Category: Game Writing

The Rise of Kickstarter in Educational Videogames

The Internet has given rise to a number of social things. Social networks such as Facebook, crowd sourced loans through sites like Lending Club, and crowd sourced venture capital through sites like Kickstarter.

Sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer entrepreneurs opportunities to get seed funding for their projects. Participants put a pitch up on the site, and anyone interested can contribute toward getting the project off the ground. To encourage donations, rewards are often offered such as t-shirts, a donor’s name listed in the credits, or other innovative ways of making contributors feel rewarded and part of the process.

Several independent game companies have used Kickstarter to launch various titles. Funding requests can be all over the place in terms of amounts. For instance, Mindblown Labs asked for $60,000 to start up a financial literacy game called Mindblown Life. Currently they list more than 650 contributors who have pledged $1 to $3,000. Contributors at the $3,000 level get a virtual statue programmed in the game that looks like them, along with an in-game achievement named after them.

As with videogames developed commercially, there are fewer educational titles than entertainment titles. Mindblown labs notes theirs is one of the few specifically educational offerings on Kickstarter. Also, the dollar amounts for entertainment titles can be significantly higher, something also seen in traditional development circles. Project Eternity, a title from Obsidian, has almost $4 million pledged through Kickstarter. Top donors of $10,000 are invited to the developers’ launch party and receive all benefits of lower tiered donors, including the design of an epic weapon, designing and naming an NPC, etc.

Along with the rise of historically accurate popular games, such as those in the Assassin’s Creed series, there is a corresponding pitch for historical accuracy in some Kickstarter-funded games. Science fiction author Neal Stephenson started a gaming company called Subutai, seeking to bring historically accurate sword fighting to videogames. For CLANG (think of the sound steel swords make), Stephenson received pledges of over $500,000 from about 9,000 backers. Donors of $10,000 received replica real world swords used in the game. Lower level backers received concept art and their faces digitized onto characters.

But even for small game developers, who may or may not wish to go digital, Kickstarter provides a means of obtaining modest funding. INversionGames, for instance, offers a word game playing card set developed by Scrabble enthusiasts. To produce the cards, they asked for $1,000, which was easily funded by 61 backers.

Crowd funding is becoming so popular for gaming, a new site specifically for game titles has opened, Gambitious, although for the moment it is more European-centric and operates in Euros rather than dollars. Crowd funding through sites like Gambitious and Kickstarter hold the potential for removing lack of funding as a barrier to new game development. It’s possible professors and students may turn to crowd funding in the future when designing educational games for research purposes.

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Ambermush Roleplaying Game Helped Launch Careers of Bestselling Authors

A rising tide raises all ships, or so the saying goes. It also encapsulates a teaching philosophy found in many educational games, in which repeated exposure to common elements is said to increase participants’ related skills. Thus, a literacy game will require players to read. The more they read, the better their reading skills develop. While seemingly sound and plausible, the theory is hard to quantify.

In a recent article in The New York Times, an old online game called Ambermush is credited with launching the careers of at least a dozen writers. Amber is the name of a classic fantasy series by Roger Zelazny. In the books, reality originates at Amber, and all permutations and variations on reality in the multiverse spread out from there. In Ambermush, an online game discontinued in 2009, players wrote scenarios and engaged in group writing fantasy exercises loosely based on the series.

Jim Butcher is the best selling author of the Dresden Files series of fantasy novels. He credits Amber with improving his writing.

With no graphics, Amber was a world made of words. For aspiring writers, as Mr. Butcher was back then, that was very enticing.

He recalled the old writers’ adage that “you’ve got to write your million words” of bad prose “before you’re writing good stuff, and I once estimated that I was writing 5,000 words a day, mushing,” he said. “We were all practicing storytelling every day.”

… Mr. Butcher is not the only author to come out of the Amber community: by some estimates, a dozen or more of the hundreds of former players have gone on to become published authors. Playing Amber then was like attending a writers’ colony, but without the brie and posturing.

The game served as a learning community, a practice area for aspiring writers, a sandbox where they could flex their creative muscles, and a place for honest (sometimes brutal) criticism. Beyond that, friendships formed in-game led to lasting social networks outside the game, as like-minded people scaled the publishing mountain in the real world.

