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Shapist: A Seamless Journey Through a World of Puzzles

April 2, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska


Shapist, a sliding block puzzle game where you need to clear the doorway out of obstacles, was born out of a collective effort of two people who have never met in real life: Ori Takemura (design & concept) and Dmitry Kurilchenko. They found each other through a Unity 3D forum where Ori was looking for a freelance developer or a partner who would share his excitement about what used to be the original Shapist idea. Dmitry turned out to be a perfect match. Later, in the development process, the fact that they had a very similar opinion on what a puzzle game should be like and what is most valuable to the player helped them create Shapist in a very consistent way. Ori shares the story of providing a journey through a seamless world of puzzles.

A Game That Would Physically Feel Like a Real Object

The story of Shapist started in 2012, when I was using a lot of Gmail on my iPad, and the sensation of how intuitive sliding in the UI felt on touch devices got stuck in my head. Later, in 2013, that impression grew into a concept of a game experience based around bringing a very tangible and physical sensation into a digital game, making a video game feel as natural as a real object.

What we had in the beginning was a list with a rough description of mechanics that would feel natural on a touch device, where “dynamic meaning” and “control meaning” would be synonymous. ‘Control meaning’ is something rarely discussed in game design. However, with modern technologies like touch screens, VR, and those similar to Leap Motion, there is now a great opportunity to build game mechanics and UIs around the sense of intuitive discovery that you would get in the physical world. Controls and meanings in the design can be subconsciously understood just because you are subject to human conditions – this is what we mean by the ‘feels natural’ mechanics type. Let’s say, if a tile in a game disappears as a feedback to a touch move, this mechanic would not feel natural, because usually objects we physically interact with do not vanish in an instance. However, you can fold and collapse things in real life…

The Shapist team: Ori Takemura and Dmitry Kurilchenko

There was also an idea of “teleporting” between puzzles, when a phone becomes a portal to another dimension, but then a puzzle hits the screen and blocks your from further movement to the ultimate goal. We had a folder for a game called “Something Small”, as the final name hadn’t been made up, and it felt like the whole thing would be ready in a relatively small amount of time, a few months at maximum. Little did we know it would take us almost a year. Since sliding was the most basic interaction in the game, we felt that a sliding block and something similar to a 15-puzzle game would fit our concept best of all. We thus decided to adhere to unified block sizes and grid-like level design.

Sliding, Rotation, Detaching, Attaching, Collapsing and Transforming

Not all our ideas made it into the game. We deliberately focused on those clearest for understanding, because they’d feel natural: the sensation was crucial for us. Dmitry spent tons of time polishing the blocks’ reaction to the touch. We didn’t want rail movements within a strict grid, like most block sliding games have, and yet we needed to auto tune the position for better comfort.

Teleporting between puzzles: a phone becomes a portal to another dimension

Finding the perfect balance took a lot of time. We had ideas of goo-like blocks and other overly complex mechanics that only benefited the player viscerally but added nothing to the core values, so they were discarded. We ended up with five main interactions: sliding, rotation, detaching, attaching, collapsing and transforming.

Zero UI for a Natural Experience like a Rubik’s Cube

When you interact with a physical object like a Rubik’s Cube or a volume knob on a stereo system, you don’t have a block of text floating in, obstructing your view and experience; there’s no tutorial that would keep you from discovering the object by yourself. We wanted Shapist to feel as natural as that, with no barriers between the experience and the player. That is why we made what is called zero UI: we don’t have a single word, letter, or digit in Shapist. Never do we punish a player, rush, or mislead him or her. We do provide a very subtle guidance for the player to feel the enjoyment of a discovery.

The Shapist concept: zero UI, neither a single word nor a letter or digit

Our puzzle design follows the same concept. Very early in development, we understood a need for a consistent method to introduce the player to a new interaction type. In Shapist, the user gets to discover every new mechanic within a familiar puzzle design around the very first level he or she would ever see in the game – familiar yet different. As for the difficulty progression: all the puzzles in the game have been designed by hand (Dmitry made the editor while I created the puzzles) and not computer-generated, so we were able to very carefully control the excitement the game provides. The biggest benefit of designing everything by hand is the ability to plug in puzzles that feel very different and require the player to think creatively. In puzzles where a system is first hand-crafted, and then it generates challenge situations for the player (like in Tetris), it’s done procedurally, which makes it harder to control over that ‘flow’ through the game. While we wanted to tell a story though the mechanics, with surprise on the way, we believe that those special levels create richness and diversity. We wanted the game to be a journey with a challenge rather than 100-something levels of boredom.

