Designing play at the V&A

By David Arnold, How we did it

How can a game make the story of a building – not its contents – fun for a family audience? The V&A commissioned Preloaded to answer that question, leading to a question of our own: what kid is going to look at some old bricks and think ‘wow!’?

This post is the design thinking behind Secret Seekers, our new site-specific family game.

Working with experts

Fortunately the V&A were committed to working closely with us. Our initial meeting with them was a tour with resident historian – and all round legend – Christopher, who quickly allayed our fears. We were blown away by the stories and left excited at all the content we could squeeze into the game.

Taking the tour

Getting the ball rolling

After our initial research phase we ran a creative workshop at the V&A, which was a brilliant chance to start the collaboration early. Our plan was to test something on the final day of the workshop and, as a designer I’ll admit to some anxiety about this. To guarantee a meaningful, testable outcome after a few days was a daunting prospect, especially as quite often it can be a case of ‘too many cooks’.

We discussed key messages and how to meet the challenge of creating a low-threshold, heads-up experience, aiming for a game that augmented the physical space, rather than taking people out of it. On the final day we did indeed have two concepts to test which validated the following:

  1. The core mechanic of hunting had appeal and was a good way to get ‘heads-up’.
  2. Characters were a great focus point for telling the story of the building.

Furious post-it note action culminated in a paper prototype

Refining the design

Usually at this stage I would crack out the word processor and write a detailed GDD. This is a useful step as it gives me a chance to think deeply and systematically about every design decision.

Because a lot of the question marks at this stage were surrounding UX and not in the game play, in this instance the quickest way to move forwards was to make a digital prototype. This helped me think around the following:

  • How to break the content up into manageable chunks?
  • How to frame the choice of location and character? I.e. is the first question: where to play, or who to talk to?
  • How to support wayfinding in a notoriously complex building?
  • What is the lowest-threshold way to handle answer input?
  • How do we reward players and expose progress?

A Wireframe UX document was then created, this took all of the thinking from the digital prototype and wrapped it up in an accessible way for the programming team to understand what to build.

Marvel App was used to create a digital prototype

Content creation

With a design in place and production in full flow, we needed some content! Where to start?

We came up with a three-pronged plan of attack. Firstly, I created a CMS template after unpicking all of the content types. Next up I wrote a set of editorial guidelines. This helps ensure copy is fit for purpose. Finally, we did a thorough onsite content workshop with the team at the V&A, walking around the space and conjuring up suitable challenges.

My preference was for treasure hunt type challenges, where the answer was in the environment, encouraging a heads up experience.  There were some areas that were tougher than others to find suitable treasure hunt challenges, such as the Cast Courts (which has amazing objects but less interesting building features).

For any area that was a bit short of the number of plausible treasure hunt style challenges there were more trivia-based challenges that invited the player to apply logical and lateral thinking.

Alpha

Every design decision is made with the user(s) in mind, so for me one of the most treasured parts of the game dev process is user testing. It’s a chance to see people interacting with your creation; hopefully having fun, but ultimately exposing its pitfalls. It is invaluable.

The Alpha test is the most anxiety-ridden for me. You’ve got a bare bones game and you’re letting it loose on the public. To test accurately you need clear goals in mind and a good test guide is essential. I used the first digital prototype to perform informal user testing and put that thinking into the Alpha. At this early stage we wanted to evaluate the core UX – how did people use the game in the context of a site visit? Did the concept make sense? Were people able to navigate the building and complete challenges?

In the most part, the UX and UI translated well, people were able to navigate the space and complete challenges.  One of the key takeaways for me was the fact that not everyone was aware of all locations and characters. We decided to scroll the carousel each time the player landed on the specific screen to hint at all the content.

Alpha builds aren’t always pretty

Beta

Getting to Beta meant an overhaul of the visuals and heavily editing content to ensure it was both concise and characterful. During the Beta test the standout moment was seeing a young girl, empowered by the game, select a location and loudly exclaim ‘I know where that is!’ before confidently striding off, parents in pursuit. It was also great hearing parents remark that usually their children get bored after 30 minutes in a museum, but had been happily playing for over an hour.

A problem exposed in Beta testing was in the answer input.  In some cases the player was required to select multiple answers but it wasn’t clear. We had a little piece of UI that read 0/2, but it as being missed. To combat this we animated it with every input to draw attention. We also created an idle animation for it to draw attention to it if the user hadn’t selected anything for a few seconds.

Launch

And so, after many more hours of polishing and bug fixing the Beta became the Release Candidate.

At the start of the project I was excited but nervous about the creative workshop. It can feel safer as a creator to have ownership from the outset and be precious about the project, only sharing updates when you’re ready. This project, for me, underlined the importance of working collaboratively very early on in the process and helped instil confidence in all stakeholders that the core concept had ‘legs’. This gave me the freedom I needed to carry that core concept forward, honing it as I saw necessary without the fear of having the fundamentals being ripped up by a senior stakeholder who had yet to see it.

Secret Seekers is the latest in a long line of quality games produced for museums and other cultural institutions. If you want to engage the public in new, meaningful ways get in touch, we’d love to work with you.


Read more about Secret Seekers on the V&A’s Digital Blog:

David believes in the power of games to engage and inspire. He is passionate about crafting experiences that have a positive impact on the world around him.

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