Dead prototypes: Piczle Blocks 3D

This one is painful.

What is it?

A new logic-puzzle type for the Piczle pantheon, Piczle Cross but in 3D! Imagine the classic nonogram puzzle as played in Piczle Cross Adventure but with an added dimension.

How far did it get?

I spent quite a bit of time on this, probably because I was willing it to be viable. I created a robust editor to create puzzles, basic puzzle clue math, playable puzzles with a decent controller and touch input. I was about to start coding the solver/unique solutions checking parts, so as to start obfuscating some of the puzzles’ clues to create some challenge but didn’t quite get round to that.

Camera controls were solid, with free rotation, or snapped by 90 degrees. Controller input adjusted itself to whichever direction you were looking at the puzzle. You could “slice” in and out of the puzzle using buttons or an on-screen slider. You could zoom in and out (to a limited extent). You could smash or mark blocks. Incorrectly smashed blocks would generate a screenshake and autocorrect itself. Once a puzzle was completed (easy to do because all clues were still visible at this stage of development) it would go into a solution animation. It was pretty much 100% “playable”.

I would say it was probably about a solid 2 months of work.

Why kill it?

Though it’s painful to discard or pause such an amount of work, I went into this prototype phase with the express purpose of (a). finding out whether I was capable of developing what I was planning to create, and (b). if it was worth going into full production. After a couple of months I found out that (a). yes, I was capable but (b). I didn’t feel the project had a wide enough appeal to make it worth – at this time – to make it into a full game. In that sense this prototype was a success. I learned some valuable new skills and I also didn’t waste too much time on something that wasn’t going into full production.

The main reason I’m not further developing it at this time is that I figured the appeal wasn’t wide enough to overcome the input design most casual players would have to grapple with. 3D control, especially using a controller, is not as intuitive as I’d like, and I feared this would put off players a little too much.

I was playing the excellent Voxelgram on the Nintendo Switch which kind of solidified my concerns about 3D navigation. Even though I programmed in whether or not the 3D shape would “auto-slice” when rotating or not, how the cursor always moved relative to your input depending on which direction you were looking at it, in the end it is confusing and not very intuitive.

Unlike the amazing Picross 3D series on the Nintendo DS, where the only method of input was the stylus, controlling with buttons just…isn’t fun. I did not want to create a game that only supports touch input either. No, a 3D puzzle controller input scheme would be a major undertaking and require tonnes of iteration. And it would not guarantee a satisfactory result at the end of it.

What did I learn?

  • Master of arrays
    Arrays are the backbone of most Piczle blueprints, and this time I managed to figure out how to create and manage arrays for 3D grids. This was such a headache to wrap my non-coder brain around that going back to 2D grids and arrays is not so easy I barely have to think about it anymore.
    The editor allowed me to not just switch on and off blocks, but to move the whole composition in whichever direction. Upon completing the block composition I would automatically crop it to the smallest possible X, Y and Z shape and put it in a new array. I was immensely satisfying.
  • 3D touch input
    Unreal is pretty powerful, so it’s not particularly difficult, but managing to slide or swipe to move a camera and register when you were smashing or marking blocks through the touch screen are now well within my wheelhouse of skills.
  • Better editor <> testing pipeline
    One thing I never truly managed to get right in the development of Piczle Cross Adventure was the pipeline between puzzle editor and checking. It required too many starts and stops and data changes. With this prototype I made it all a lot smoother and could jump from editor to playtesting and back with the minimum of fuss. This would have saved me a tonne of time during the development of Piczle Cross Adventure, and will save me a tonne of time in future projects.

Dead for good?

I hope not. But honestly, I don’t know. As a purely touch screen game it would work better. Maybe even VR. But controller input isn’t optimal and brings up so many issues and annoyance for players.

I have a lot of the work done on it, so it would be easy enough for me to pick up and develop further a little down the line, but unless I get a flash of inspiration on how I can make it 1000% more accessible to your average casual puzzle fan I am loathe to force myself back into it.

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