VR can change your perspective on a lot of things, from art to aerobics. In Cubism, a new puzzler from developer Thomas Van Bouwel, VR transforms our approach to classic dissection puzzles. Inspired by the Soma cube, invented by scientist Piet Hein in 1933, Cubism delivers a fresh take on 3D block-building that's challenging and — surprisingly — very relaxing. Cubism is out today on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform.
We talked with developer Thomas Van Bouwel to hear more about what makes Cubism a special VR experience.
To start, how would you describe Cubism to someone new to VR puzzle games?
Thomas Van Bouwel: Cubism plays just like those wooden brain-teasers you can find in toy-stores or bookshops: you start with several colorful blocks and need to assemble them into increasingly complex geometric shapes. It's a game that engages your spatial thinking skills, while still being very easy to pick-up-and-play regardless of experience with VR, making it a great game for new VR users!
What inspired you to build a minimalist puzzle game in VR?
TVB: I'm a big fan of minimalist games on mobile (like Mini-metro, Threes, Hitman Go) and wanted to explore what a similar game design approach could look like in VR. Cubism's type of puzzles seemed like a perfect fit, since its precise 3-dimensional puzzles make the most of VR as a medium, and the minimal aesthetic complements the easy-to-understand gameplay. Another reason was scope: I've mostly built Cubism in my spare time over the last three years. The game's minimal design made this a much more manageable project for me as a one-person team.
Can you tell us about the design process? How'd you build and test puzzles in VR?
TVB: One of the first things I built for the game is a simple in-VR level editor, which allowed me to iterate over puzzle designs quickly. On any given puzzle, I would usually start with the overall shape, and then fill it in with pieces. My goal is always to design pieces that allow you to reason your way to a solution. I also tried to have a good balance between easy and more difficult puzzles. The game has 60 puzzles divided over ten stages, but only half of them need to be solved to unlock all the stages, ensuring players at all skill levels can unlock the full game.
What's the most surprising thing about making a VR puzzle game?
TVB: It's been delightful to see people who don't typically identify as gamers or VR enthusiasts play and enjoy the game for long periods. I think simple puzzle games can have a broader appeal in general, and natural interactions in VR can lower the barrier-to-entry for folks who aren't used to using controllers. I've tried to lean into this with the game's design by keeping the control scheme simple and teaching the core-mechanics right at the start.
What's the latest news on hand tracking support for Cubism on Quest?
TVB: I initially released a demo of Cubism with experimental hand-tracking support on SideQuest at the end of 2019. That initial implementation hasn't evolved much yet, since I wanted to focus on getting the core game out on Quest and other platforms first.
I'm looking forward to diving back in and improving support now that the game is launching. The technology has improved a lot since it was first released, but it still has its limitations. I think the most important work to do is handling those limitations gracefully so players can have an easier time manipulating puzzle pieces. There's been a lot of great work and research done by other developers in the last few months when it comes to best practices with Quest's hand-tracking, so I have a lot to catch up on!
What were the key challenges in bringing Cubism to Quest? How were they solved?
TVB: When the Quest pitch for Cubism was accepted, the biggest hurdle to overcome was puzzle design. A puzzle that's easy for one person might take another person a long time to solve, so playtesting with enough people is essential. However, finding enough new play-testers is always a challenge.
In this regard, SideQuest was a huge help during the last months of development, as the Cubism demo on their platform had enough active users for me to test new puzzle designs. With what I learned there, I improved the game's difficulty curve and weeded out some of the puzzles that were too hard.
Can you point to changes or refinements made to Cubism for the Quest release?
TVB: It may be surprising for a visually simple game like Cubism, but the biggest changes were made to hit Quest's performance requirements. Some of the bigger puzzles are made up of hundreds of small components, so a lot of work was done under the hood to make object management efficient. A lot of credit goes to the fantastic QA team at Universally Speaking, who helped enormously weeding out Quest's bugs and performance issues.
What's up next for you?
TVB: More Cubism! I have a few updates planned in the coming months, like supporting multiple save files and adding support for hand-tracking. I'm also keen to listen to the community's feedback to learn what they'd like to see next in the game. Beyond that, there are a few new ideas I'd like to start working on, but nothing to announce yet!