plan-it:disaster

2015-2016 (senior capstone project)
UX design + UI design + Game design + Environment design

Project Overview:
Plan-it: Disaster is a natural disaster preparedness game built in Unreal Engine. The first-person experience involves navigating a damaged apartment building, gathering critical survival items, and finding shelter after a massive and devastating Seattle earthquake. 

Project Goal: 
The game's mission was to combat the lack of knowledge people have regarding what to do/not to do in a natural disaster situation. Plan-it: Disaster provides an immersive experience that leaves the player feeling empowered, educated, and entertained. 

My mission: 
• Contribute to the UX process from early paper prototyping to the final user testing sessions

• Design the gameplay, UI, and build the environment

• Provide 3D models and textures

• Collaborate with the game developer on interface, game mechanics, and reward system

Squad: 1 UX/game designer (me) + 1 UX designer/PM + 1 UX researcher + 1 developer

Timeframe: Approximately 10 months
Tools: 3DS Max + Unreal Engine + Photoshop + Illustrator

Project Management Methodology: Agile (Sprints, Scrum, Kanban, Lean)

ux process

First step: Research, research, and more research

Challenge: 
Answering the questions: What do potential users already know? What would they benefit from most by using our product? How can we design a product that can be utilized by the largest amount of people since its mission is societal impact?

Solution:
We used numerous methods for information gathering on the public which helped inform the development of our user personas. We used qualitative and quantitative research methods. For example, we used:

Cultural Probes:
This is an ambiguous research method that focuses on qualitative research. When it came to our project in particular we hoped to learn more about how participants value their belongings, where they feel safe, and what they already know. We provided survey participants an activity book with word association, a deserted island where users draw their 3 most valued items, and a map with color coded stickers marking where they feel safest. The purpose being, of course, to discover patterns, trends, and attitudes regarding natural disasters and preparedness.

Takeaways: 

This exercise helped to inform my choice to have the game take place in a home/apartment and made it clear to us that most people NEED to know more about how to prepare for a natural disaster.

Experiential Prototypes:

For this we sent users home with a kit full of items that they needed to rank in order of importance and snap a photo. These kits included a mix of traditional survival items (water, food, etc.), superfluous items like perfume, and sentimental items like a family photo.

Takeaways:
The results of this research method had the most impact on our early product design choices. It clued us in to how much people value sentimental items. We knew that we needed to include this angle in our game somehow. 

Next step: User Personas 

Challenge: 
Figure out who our audience will be

Solution:
The first step of the research process was identifying who our product is targeted towards. Our primary audience was individuals aged 20 and up. The demographic was intentionally broad because safety education is something that would be applicable across multiple age groups. Thanks to our surveys and research, we learned that those living alone were not as concerned about safety preparedness but admitted they needed to know more. However, those living with their family, particularly the head of the household, were very concerned and interested in ways to keep their family safe. The two personas we created, Andy Lao and Janet Marion, represented both of these types of user. 

Next step: Paper prototype design and user testing 

Challenge: 
How to test our proposed game features in the pre-build stages on people with objective eyes. 

Solution:
Paper prototypes! We knew that the game would involve navigating an apartment and the goal would be collecting items for a survival backpack so you can escape the apartment and survive. However, we were still workshopping potential "events" that would complicate the game (a piece of debris hits you, for example). I designed a paper version of my ideas for the apartment layout, using a bird's eye perspective. My teammate designed the inventory item "tokens" and event cards. It worked like a board game version of our product ideas.

Takeaways:

  • Confirmed that must include sentimental/non-essential items so users will have to make that choice, thus allowing for a more effective "teachable moment" in-game. With limited backpack space, you can't take everything. 

  • Include a timer and a leaderboard, encouraging replayability

  • Events should be included but in a cause and effect capacity. Making an unwise choice -> consequence.

Last step in the UX/Research process: High fidelity prototypes and more user testing

game design process

First step: "Make it work!"