Colors that Help Concentrate on Puzzles

Colors play a special role in Shapist. There is a functional aspect. For example, interactivity is always highlighted with orange color. Color palettes tell the story during the journey though the game, with vibrancy and excitement shifting from bright colors for easy levels to more pastel, serene colors that let players concentrate on harder levels as he or she advances.

Functional color palettes have been inspired by Sinapore, Japan and the feeling of nostalgia

One color palette was inspired by the colors of Singapore, where I currently live. Among our five palettes, there are some resembling the feeling of nostalgia and serenity, and the last chapter of the game has colors inspired by Japan.

Consistency in the Game and Beyond

Shapist was only possible through great teamwork and an identical vision of the game and its core values. We were blessed with fantastic people in and around development. Jorge Vinals wrote us an amazing ambiance for the background that contributes to the overall feeling of the game in the most perfect way. We wanted to highlight the experience of a never-interrupted journey throughout the game, where there are no loading screens or level titles. We translated the same sensation of flow to the website we launched together with the iOS version of Shapist for iPad in the end of February 2014. There’s a seamless transition between the HTML site and a web demo of the game. We are now working full time on bringing the game to iPhone, Android and maybe Windows8 phones in a few months.

Right now, Shapist is available for iPads, while the demo version is online and works with most desktop OS. 



Indie Showcase: The Voxel Agents’ Puzzle Retreat (iOS & Android)

May 21, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska


The Voxel Agents are developers of original handcrafted games for “on-the-go” fun. They are one of the most exciting indie teams in Australia, and are situated in the game development hub of Melbourne. Creators of the smash hit Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, The Voxel Agents are proud producers of addictive game substances for millions of players worldwide.

How Puzzle Retreat Started

Puzzle Retreat has gone through many iterations and has changed a lot from it’s inception 21 months ago. Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. The player had to fell trees in a forest, bring them home and make furniture.

Henrik Pettersson, one of our former designers, was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest. His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down like dominoes. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. There must be enough space to stand behind the tree to push it down and there must be space for the tree to fall into. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.

Forest Theme

The team really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction in the very first playable prototype. The theme of cutting down trees in a forest on the other hand, did not rest well. We decided to explore over 20+ designs in art styles and themes and finally decided to stick to the original forest theme, but instead of cutting down the forest, the player was saving it by cutting down evil degenerative trees.

We’re BIG on Playtesting!

Our development process has always had a significant emphasis on playtesting, whether it be in-house within the studio, taking our tablets out on to to the friendly people of Melbourne in the city streets, or even amongst other local game developers. Playtesting can be heartbreaking at times, because it can reveal the hard truth that your design does not work. Being mobile players ourselves, we understand the importance of designing games that are easy to pick up and play straight away and playtesting let us verify this.

Early on, players struggled with understanding the objective and how to interact with the game. Some players were able to work out what the objective was and how to progress. However, some players weren’t able to without any assistance during playtests.

Leafy Character in the Forest

Players were also getting confused between what they could and couldn’t interact with on screen. For example, the affordance of non-interactable wooden logs, produced after cutting down a tree, made players try to pick them up and move them. We discovered that wood cutting wasn’t a great metaphor for the game mechanics and that the third-person character was a major distraction from the actual logical puzzle solving.

A Minimalist Design Approach

In the end, we adopted a minimalist design approach and stripped the game back:

– We removed the third-person character.

– We replaced the core mechanic with one of it’s variations, where trees were covered in ice and could slide over icy logs.

– We removed the ‘stand behind rule’ to cut down trees, this helped with opening up a larger space for puzzle designs.

– We reworked the theme into something much more simple and understandable.

The game received a much more positive response from playtesters after removing rules and making the game much more simple.

Final Game

We managed to get the game down to two simple rules:

1        Slide the blocks to fill the holes.

2        Use all the blocks.

Relax, Unwind and Focus

While we were stripping back the design, we took the opportunity to look broader at who plays these types of ultra-minimal, logical puzzle games. We found that the audience of these games is more mature and predominantly female. The majority of logical puzzle game players solve puzzles to relax, unwind, de-stress and get some “me time,” the same reasons why we play. With this in mind, we crafted a world free of stress and distraction. By letting the gameplay be the focus, and pushing the art into the background, the game could really shine.

Through our journey, we have learned that the very best logical puzzle games leave very little in between the player and the core problem. All the information to solve the puzzle is directly in front of you, and you just have to solve it. By carefully handcrafting each puzzle and cleverly pacing out the puzzles in each pack, we have been able to give players a great euphoric feeling and make players feel really smart after solving each puzzle.

Puzzle Retreat is available on the AppStore and Google Play. The Voxel Agents still have a dedicated team adding more content and features to the game. The plan is to bring Puzzle Retreat to more platforms in the future. The Voxel Agents also have another game in development that is planned for release later this year.