It may be hard to quantify, but there’s little doubt Ambermush was a successful educational game for future bestselling authors.

References:
Schwartz, J. (2011, September 24). A game that honed the skills of writers. The New York Times, C1.

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Center for Children and Technology Reports on DS Games at AERA

I’m honored to be invited to participate in a discussion group this fall put together by the Education Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology (EDC/CCT). The research this group is involved with in the field of classroom gaming is impressive.

The list of projects EDC/CCT is working on is extensive. Among many, one project with the U.S. Dept. of Education involves the design of educational game modules for the Nintendo DSi handheld, aimed at middle school science and literacy.

A paper by Marion Goldstein, Marian Pasquale, and Katie McMillan Culp, members of the Possible Worlds team at CCT, was presented recently at AERA 2011. Here is the abstract for the paper, entitled Using Students’ Naïve Theories to Design Games for Middle-Grades Science:

This paper reports on one phase of a long-term research and development project that is creating video game modules for middle-school science classrooms. The games are intended to help teachers address common scientific misconceptions by providing students with opportunities to interact with visualizations of otherwise abstract or inaccessible concepts or phenomena that are the source of those misconceptions. The visualizations serve as metaphors for natural phenomena, and linking activities help teachers build connections between the visualizations and the targeted concepts. Findings presented here are derived from formative research conducted to inform the development of a game and associated classroom materials that address genetics and heredity. The paper discusses how teachers in our sample typically teach this material in seventh grade, student expressions of common misconceptions about genetics and heredity, and how an initial design for the game responds to and addresses those misconceptions. Students’ misconceptions were associated with the concepts of randomness of inheritance, gene expression, and natural selection.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the team’s approach to instructional handheld gaming design is the commitment to research-based efforts. Through direct research with middle school students, the team uncovered several misconceptions held by the students through a series of experiments. When showed a mixed race couple, students’ assumptions regarding the physical makeup of the couple’s children were based on misconceptions. Other experiments uncovered faulty assumptions based on genetic adaptations of beetles and the random characteristics of lotteries. With this research in hand, the team set out to tackle common misconceptions among students at this age and grade level. The remainder of the paper discusses results with prototypes of the resulting game modules.

It’s an excellent report of a work in progress. Research and design such as this will ultimately result in stronger and more effective educational video games.


Dartmouth’s Tiltfactor Researches and Designs Social Games

I’ve been conversing via e-mail with Dr. Mary Flanagan, the founder of Tiltfactor at Dartmouth, where she is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor in Digital Humanities. Dr. Flanagan and Tiltfactor are doing exciting work in educational gaming. One of the key areas many researchers think it’s strongest is the social arena. This is where “fuzzy” concepts that are so difficult to teach through reading and lecturing can be more effectively transmitted via gaming. Consequently, Tiltfactor focuses on social games, including health and educational initiatives. Here’s a paragraph from their website explaining the organization’s purpose:

Tiltfactor is the first academic center to focus on critical play–a method of using games and play to investigate issues and ideas. Our mission is to research and develop software and playful art that creates rewarding, compelling, and socially responsible interactions, with a focus on innovative game design for social change. We are interested in the processes through which designers imbue their games with moral, social, and political values, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and the corollary processes through which these values are interpreted by players. Our approach involves extensive cross-disciplinary work among the Humanities, Social Sciences, the Arts, and the Sciences.

The academic gaming lab is funded in part by the NEH, NSF, and Microsoft. The center has researched and developed a remarkable list of educational titles. These include, among many others:

It’s exciting to see strong academic centers involved in educational gaming efforts like Tiltfactor is, and I encourage other educators and researchers to examine their work. As with most government funded initiatives, such as Josie True, the end product is freely available to schools and teachers. The research potential from their many efforts is considerable, and a list of selected books and articles Dr. Flanagan has written is here. Last but not least, Tiltfactor blog posts can be found at grandtextauto.


