How An Architectural Mindset Spawned A VR Puzzle Game

Thomas Van Bouwel is the one-man developer behind Cubism, one the very best puzzle video games out there on the Oculus Quest. Van Bouwel now works full time on Cubism and is creating a set of DLC ranges for the sport, however 5 years in the past he was working in a very totally different trade with no expertise on the planet of VR.

“My background is definitely not in laptop science or recreation growth in any respect. I truly come from a background in structure,” says Van Bouwel, talking to me in VR from UploadVR’s digital studio. “I used to be a practising architect for a number of years, till I made the swap. It was structure that really led me to maneuver into VR. I used to be actually fascinated by what VR might do for the design course of and the way it might make the design and structure much more human-centered. As a substitute of a plan for a constructing from top-down, you have a look at a constructing from a human perspective when you design it.”


Van Bouwel was at all times fascinated with the ways in which immersive applied sciences and recreation engines could possibly be used inside an architectural context, and ended up investigating additional throughout his college research. In his third 12 months, Van Bouwel gave a presentation of a 3D structure mannequin displayed within the PC recreation Crysis, imported utilizing CryEngine. He discovered that from exhibiting his family and friends the mannequin in-game, he acquired much more suggestions in comparison with exhibiting them plans or scale fashions. “That was when it first clicked. Like, ‘Oh, these form of immersive applied sciences could be very helpful for the design course of.’”

After working as an architect for a number of years, Van Bouwel determined to stop his job in 2016 and began studying learn how to develop for VR. He attended hackathons, went to recreation jams and landed a job at an enterprise VR startup, InsiteVR (now often known as Resolve), inside a 12 months and a half. Whereas he had a Vive headset at dwelling, the job gave him entry to a wide range of totally different headsets, together with an early Quest prototype — the Santa Cruz — in 2017.

It was round then that Van Bouwel got here up with a brand new idea for a VR puzzle recreation. Working in his free time, he quickly created the primary construct of what would change into Cubism — an intuitive, deceptively easy puzzle recreation the place the consumer should place totally different formed blocks collectively to suit into a bigger wireframe form.

“It form of actually got here out of that fascination with minimal design in cell video games and what that would imply in VR video games,” says Van Bouwel. Minimalist cell video games like Mini Metro, Hitman Go and Lara Croft Go had been large inspirations. “These video games can use a quite simple look and a quite simple enter scheme, however then can have a number of depth to them. And extra importantly, [they are] video games which are very well scoped for small groups.”

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“A giant a part of selecting to work on Cubism was that it felt prefer it was sufficiently small in scope that I might work on it in my spare time. On the time I used to be working at that startup, which I actually loved working at. So I knew that if I used to be going to work on a challenge on the aspect, it higher be one thing small and one thing that was manageable.”

Cubism’s puzzles are a riff on the basic wood block puzzles which have been round for a few years. In actual life, the tip form is normally restricted to one thing fairly memorable and stable — a rectangle or a dice. With Cubism, the shapes of the items and the wireframes fluctuate wildly in each problem and design, not held again by gravity pulling at bodily blocks.

The true great thing about Cubism is in its simplistic, clear design — the architectural affect may be very clear. Your entire recreation could be performed with simply the controllers and the triggers. If you happen to’re utilizing an Oculus Quest, you don’t even want controllers — you possibly can simply use your palms. This game-wide coverage of simplicity and accessibility signifies that nearly anybody, even these inexperienced with VR, can decide up the sport and play it. “I put a number of effort into that really. The sport got here from being in a stage the place it was quite a bit tougher to make use of and be taught.”

Earlier variations of Cubism mapped a number of actions to totally different controller buttons. This wasn’t initially an issue, as solely skilled avid gamers and different VR builders had been doing the playtesting. “I used to be lacking a number of UX points early on, as a result of if individuals are snug with VR or they’re snug with taking part in video games on the whole, they be taught these controller mappings fairly rapidly. But when folks aren’t, it’s actually a roadblock for them.”

