Amir Dori, Senior Game Designer for Matific, had strong advice: forget grades. During Amir’s session at Casual Connect Tel Aviv, he explained ways failing is important, how grading takes the fun out of learning and how games can help kids extend their potential with engaging educational content – without killing their passion for learning. Amir stressed, “They are teaching you to be afraid of being wrong rather than seeing your mistakes as an opportunity to improve. Failure is extremely important, especially for kids because if you want to better at what you are doing, you need to know what you are doing wrong.”
Amir Dori, Senior Game Designer at Matific Games, describes his mission very simply, “Make kids happy!” Being Senior Game Designer means defining and supervising the game mechanics, user experience, art and story. Matific’s games are played in varied environments and their users include teachers, students and home users, so each of their products uses a different approach. What works in a school is not the same as what is best in the home. With two of Matific’s founders being professors, the company’s background includes strong, high quality pedagogical knowledge, something that both parents and teachers appreciate. However, this is not the most important value for children so Amir’s main focus is what will make their experience fun, creative and appealing.
Matific approached Amir while he was a lead game designer and creative team manager at TabTale. After hearing about this company’s vision and wonderful product, it was an easy decision for Amir to join them and, as Amir says, “take the opportunity for making a true change that I wish I was able to get as a child myself.”
Game Designer as Superhero
According to Amir, creativity, attention to detail, an eye for art, experience and knowledge are the tools that, along with passion, make the game designer a superhero. During a career that has included producing more than 50 games at TabTale as well as several games while owning an independent game studio, Amir has been fortunate to work with and learn from some of the game industry’s top people. During that time he also created rich media content for the advertising industry and filled a position as advertising specialist for a startup Israeli company that eventually sold for $650 million USD. All of these positions allowed Amir to fine tune his personal toolkit as a game designer.
Interestingly, Amir reveals that the proudest moments of his career occurred when Amir announced he was leaving his job for new opportunities. It was an opportunity for understanding the impact he has had on a company as he reviewed the achievements, contribution and influence on others. Amir described, “It takes a lot of courage and dare, but it really pays off. From each position I grew more and more and empowered my skills and knowledge.”
In Amir’s current position he most values the opportunity to give children knowledge outside the virtual world, assisting them to succeed in school and avoid frustration with math. Matific has received exceptional feedback from teachers, parents and even the children. Amir admits, “I’m really blessed with the recognition of this impact on so many kids around the world.”
A Good Place to Begin
Amir’s interest in art began early with a childhood love of drawing and increased after courses in art, sculpture and animation. Animation was particularly fascinating. “The concept of taking still drawings and to give them motion, expression and feelings really blew my mind. It’s like being a mini-god! “ By age 14, this interest in animation had him learning Adobe Flash and then expanded into programming with Actionscript 2 and 3. Amir believes that because animation includes art, design and coding, it is an especially good place for game designers to begin.
Another important advantage Amir claims is the fact that he doesn’t mind sounding like a fool. This is particularly useful when brainstorming ideas; even a stupid idea can be improved on or spark another idea. Once he settles on an interesting idea, he creates a flow document or storyboard. Amir describes, “I usually prepare it for myself first and review it as a child when I play with my ideas to see if they are fun or not. This is the part where you can tell if your feelings were right about the idea or if you should change it or even drop it completely. If it looks cool to you, it’s time to present it and get additional feedback in order to fine tune the game.”
A game designer must work with almost all departments in the company, including art, development, sound, product, marketing and executive management, so it is not surprising that getting approval and satisfaction for everyone involved is what Amir considers the greatest challenge in game design. It is essential to make sure the idea is so solid and well-defined that once it is approved there will be no major changes that take it back to the design table. At the same time, Amir insists everyone at Matific is open to hearing each other’s opinions.
At Matific, game testing actually begins with talking, first talking with colleagues as the idea is presented, then talking with end users. They have usability sessions with teachers and kids, using what they learn to improve the product, making sure problems can be answered before presenting the game to the world. After publishing, user feedback is taken very seriously, and games are adjusted and improved according to the needs.
Learning Through Fun
Amir sees no conflict in integrating the educational and fun aspects to Matific’s games. Both are a part of the game concepts from the beginning. He emphasized, “The art should be appealing for kids, the story should be intuitive and the animations should be funny. Usually I don’t want to distract the user from the goal, so the animations will enter between questions or as feedbacks to success/failure, but it doesn’t mean the environment can’t be fun to play with right from the beginning and to support the pedagogical topics of the game.”
One of the first and most important skills Amir has found children learning from games is logic. Games present a problem, situation or goal for the user to overcome. Many games are full of riddles or situations kids must think about, analyze and solve in order to progress. Games can teach different skills depending on the target audience, but Amir insists that logic is basic to all of it and recommends designers should embrace it when designing for kids.
Physics is one of the subjects well suited to games. “Devices are supporting compass, directions, tilting and more through built in gyroscope,” Amir explains. “Also, the physics of objects when they hit each other, fall, float, move, with various states of matter and so on is well supported by game mechanics and concepts.” He points out many different games for kids emphasize physics, from Angry Birds to World of Goo.
Failure Isn’t Bad
There are many advantages to using games for education, but the key one that Amir emphasizes is that failure isn’t bad. Parents don’t get mad, teachers don’t downgrade, and the child can try again and improve in real time. The feedback is immediate and so is the learning. Another advantage Amir notes is that the tools are endless with a creative rather than a limited environment. “You can experience and explore till you get the ‘aha’ moment.” Also, Amir says, “Games in education are not killing the passion for learning – and that’s a huge achievement.”
The next important trend Amir sees coming in the game industry is virtual reality, but at this point there is still a lack of demand, experience and quality. Right now virtual reality games and accessories are not accessible or available to many, but it is only a question of time before they will be popular with both children and adults.
The biggest change Amir would like to see in the game industry is designers sharing more knowledge. There are now some helpful case studies, blogs and articles, but more are needed. To help meet this need, Amir has started publishing posts to share his knowledge and intends to become more active in events and conferences to share his experiences and teach best practices to others.
Don’t Limit Yourself
To those who would like to become game designers, Amir says don’t limit yourself to one path; gain experience by shifting positions. Game designers need to learn a mix of skills including marketing, user experience, art, animation, storytelling, code development and animation. “Experience is an essential building block of this position.”
Amir also recommends, “Stay calm and calculated even when things are constantly changing. It’s a key to success in this industry. Be open to criticism, always wear a smile and at the end of the day remember that you are getting paid to change tired moments into pleasure and make games that people love to play.”
Catherine Quinton is a staff writer for www.gamesauce.org. Catherine loves her hobby farm, long walks in the country and reading great novels.