Toy Spy Robots: A Practical Way to Teach Programming

Seymour Papert taught us years ago the most effective way to teach computer programming to children was to make it fun, and MIT’s Logo programming language remains popular (and free). Since then, other languages designed to teach programming concepts have been developed, including Scratch, Game Maker, and Alice. (I wrote an article on educational programming languages for TechEdge that is online here.)

From a commercial standpoint, especially with languages like Logo, the urge to combine programming with real world robotics has been highly successful, most notably with the Lego Mindstorms line of products. Now, a new company has developed a toy spy robot that will encourage the creation and posting of programs by its fans.

Spy Video TRAKR

The Spy Video TRAKR from Wild Planet Entertainment will blend online and offline fun for budding robotics enthusiasts. Offline, the target market of eight-year-old and older boys can guide the remote controlled vehicle into other rooms and use its wireless camera for surveillance. Taking a tip from Webkinz, which ties an online product with toys in the real world, the Spy Video TRAKR will offer strong inducements to play on their site. Here’s a quote from a recent news article:

Wild Planet says the Trakr goes a step further than other Web-tied toys. It sends children online to create application and then brings them back to the toy, instead of just leaving them playing related games online.

The marketing pitch for this seems brilliant. The toy will function as a spy robot right out of the box, but for the kid who wants more, plenty of customization is offered, whether it’s an app downloaded from the site or one he makes on his own. Here’s part of the press release:

Though the Spy Video TRAKR can be used without ever being hooked up to a computer, tech-minded kids will be quick to connect their toy and start the customization process. Beginners can access an online application modulator that will allow them to modify existing apps as they familiarize themselves with writing code. All the tools they need to write their own unique programs will be available online, for free.

The toy will be available in October, in time for Christmas, and should retail for about $120. I wish the best for Wild Planet, and I hope their new product is highly successful. Also, hopefully, it will encourage many new future programmers to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

References:
Zimmerman, A. (February 10, 2010). I spy a market for kids. The Wall Street Journal, D1.


Educational Game Developers Can Track Steam Reports for Latest Trends

Steam is sort of like iTunes for video games. Once players buy a game, they can download and play it on any computer. Consequently, it is a major force in PC gaming.

A nice feature of serving gamers online is Steam’s ability to garner data from each player’s PC. Since most indy games and many educational games are introduced on the PC platform, statistics on the platform are welcome.

Head over to Steam’s Game Stats section for details on various top game achievements and content server data. Most interesting of all is the Steam Hardware Survey. Here we find such interesting nuggets as the majority of PC gamers in December 2009 were Windows XP 32 bit users, running at least 2 gigs of RAM on a motherboard with an Intel chip 2.3 gigs Mhz or higher in speed. More users had graphics cards made by Nvidia than ATI, and RealTek led the installed audio devices base. Other info on hard drive size, broadband speed, and available processing and graphics RAM might provide game makers valuable insight into typical user specs when developing products.


What Can We Learn from The Settlers of Catan?

I’ve been catching up with my paper copy of the April issue of Wired, and came across a great article by Andrew Curry on what is widely considered the world’s greatest board game: Die Siedler von Catan, or in English, The Settlers of Catan.

The story Curry weaves is fascinating. Germany is the world’s epicenter for boardgames, selling hundreds of thousands every year and drawing fierce competition for the annual Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), the Pulitzer Prize of German boardgaming.

Master gamesmith Klaus Teuber spent four years perfecting Settlers, running beta versions past his family and tweaking the competitive elements. Released at the Essen Game Convention in 1995, it was an instant hit, and has gone on to sell over 15 million copies in 30 languages.

Derk Solko of Boardgamegeek.com and Jesper Juul both have nice quotes. Pete Fenlon of Mayfair Games, the company distributing English versions of Settlers, helps to fill in details regarding its popularity:

“When a lot of us saw it, we thought this was the definition of a great game … In every turn you’re engaged, and even better, you’re engaged in other people’s turns. There are lots of little victories—as opposed to defeats—and perpetual hope. Settlers is one of those perfect storms.”

