March 21, 2013

Pie slices

In that last blog post I mentioned that we were struggling with how to represent our core action potential mechanic. We needed some way to represent the way the player uses neurotransmitters to get the chips/neurons in the game to their threshold so that they fire.

After much brainstorming we came up with an idea. What if instead of combining colors and shapes, we represented the neurotransmitters spatially as the sections of a divided circle, essentially pie slices?

An early design sketch of our pie slice idea.

The pie slices on the circle would indicate which neurotransmitters are excitatory and take the chip/neuron's membrane potential towards threshold, and also which are inhibitory and count against reaching threshold. To get the right chip/neuron to fire you would have to carefully connect up your neural network to combine the right neurotransmitters, making strategic placement essential.

Another sketch, brainstorming temporal and spatial summation.
With this idea in mind we started working on a series of prototypes, which we plan on showing you in our next few blog posts.

March 15, 2013

Design concepts outlined in the grant

We are a small team, two programmers (myself included) and an artist, and we all collaboratively work on the game design. Our biggest challenge is making a game that is fun and interesting that is also true to the goals and intent of the grant. The grant gives us a solid foundation for our game design, but there is still much to be done. There are so many details that contribute to the design of a game that only come into existence when you start actually developing the game. I personally like this about game development, because it allows a lot of room for creativity for everyone involved.

Logo concept art from the grant.

I managed to whittle down the core design ideas outlined in the grant into a bullet pointed list:

  • Nurbits should be a casual game to appeal to a wide audience -- the grant references the Popcap hits Bejewled, Peggle, and Plants vs Zombies.
  • As the player solves puzzles there is an aesthetic change:
    • Visually the puzzle pieces go from looking like chips on a circuit board to looking more like neurons.
    • The music in the games transitions from a chip-tune like style to more full and natural sound.

Concept art of chip to neuron transition from the grant.

  • The core gameplay involves the player placing the appropriate neurons to connect an existing structure.
  • Core gameplay will revolve around identifying the logic used by the neuron’s cell body to initiate action potentials that meet the requirements of a downstream "goal" neuron.
  • The grant mentions the player changing the color to represent the neurotransmitters used by the neurons, and the brightness of the color representing the threshold and rate of fire.
  • Higher level play requires the use of inhibitory interneurons.
  • Nurbits will also have a "sandbox" that can be unlocked if the player progresses to a certain point, which will allow students to create their own neural systems and audio tracks.

This gives us a lot to work with, but it also leaves us with some problems to solve. The first one is a technical problem that will deeply effect our design. How will we implement our music system? Based on previous experiences we've found that Unity, our game engine of choice, has limited capabilities for precise low level audio timing. Using Unity's built in audio system we could use prerecorded loops, which would sound really good but limit the player's creative possibilities. There are also a number of more powerful audio tools we looked at, but they each involved significant technical challenges and some potentially limited the platforms we could target.

Concept art of chip with color and shape based logic from the grant.

The second problem is a design issue at the very core of what the gameplay will be like in Nurbits. How will the action potential mechanic work? The grant mentions changing colors to represent neurotransmitters that would bring the neuron to threshold and initiate action potential. However, there is a major problem with this idea, it is not accessible to the colorblind. The original Nurbits design doc suggested combining shapes as a solution, but we felt this might be difficult for the player to understand at a quick glance.

How did we resolve these problems? Stay tuned for our next blog post!