Making educational games is hard. Not only do you need to create a game that will integrate easily into a classroom setting, but you have to exceed the expectations of the players, or in this case, students. Often students and educators have opposing objectives, and there isn’t a clear path forward in satisfying the needs of both audiences. In the development of HoloLAB Champions, a virtual reality lab practice game, we were often faced with these challenges and needed to walk a fine line to balance the desires of the players with the requirements of the educators. Using extensive playtesting and iterative teacher input, we were able to develop a game that is engaging and entertaining, while meeting the educational requisites for the classroom.
Balancing the Needs of Educators and Students
When Schell Games first started developing HoloLAB Champions, we intended to make an educational chemistry game set in outer space, where players solved chemistry problems to move through different parts of a space vessel. But due to issues involving scope, we pivoted to a gameshow format, making our development timelines more reasonable. In this new iteration of the game, we initially focused on a “mad scientist” approach, where gameplay involved mixing concoctions and creating chemical reactions.
However, after initial discussions with teachers, it became clear they wanted students to learn basic lab skills, such as how to safely use graduated cylinders, Erlenmeyer flasks, Bunsen burners, and scales. Understanding basic lab practice was much more important to educators than focusing on chemical interactions. So we readjusted our design once again to create a game centered on teaching best practices for working in a typical chemistry lab environment.
Challenges in Translating the Chemistry Lab into VR
Throughout our playtesting, it became evident that it was easy to underestimate ordinary things within a laboratory environment. One item often found in a chemistry lab is the notebook. We knew that we needed to provide extensive amounts of information to the player and a notebook seemed like the perfect tool for delivering instructions. However, in spite of how attractive this idea was in theory, the practical implications of reading in virtual reality proved a real challenge as we found that reading in VR is difficult. After several playtests, we were able to find a font, layout, and size for the text that was conducive to reading in this environment.
The countertop was another deceptively simple item in the VR lab environment that proved challenging to us throughout development. When measuring liquid into a beaker, cylinder, or flask, educators will instruct students to bend down to properly view the meniscus. In a real-life lab setting, students will often grab the countertop to balance themselves as they crouch to read the measurements correctly. However, in a VR environment, leaning on the countertop is not possible as the player will fall over. In order to overcome this issue, we created a countertop with two levels. Now players can place their glassware on the higher counter in order to properly read the meniscus without toppling to the ground in their attempts to hold onto the virtual counter.
Even using a pipette tool in VR can be a struggle. Each object in HoloLAB Champions is rooted in reality; we needed to make sure the tools worked exactly how real-life physics intended for them to work. Transferring liquids from one container to another was something that required an immense amount of mechanical input. With the pipette tool, we originally planned to map the VR controller to the same motions used in real life. Unfortunately, our plan didn’t work as playtesting uncovered that it was difficult to use the VR controller in this manner. Four iterations later, we mapped the pipette so it would react differently when it was “in the liquid” and when it was “out of the liquid.” The result of our extensive playtesting created an even more intuitive experience for players.
Keeping the Experience Engaging and Immersive
As with our previously developed VR games, we had to ensure the experience was deeply immersive. We achieved this standard by creating hyper-realistic physics and mechanics to keep players connected to the VR environment. One of the key lessons we took from our previous VR game, the more commercial and spy-themed I Expect You To Die (IEYTD), was a better understanding of the 1-to-1 relationship of picking up objects and using them within the game. In IETYD, players can use a variety of objects to solve the same puzzle, so we needed to make the objects act as a player would expect in real life. If we couldn’t reach this level of immersion, we would break the player’s belief in the virtual world. We applied this same level of quality to HoloLAB Champions. A playtester needed to be able to pick up an object and have it respond exactly as they expected based on real world experiences. In reality, polishing these simulations was one of the heaviest lifts in making the game.
Feedback from Educators Influenced Game Design
Teachers proved to be invaluable in providing us with advice, their feedback was highly influential, from the design of the levels to the creation of a Classroom Guide. At one point during development, educators noticed that it was difficult for them to access specific parts of the game easily, especially when they were instructing their students on a particular practice within the game. Initially, the only way to get to a certain lesson was for the player to continue playing until he/she reached the needed lab. To combat this issue, we implemented a Play and Practice mode within the game. When teachers needed a student to play the game uninterrupted, they asked them to choose “Play,” and when they wanted to concentrate on a specific lesson, they were able to pick “Practice” to go directly to the lab they desired.
Most educators were thrilled by the idea of using VR to teach lab practice, but many found it daunting to determine how they should naturally implement the game into their classrooms and lesson plans. To ease this transition, we created a Classroom Guide for their use. This free, online document contains practical information about using the game, setting up the equipment, and troubleshooting technical issues.
Bringing the Classroom to Life
While teachers were a great resource to us, we also needed input from the student testers to ensure our game was engaging and enjoyable for them. We discovered that there were times when these two audiences didn’t agree. One example of this disconnect was the dialogue in the game. The game features two hosts, Earl and Meyer, who provide witty commentary and guidance throughout the experience. Initially the dialogue in the game contained silly jokes and puns, which the educators found hilarious. Unfortunately, the students felt the jokes were cheesy and they became disenchanted with the childish tone. Instead of scrapping the puns altogether, we added another level of humor that was intellectual and a bit subversive. This solution made the teachers laugh and the students nod their heads in solidarity with the hosts who ultimately found the jokes as lame as the students.
In order to create an immersive lab experience, we completed considerable playtesting and it paid off. Students are enjoying the game and teachers are using it as a complementary tool in their classrooms. HoloLAB Champions has been critically lauded and downloaded by educators worldwide, taking home VR Education of the Year at the second annual VR Awards in October 2018. VRFocus stated “as a normal piece of VR content HoloLAB Champions is short but sweet, offering an informative introduction into the world of chemistry.” With the feedback we received from educators and playtesters, we achieved our overall objectives for this award-winning project.
For more information on the development of HoloLAB Champions, this talk by Jesse Schell and Harley Baldwin at the Games for Change Festival 2018 can shed even more light on the lessons we learned while making this game.