Software Engineer | UI / UX Design
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Stepstone Island: Project Lead

Stepstone Island

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Stepstone Island is a mobile game for Apple iPhone devices where players clean up and nurture their own virtual island through exercise. Targeted toward those seeking to improve their exercise habits in a casual way, the app takes in real data from Apple’s Health app and converts it into in-game currency. This currency may be used to clean debris, plant trees, build landmarks, and interact with the game-world. The more beautiful and clean your island becomes, the higher the chance of characters visiting your island and supporting your hard work! 

Now available for free on the Apple App Store!

This is such a fun and soothing game to relax and unwind! I look forward to playing it at the end of each day as I use my daily steps to earn coins, and then pay to clean up the island and plant flowers and trees! It’s so rewarding to watch the island transform! Couldn’t recommend it more!! 💕
— lauren-a1998 on Apple App Store
I’ve only just started playing (luckily it still tracked my 10,000+ steps from today!) but this app is wonderful. The art is gorgeous and the music is so soothing, kind of has animal crossing sort of feel. I look forward to using this app more in the coming weeks/months, it’s already made a great impression on me!
— veronikaissuper on Apple App Store
An enjoyable way to track steps and get rewarded for miles. Lots of gameplay to unlock and easy integration with HealthKit.
— lairdo on Apple App Store

About

Stepstone Island was created between spring 2017 and spring 2018 as my thesis project for my MFA in Interactive Media degree at the University of Southern California. I took on multiple roles including gameplay programmer, lead designer, and project manager during development.

Team Stepstone Island:

The software used on this project include the Unity game engine, BEHealthKit Unity Plug-in, Xcode, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, TestFlight, MonoDevelop, Microsoft Visual Studio, SourceTree, and GitHub.


Using data pulled in from the Apple Health App for in-game currency.

Ideation

Stepstone Island was born out of wanting to combine my interest of idle games with the fitness data collected on my FitBit wristband. I was inspired by idle-games like Neko Atsume and Tap Tap Fish, and wanted to create a more relaxed fitness game option opposite of Zombies, Run!.

Audience Experience Goals

  • Motivate players to move and exercise

  • Encourage a sense of positivity and silliness through the world

Design goals

  • Gather actual step data from the player

  • Create a fluid UI with a gentle learning curve.


Game Design & Development

Early Prototypes

Many prototypes were made in the beginning of development to test interactions and idle-game mechanics. Of course, one of the most important features to nail down was the fitness API integration. I first started working with the FitBit API. However, I ended up using Apple’s Health App data instead because it was much easier to integrate with Unity via the BEHealth Kit plug-in.

Initially, prototypes followed a more unfolding set of mechanics, similar to that of A Dark Room by Double Speak Games. However, other games like the Animal Crossing franchise and Stardew Valley started influencing it as time went on. The premise of cleaning an environment came in later when my team was recruited in Fall 2017. It turned out to be a great parallel; improving the island while you improved your own exercise habits.

Screenshot of a prototype from February 2017. In this version, events would be triggered depending on the data you pull from your FitBit band.

Screenshot of a prototype from April 2017. Players would have to tap on the cows to make them active and then the cows would collide with trees to make sticks.

A paper prototype of Stepstone Island from Fall 2017.

Stepstone Island game loop.

Game Loop

The game revolves around collecting currency that can be used to purchase items from the in-game shop. The game has three main currencies. Coins and milestones are obtained through step count and distance walked while daffodils are given by characters that visit the island.

Shovels and pickaxes are purchased from Olly’s Outlet and used to clean up the debris on the island. This makes space for items to be placed.

A guide to unlocking characters can be found in the Guest Book. Each character has a list of items they would like to see on the island. If these items are placed at least once, the character goes from locked to “On their way!“. They appear randomly and are not fully unlocked until their first visit to the island.

The team’s character brainstorm spreadsheet.

Character Design

Michelle, Sam, and Steven helped tremendously with the character design on this project. Our first character was Olly the Osprey, an equivalent to a “Professor Oak“ or “Tom Nook“ type role that guides the player through the game.

After designing Olly, we then went on to design seven additional characters that visit the island. Each character (except Olly) would arrive on their own boat and stand somewhere near an item on their checklist after the player taps on their boat to greet them. All characters also come with their own unique set of dialogue.

Early concepts of the characters. Art by Steven Sugar.

Olly’s final design. Art by Steven Sugar.

Concept Art

Stepstone Island is visually inspired by the islands in the Pacific Northwest, map illustrations, and the outdoors in general.

Early concepts of the island. Art by Steven Sugar.

Stepstone Island has an invisible tile map made up of hexagonal tiles, which allows us to track what items are placed where. We decided to use hexagons instead of squares to make the island more organic and less rigid. Art by Steven Sugar.

For each asset, Steven requested I first draw a quick sketch of the item so that he had a reference of what to create. In addition, each item was classified as small, medium, or large depending on the number of tiles they took up on the invisible tile map. Art by Steven Sugar.

Music and Sound Design

In Fall 2017, I pitched the project to a group of students from the Thornton School of Music and recruited our composer, Sarah Trevino. She made three awesome tracks for the game that coincide with specific times during the day: morning, afternoon, and night. She also created some great stingers as well.

In addition to a composer, Team Stepstone Island also had Blair Devereaux for sound design and she created all of the sound effects included in the game. You know those character dialogue murmurs that you hear in the game? That was all her.

Playtester answers to “If you could sum up your experience in three words, what would those three words be?“ from the post-playtest survey. This question was optional.

Playtesting

By January 2018, the game was ready for long-term playtests with Apple’s TestFlight App. A total of five long term playtests were conducted between January 2018 and March 2018 with a total of forty two people ranging from ages eighteen to fifty. These playtests lasted a few days and required the player to exercise. Out of those forty two people, twenty one filled out the post-playtest survey.

These playtests were valuable in improving the player’s experience of the project and also helped me test the game on different iPhone devices. I made various changes to the game due to these playtests, including adding labels to items in Olly’s shop and timed notifications to remind the player to check back into the game. I also had to adjust for the iPhone X aspect ratio after finding that the canvas didn’t scale correctly.

Work in Progress Pictures

I took a screenshot every week over the course of development to show progress over time. All work in progress pictures over the course of development can be found in this google slideshow.


Michelle and I showing off Stepstone Island at the IndieCade Showcase @ E3 in June 2018.

Presentation

Showing it off

Because Stepstone Island revolved so much around one’s personal fitness, I made the decision to publish it on the Apple App Store. This way people could easily download it for free and play directly with their own Health App Data. We had a lot of requests for the game to be put onto Android devices. However, due to the scope of the project and my limited knowledge of Android devices, this is not a possibility at this time.

Stepstone Island was first shown at the USC Games Expo in May 2018 and later on at the IndieCade Showcase @ E3 in June 2018.