Puzzle game

How an architectural mindset spawned a VR puzzle game

Thomas Van Bouwell is the individual developer behind Cubism, one of the best puzzle games available on Oculus Quest. Van Bouwel is now working full-time on Cubism and developing a set of DLC levels for the game, but five years ago he was working in a completely different industry with no experience in the VR world.

“My background isn’t actually in IT or game development at all. In fact, I come from a background in architecture,” says Van Bouwel, talk to me in VR from UploadVR’s virtual studio. “I was a practicing architect for several years, until I made the switch. It was architecture that led me to switch to virtual reality. I was really fascinated by what reality virtual world could do for the design process and how it could make design and architecture much more human-centric Instead of looking at a plan for a building from the top down, you look at a building from a point of human view as you design it.

Van Bouwel was always fascinated by the ways in which immersive technologies and game engines could be used in an architectural context, and ended up doing more research during his university studies. In third year, Van Bouwel presented a 3D architecture model displayed in the PC game Crysis, imported using CryEngine. He found that showing his friends and family the model in-game received significantly more feedback than showing them plans or scale models. “That’s when it first clicked. Like, ‘Oh, these kinds of immersive technologies can be really helpful for the design process.’

After working as an architect for several years, Van Bouwel decided to quit his job in 2016 and started learning how to develop for virtual reality. He attended hackathons, went to game jams, and landed a job at an enterprise VR startup, InsiteVR (now known as Resolve), within six months. While he had a Vive headset at home, the job gave him access to a variety of different headsets, including an early prototype from Quest — the Santa Cruz — in 2018.

It was at this time that Van Bouwel came up with a new concept of a virtual reality puzzle game. Working in his spare time, he soon created the first version of what would become Cubism – an intuitive and deceptively simple puzzle game where the user must place different shapes of blocks together to fit a shape larger wireframe.

“It kind of really grew out of this fascination with minimal design in mobile games and what that could mean in VR games,” says Van Bouwel. Minimalist mobile games like Mini Metro, Hitman Go and Lara Croft Go were big inspirations. “These games can use a very simple look and a very simple input scheme, but then can have a lot of depth. And more important, [they are] games that are really well suited for small teams.

“A big part of choosing to work on cubism was that I felt like its scope was small enough that I could work on it in my spare time. At the time, I was working at this startup, where I really enjoyed working, so I knew that if I had to work on a side project, it had better be something small and manageable.

Cubism puzzles are a riff on the classic wooden block puzzles that have been around for many years. In real life, the final shape is usually limited to something quite memorable and solid – a rectangle or a cube. With Cubism, the shapes of rooms and wireframe structures vary wildly in difficulty and design, no longer being held together by gravity pulling on physical blocks.

The real beauty of Cubism is in its simplistic and clean design – the architectural influence is very clear. The entire game can be played with only controllers and triggers. If you’re using an Oculus Quest, you don’t even need controllers – you can just use your hands. This game-wide policy of simplicity and accessibility means almost anyone, even those inexperienced with VR, can pick up the game and play it. “I put a lot of effort into it actually. The game came from being at a stage where it was a lot harder to use and learn.

Earlier versions of Cubism mapped multiple actions to different buttons on the controller. It wasn’t a problem initially, as only experienced gamers and other VR developers did the playtesting. “I was missing a lot of UX issues in the beginning, because if people are comfortable with VR or they’re comfortable with games in general, they learn these controller mappings pretty quickly, but if people aren’t, it’s really a barrier for them.

UX issues became more apparent when Van Bouwel took his builds on the road to a wider audience. “Putting these people in the game and seeing them struggle with the control system, it really flipped the switch for me. Like, I really need to simplify this.

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“From then on, I did everything I could to make the whole game playable with just the triggers, which required some redesigns.” Small changes – allowing triggers to be used for all actions, placing a menu indicator below the puzzle – made the game much more accessible to the uninitiated. “From the start of the game to solving the first puzzle, it became a very fast process. People could start their first puzzle within 10 or 15 seconds of starting the game.”

“That was always one of my goals – to make sure it was something affordable,” he says. “I think that’s also part of the appeal of virtual reality, isn’t it? That it should be more intuitive.

Cubism was released last year, and while the game is available on both PC VR and Quest, it shines on the latter. Not only is it one of the best puzzle games for the system, but since its launch, Van Bouwel has also added hand tracking and 120Hz support, which takes the game to an awesome new level. It’s also one of the best showcases of Quest’s cutting-edge VR technology and features.

Now, nearly a year after release, Van Bouwel is designing and testing a set of 30 new DLC levels for the game.

“The DLC seemed like the best way to give people more puzzles to play,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress, but I hope [the DLC levels] are going to have a slightly different look from the main campaign to differentiate them. But they will play very similarly to the main campaign puzzles.

“And just like the campaign, there will be a song that will be sort of related to the puzzles, specific to the DLC.”

Sound is another big part of Cubism design. In the main campaign, each different puzzle piece has an associated piano note. When solving a puzzle, each of the notes will play together to form a chord. If you combine all the chords of each level together, it forms a song. “The main campaign is basically this big song that you unlock as you play it. And the DLC will have its own song which you will also unlock by playing the puzzles.

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But how does Van Bouwel approach designing a Cubism level, both in terms of form factor and difficulty?

“Usually it starts with a shape,” he says. “Then I start filling it with pieces.”

“I try to design the puzzles in such a way that you can approach them with any reason, so that you don’t have to do trial and error to figure it out. There’s like some tricks that I know I can design for – maybe there’s one or two pieces that can only go multiple places in the puzzle, so that gives a starting point.

Similarly, at the other end of the scale, certain elements will bring complexity. “If there’s a limited amount of symmetry in the shape of the puzzle or in the shape of the pieces, then it becomes much more difficult to make those mental rotations when you put the pieces in the puzzle.” Despite this, playtest puzzles are essential, which is why Van Bouwel has been conducting a series of weekly playtests with Cubism fans over the past six weeks as he works on the new levels.

Beyond the DLC, a local editor could possibly be on the maps, allowing players to create their own levels and share them online via sideloading, a process similar to installing custom Beat Saber levels. In terms of adding multiplayer modes or leaderboards, Van Bouwel isn’t too optimistic. “That’s something I kind of consciously avoided in this game. Part of the game design is to be a relaxing game and a relaxing experience. I wouldn’t want any of the mechanics pushing you to find a solution.

As for future projects beyond Cubism, Van Bouwel has nothing official to announce at this time. “It’s a bit early,” he said. “I have a few ideas for future projects that I would like to work on, but [they are] ideas without any execution… I can’t wait to [when] I have time to prototype these new ideas. I hope then to have something that I will be happy to share.

Cubism is available on Oculus Quest and PC VR now, with additional DLC in development.


Note: This article was updated a few hours after posting with minor corrections regarding Van Bouwel’s work schedule at InsiteVR and the Santa Cruz prototype.