The UX points grew to become extra obvious when Van Bouwel took his builds on the street to a wider viewers. “Placing these folks within the recreation and seeing them form of battle with the management scheme, that actually form of flipped the swap for me. Like, I really want to simplify this.”


“From that time on, I did the whole lot I might to make the entire recreation playable with simply the triggers, which required a couple of redesigns.” Small adjustments — permitting the triggers for use for all actions, inserting a menu indicator beneath the puzzle — made the sport way more accessible to the uninitiated. “From the beginning of the sport to fixing the primary puzzle, that grew to become a extremely quick course of. Folks might get began with their first puzzle inside like 10 or 15 seconds of beginning the sport.”

“That was at all times a objective of mine — to guarantee that it was one thing that was approachable,” he says. “I feel that’s a part of the enchantment of VR too, proper? That it ought to be extra intuitive.”

Cubism launched final 12 months, and whereas the sport is obtainable on each PC VR and Quest, it shines on the latter. Not solely is it among the many greatest puzzle video games for the system, however since launch Van Bouwel has additionally added hand monitoring and 120Hz assist, which each elevate the sport to a formidable new stage. It’s additionally probably the greatest showcases of the Quest’s cutting-edge VR expertise and options.

Now, approaching a 12 months since launch, Van Bouwel is designing and playtesting a set of 30 new DLC ranges for the sport.

“DLC appeared to be like one of the best ways to present folks extra puzzles to play,” he says. “It’s nonetheless a piece in progress, however hopefully [the DLC levels] are going to have a little bit of a special look from the primary marketing campaign to distinguish them. However they may play similar to the puzzles in the primary marketing campaign.”

“And very like the marketing campaign, there’s going to be a music that’s form of tied to the puzzles, particular to the DLC.”

Sound is one other large a part of Cubism’s design. In the primary marketing campaign, every totally different puzzle piece has an related piano word. Whenever you remedy a puzzle, every of the notes will play collectively to type a chord. If you happen to mix all of the chords from every stage collectively, it kinds a music. “The primary marketing campaign is mainly this large music that you simply unlock as you play it. And the DLC may have a music of its personal that you simply unlock as you play the puzzles as effectively.”


However how does Van Bouwel strategy designing a Cubism stage, each when it comes to its type issue and its problem?

“Often, it begins with a form,” he says. “Then I begin filling it in with items.”

“I attempt to make the puzzles in such a approach that you may strategy them with some motive, so that you simply don’t simply should trial and error your approach by it. There are like sure tips that I do know I can design for — perhaps there’s one or two items that may solely go in a number of spots of the puzzle, so it offers a place to begin.”

Likewise, on the opposite finish of the size, sure components will carry complexity. “If there’s a restricted variety of symmetries within the puzzle form or within the piece form, then it turns into quite a bit tougher to form of do these psychological rotations if you’re inserting the items into the puzzle.” Regardless of this, playtesting puzzles is crucial, which is why Van Bouwel has been operating a collection of weekly playtests with Cubism followers over the past six weeks as he works on the brand new ranges.

Past the DLC, an area editor could be on the playing cards finally, permitting gamers to create their very own ranges and share them on-line by way of sideloading, comparable in course of to putting in customized Beat Saber ranges. When it comes to including multiplayer modes or leaderboards, Van Bouwel isn’t too bullish. “It’s one thing that I’ve form of consciously shied away from on this recreation. A part of the design of the sport is to be a calming recreation and a calming expertise. I wouldn’t need any of the mechanics to strain you into needing to discover a answer.”

On the subject of future initiatives past Cubism, Van Bouwel has nothing official to announce simply but. “It’s a bit early,” he says. “I do have some concepts of subsequent initiatives that I’d wish to work on, however [they are] concepts with none execution… I’m wanting ahead to [when] I’ve time to prototype these new concepts. Hopefully then I’ve one thing that I’ll be glad to share.”

Cubism is obtainable on Oculus Quest and PC VR now, with additional DLC at the moment in growth.

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