Challenge: 
Make a game that is immersive and realistic to aid in the educational "relatable" aspects. 

Solutions:

  • Perspective: Originally, the game was in 3rd person perspective but immersion was very important to us. We wanted users to picture this scenario happening in real life, to coach them that preparation is key. Through the use of *bodystorming different options, and user testing, we worked out that 1st person was not only preferable but possible. We had to take time constraints into account but ultimately we decided to aim high. We would manage the time by keeping the environment small (the one bedroom apartment). We switched the plan to 1st person perspective and added camera shakes for simulated earthquake physics.

*Bodystorming: by physically acting out the game and various perspectives it helped us to determine things like camera placement, environment scale, POV, and 2D vs. 3D pros and cons. We sketched the possibilities on a white board as we went. 

  • The sequence of events: The game begins with the player waking up during a severe earthquake. The environment is a 1 bedroom apartment on an upper floor. SInce the goal of the game is to show how stressful, scary, and illogical it is to have to build a survival kit during an earthquake, it made sense to have the earthquake hit while they are asleep. They are prompted to hurry and grab the items the want to take with them to survive after leaving the apartment. 

Next step: Make it fun but effective

Challenge: 
Make a game for adults that is entertaining AND educational (two features that are tough to balance) 

Solutions:

  • Consequences: if the player makes a choice deemed inappropriate by our disaster experts, there are consequences. For example, if the player goes to grab supplies from the storage on the deck before grabbing items from the bathroom (where important items like medication are), then the ceiling collapses and blocks access to the bathroom. This is meant to convey that a deck is a very unsafe place during an earthquake and anything in there is less important than what is typically found in a bathroom. 

  • Drama: as the timer counts down, the earthquake effects become more dramatic. Windows and mirrors break and cups fall off of shelves. Again, adding to the message that this is not the ideal situation to be building a kit as you go. The player also only has a certain amount of space in their backpack. So eventually, choices need to be made. Do you take the family photos? Or the crank radio? 

  • Interaction: Some of the survival items are out in plain sight. While others require the player to seek them out in intuitive locations that have interactivity. For example, players must open the refrigerator, desk drawer, medicine cabinet, etc. to reach the important items inside. This provides some added challenge and use of critical thinking skills.

    The inventory item cards also contained clues such as "This [cellphone] is a good choice but only if you grabbed your charger..". All of this information was driven by our consultations with disaster preparedness experts.

  • Emotional Aspect: As discussed above, through research and user tests it was clear that we needed to include both traditional survival kit items along with sentimental and non-essential items so we could educate the user about what to do. The emotional and non-essential items included: a pet cat, family photos, perfume, beer, etc. The inventory item descriptions had educational information from our experts as to why this may or may not be a wise choice. 

  • Inventory Items: were given value driven by our experts and the ending score adds up all items gathered. This is subtly reflected in the green, yellow, and red icons on the item cards

Next step: Make it pretty

Challenge: 
Modelling/texturing realistic 3D models for 25+ inventory items and for the entire apartment

Solutions:
One of the many hats I wore for this project was that of 3D modeler. Originally, I had hoped to model every item in the game but time constraints didn't allow for that. So I used a mix of asset store items and my own creations. Some of my own 3D models included canned food, mid-century dining chairs, the knife, wine bottles, city skyline, railings, coffee tables, lamps, framed art (a fun nod to my favorite artist Charley Harper), cabinets, and maxi pads. 

Bonus Challenge: 
Make something I've never made before and never expected to

Solution:
My favorite bit of educational info I gained from working with our disaster preparedness experts was how important feminine products are for a survival kit. They all strongly suggested we include them in our game because it is something that so often gets overlooked. They can serve so many uses in a survival situation. In conclusion, you can bet I took their advice and modeled a box of maxi pads. 

Challenge: 
Design the ending screen UI and include:
1) a narrative component
2) educational resources
3) scoring breakdown

Solution:
 

Post-it graveyard
aka Kanbans and Scrums and Critical Paths oh my!