player is having difficulty locating an item, a golden outline around a randomly selected item will begin to fade in-and-out slowly to catch their attention. The second half of the level will have the player assembling the horse tack onto Trustee; a similar golden glow creates an outline to assist with assembly.

Level 2 - Preparing the Wagon

Marshall Money's Level 2 Mockup

The player helps Marshall Money clean up the town of Budget Branch by collecting the components of a wagon that are randomly strewn about. The second half of the level will have the player assembling the components into a covered wagon, and the ephemeral outline is again present to provide assistance. Based on a few of the items on the wagon, it is made apparent to the player that the expedition they are preparing for is to be a trade mission. 

Level 3 - Preparing the Route

Marshall Money's Level 3 Mockup

The player spends the first half of the level "drawing" landmarks from Marshall Money's memory onto a map, and each time the player places a landmark in its proper place, a unique pencil scribbling sound plays. The player spends the second half of the level plotting the course of their expedition, and each time the player touches a point of interest, a dotted line slowly appears, stopping at the next point of interest, where a soundscape of the location plays. The soundscapes can be interpreted as Marshall Money's memories or descriptions of each location as depicted through sound. Upon completion, the final coin is collected, and the player is shown a victory screen featuring the Red Rangers riding off into the sunset toward a giant tree. It is here that the player is given a clue that they have not been playing as each character, but instead have been working alongside them.

World Map

The World Map would serve multiple purposes:

  1. Establish the game's setting, familiarizing the player with important locations, and providing a sense of scale.

  2. The character and level selection could exist within this space, allowing us an opportunity to bring the characters to life, and provide a board game feel to the experience. 

  3. We could build upon the narrative and world lore with environmental storytelling, and the appearance of a magical structure that ties into the main game loop.

Unlocking Each Character

Character Selection Map Mockup

The Red Rangers live in the region of Venture Valley, within which resides the town of Budget Branch and a collection of other named locations associated with its founding. I wanted the players to have a good sense of the layout of the town and its surroundings, and wanted those details to unfold as the the player progressed. My thinking was to have a "fog of war" effect obscuring most of the map, but to have it be represented as cloud cover that moves away with time. This led to the idea of having the unlocking of each character's levels reveal a portion of the map, and tied in well with the drifting clouds that can be seen in the earlier outdoor levels.

Character and Level Selection

Character Level Selection Mockup

Boardgames were a major influence of this design, as they provide an excellent source of tactile feedback, reinforce mathematic principals, introduce the complexities of systems in a digestible way, and are likely a recognizable format for most children in the target demographic. Additionally, presenting the selection screen afforded an opportunity to bring each character to life with simple animations, and familiarize the player with each character's design. This would pair nicely with arranging each level of the map as if they were spaces on a game board, as it gives the player a sense of the character's movement across each area of Venture Valley.

The Codex

Codex Mockup

I feel that every game should present a reward to the player for spending their time completing it. Profit Playground would have the reward tie into the main game loop of collecting coins at each level's end, eventually unlocking a magical codex with the acquiring of the final coin. The codex and pedestal upon which it rests appear from thin air after the player has collected one or more coins from Star's levels, and has returned to the world map by choice or with the unlocking of Penny's levels.

The cover design of the codex resembles a safe with a central wheel locking mechanism that, when locked, will give a slight turn before returning to its original position. Once the player has collected all coins, they will be taken to the codex automatically to witness the animation of the final coin socketing into position, and a light display accompanied by a magical resonance will signify its activation. The player can then open the codex in an animated flurry of pages flying open to the index. Its contents
 include concept and final art, as well as an accounting section that will track the number of items collected in the game, encouraging replayability.  Most items featured within the codex are interactive, popping out if clicked, and the font of items that have been labeled stylistically is made more legible with the OpenDyslexic font.

Market Readiness

With the game nearing completion, I could turn my attention to preparing for its publishing. To make the game available to as much of the market as possible, I planned to release the game 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

Profit Playground Icon Mockup
Profit Playground Icon Finalized

The design of the game's icon had been mocked up early in development during our ideation process. The intent of the design was to communicate an expectation of the play experience, capture one's attention with stunning visuals, and to feature the two Red Ranger characters most relatable to the youth demographic. Up until this point we had not returned to the design, but with our work load lightening, we shifted our attention to finalizing it for market. 

Trailer

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. Garner 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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