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PBS' NOVA produced at WGBH in Boston

Black Holes

PBS' NOVA produced at WGBH in Boston came to thoughtbot with the goal of creating an interactive game that could be paired with their upcoming mini-series on Black holes. The NOVA team at WGBH wanted to educate the public about black holes and outer space and do this in an engaging way.

Their goal of creating an interactive game was accomplished through creating an iPad app in Unity that was focused on their target demographic of 6th grade through high school students as well as lifelong learners.

WGBH had an ambitious timeline and budget although thoughtbot was able to deliver. thoughtbot managed the entire production of this app from concept to launch. Our team worked alongside the internal NOVA team at WGBH for concept art, scientific direction and feedback.

One of the early challenges we encountered was figuring out how to create enough levels of the game within the limited time we had to work on the project. We decided that instead of building and coding each level ourselves, we would author a level builder which enabled the NOVA team to design and test levels on their laptops. New level designs were easily imported into the game for play testing on mobile devices in nightly builds.

This level builder put the creativity of the concepts and game design back in the hands of NOVA. The original plan for the game was to build 15 levels, although by using the level builder we were able to launch with over 50 levels.

The level builder put the power of making levels into the hands of the NOVA team. This enabled them to become more involved in the project, and let us put our time toward adding new elements and features to the game.

Steff Kelsey Lead Unity Developer, thoughtbot

Near the end of the project, we found that because we had saved so much time with utilizing the level editor, we were able to go back in and begin to add polish to the app. This included particle effects and various reactions when objects collide that added to the experience of the game.

The Level Builder was a great way for other members of the team to get involved with making the game. Those of us who designed levels were able to get creative with placement of objects on the playing field and strategies of play. It empowered me to feel a collective sense of ownership of the content.

Ari Daniel Science Reporter and Multimedia Producer, NOVA

One of the biggest challenges encountered was creating accurate gravity simulations for the game. While Unity has a physics engine built in, we found after extensive testing that the numerical integration method being used was not accurate enough to create predictable results for simulating orbiting bodies. Orbiting bodies were drifting apart over time in a way that was inconsistent with reality. This meant we had to design and build our own numerical integration algorithm that could properly simulate gravitational forces between many masses.

Not only was figuring out the physics of the game a huge mathematical challenge, we had an astrophysicist advisor at NOVA reviewing the game objects and motion in terms of accuracy. The standards were high so it was a huge accomplishment once we got the motion of objects in outer space up to their standards.

Steff Kelsey Lead Unity Developer, thoughtbot


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