Scrabble Cubed: Designing a Three-Dimensional Word Game For a Holographic Display

I love word games.

Rather than relying on fast-paced twitch gameplay or on complex narratives, I enjoy the more relaxed, contemplative experience they provide. A crossword on a lazy day. A game of Scrabble with friends. A game of SpellTower on my daily commute.

At Looking Glass, we’ve been chasing the cinema dream of the hologram and have recently developed a new type of display that we refer to internally as the “Aerial Display”.

How the “Aerial Display” works

We’ve been working on a few different types of displays for the past few years and this one is pretty special. Using a combination of optics and light-bending techniques, this display renders an image that appears to float above a pane of glass. What separates this system from most others is the ability for users to directly touch and interact with the floating digital content. You can move your hand through an image and poke, rotate, or move floating objects.

When tasked with making a game for this new display, I aimed for something with a long-play experience, something in the range of 30 minutes or more. In the lab, a bunch of us have grown accustomed to making games that realize the intensity and quick replay loop of arcade games (read: 3D Asteroids, Holo-Pong, Tetris for Two). There had been recent discussion about trying some different approaches i.e. how do we make something that passes the 3-minute gameplay mark. A contemplative, cognitive word game seemed to me to be a good fit, and so Scrabble Cubed was born.

Scrabble Cubed in it’s latest iteration.
The concept itself is pretty simple: a word game with a Scrabble-style board, with slots for letter tiles, wrapped around a 3D cube, each face becoming a 3x3 grid.

The root of Scrabble Cubed came from a very simple demo we had thrown together early on for the Aerial Display: a floating cube the user can rotate with one finger. This simple cube demo was meant to teach users that they can directly manipulate a floating object in space, and I found this simple interaction extremely satisfying. Incorporating this interactive demo into a more fleshed-out game seemed like a good idea to me.

One of the earliest iterations of Scrabble Cubed in the aerial display.
As is so often the case, getting the idea was the easy part. Now I had to actually turn it into a (hopefully good) game.

The decision-making potential that resulted from the wrapping of the game board around a cube fascinated me immediately. Words — put together by laying letter tiles next to each other as in Scrabble — would now wrap across multiple faces in this game. This expands the number of other words they intersect with, leading to something much more enmeshed than a typical game of Scrabble, resembling more closely a crossword puzzle. If two words are long enough, they could potentially even intersect each other twice. For this Scrabble fan, this was an exciting prospect.

The First Draft

I was able to get the basic implementation running pretty quickly: showing letters onscreen and allowing the player to grab them and put them on the cube. But I wasn’t far into the project when it became clear that there were a lot of game design issues to be worked through. The first issue to come up for me was the question as to what player actions to allow. In regular Scrabble, players can only build off of existing words, and must make words contained in the dictionary. In crosswords, players can fill in letter slots at their own free will, but, of course, all the different crosses need to combine together to make words (or, at least, answer the questions).

For Scrabble Cubed, however, I was worried that similar restrictions would make the game extremely challenging, frustratingly so. Erring on the side of being too open, Scrabble Cubed (as it is now) gives the players almost complete freedom. Starting with a bag of six letters, players can place as many of them on the cube as they want, on any of the six faces, regardless of whether or not they make a valid word. They are also able to rearrange these six letters. Once they decide they are happy with their arrangement, they can lock this in, which replenishes the letters they can place and calculates their score by seeing what words they have made. The caveat is, words already on the cube now become fixed, meaning the player can never rearrange them.

This leniency may prove to be a bad idea and I intend to experiment with more restrictive rule-sets going forward. For example, simple things like not allowing the player to place a letter unless it is in a slot next to one that is already filled seems like an obvious restriction that could work quite well. Despite some remaining improvements, feedback has been positive and the basis of the gameplay seems compelling. In fact, at a most recent public playtest that we held in our Brooklyn Lab, Scrabble Cubed was usually occupied for 10–15 minutes at a time against other demos that trafficked around 1–2 minutes of general gameplay.

Reflecting on the game as a whole, and its relationship to the hardware, makes me wonder what kind of game it behooves us — in the lab, as early developers on these systems — to make.

The idea of making the Pac-Man, Space Invaders, or even Tempest of holographic displays is compelling, but I am consistently drawn to the less glamorous and more culturally pervasive games. I’m referring to those wonderful little puzzle games that came prepackaged with early Windows operating systems. Rather than asking myself what the Pac-Man of holographic displays might be, I find myself wondering, what is the Solitaire? or the Minesweeper?

Games like Solitaire and Minesweeper were designed with the intention of teaching players how to use graphical user interfaces and computer mice. At that time, both were new and unfamiliar, part of a shift in human-computer interaction. In Looking Glass’s drive for what may be an even greater revolution in how we visualize and interact with technology, we’ll one day need a Solitaire of our own.

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