A hint at the educational potential of the game could be found in a comment by Russ Roberts, an economist over at George Mason, who indicated Settlers was perfect for teaching the free market system to his children. Settling the game’s island requires the administration and trading of resources. Different resources become scarce or plentiful and require skills to manage and barter.

The next frontier the game has to conquer is the American marketplace, where traditional titles hold sway. Herr Tauber indicates the plan is to introduce video game versions for the Xbox and PC. The hope is this will provide the boardgame version of The Settlers of Catan a stronger foothold in the American marketplace (nearly a quarter million copies have sold in North America since last January).

German boardgames in general are showing impressive gains in popularity over here. Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games estimated his company sold a half million licensed copies of German games for American markets last year. Meanwhile, Herr Tauber has launched PlayCatan.com to introduce the game to audiences online.

References:
Curry, A. (2009, April). Monopoly killer: Perfect German board game redefines genre. Wired, 17(4). 60-72.

SIGGRAPH Announces Game Competition

SIGGRAPH 09 will have an on the spot videogame competition. Here are the relevant bits from their press release:

SIGGRAPH announces the launch of GameJam!, a new international videogame competition to be held at SIGGRAPH 2009, the 36th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

Teams of three people will compete for 24-consecutive hours to create, design, and implement their best effort at a comprehensive videogame in the allotted timeframe. Each team must contain at least one Programmer, Artist, and Sound Designer. Individuals and teams are welcome to apply. Contestants will be provided with a pre-designated theme as well as the necessary tools and software to complete the challenge. All work must take place on site within the 24-hour period.

Videogames will be judged by a panel of industry experts with prizes awarded in several categories including Best Game Play, Best Sound Design, Best Appearance, Best of Show, Crowd Favorite and Epic Failure. GameJam! will be produced in conjunction with The Sandbox, an area at SIGGRAPH 2009 focused specifically on the gaming industry.

SIGGRAPH 2009 will bring an anticipated 20,000 computer graphics and interactive technology professionals from six continents to New Orleans, Louisiana, USA for the industry’s most respected technical and creative programs focusing on research, science, art, animation, music, gaming, interactivity, education, and the web from Monday, 3 August through Friday, 7 August 2009 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. SIGGRAPH 2009 includes a three-day exhibition of products and services from the computer graphics and interactive marketplace from 4-6 August 2009. More than 200 international exhibiting companies are expected. More details are available at www.siggraph.org/s2009.

Study: Action Adventure Games Best for Online Education

In one of the more interesting studies to cross the transom lately, researchers indicated action adventure games are best for educational purposes thanks to their flexibility. A number of subjects can be presented in the genre, and a wide variety of educational activities can occur. The story lines in these games present multiple opportunities for teachable moments. Here is the abstract:

The use of educational games in learning environments is an increasingly relevant trend. The motivational and immersive traits of game-based learning have been deeply studied in the literature, but the systematic design and implementation of educational games remain an elusive topic. In this study some relevant requirements for the design of educational games in online education are analyzed, and a general game design method that includes adaptation and assessment features is proposed. Finally, a particular implementation of that design is described in light of its applicability to other implementations and environments.

The study was led by Pablo Moreno-Ger, over at U. Complutense de Madrid in Spain. Alas, the article is behind a pay-per-view firewall. ACM Portal has the abstract and references here. A nice write-up can be found at ScienceDaily here. Another paper by the Moreno-Ger team was published last month entitled Model Checking for Adventure Games.

References:
Moreno-Ger, P., Burgos, D., Martínez-Ortiz, I., Sierra, J. L., & Fernández-Manjón, B. (2008, September). Educational game design for online education. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(6). 2530-2540.

Update: Dr. Moreno-Ger pointed out in the comments the paper’s final draft is online at their university here.

Two New Video Games for Studying the SAT

Jim McDermott over at the Technology Omnivore notes the two largest test prep companies, Princeton Review and Kaplan, are turning to videogames to help students study for the SAT. eSchoolNews reports that Kaplan has teamed up with Aspyr Media to produce futureU for the PC. The game costs $40 and prepares students for all elements of the SAT. A version for the DS will be ported over later this year. The Princeton Review has partnered with Ubisoft to develop My SAT Coach for the DS, available later this month.