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ContributionsDevelopmentGame DevelopmentPostmortem

Covalence: Making Organic Chemistry Fun

November 25, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Covalence, created by Jason Mathias, a Los Angeles-based game designer working on educational games, is designed to help players understand Organic Chemistry. It won Best of Show in the student competition of the 2013 International Serious Play Awards. He talks about the game’s development.

I remember when Organic Chemistry finally clicked for me, and I could read the letters and lines on the papers like a modern-day alchemist. Unfortunately, at that point, it was midnight the night before the final, and my grade was already set. It was too late for me. I finished the class with a ‘B,’ which, in the cutthroat world of straight-A Pre-Meds, was essentially a failing grade.

After I left the path of medicine for one of video games, I couldn’t stop thinking about Organic Chemistry. When it came time for a thesis, a year-long project at the end of USC’s Master’s program, the decision to pursue Covalence was almost a no-brainer. The only problem was in how to actually make it.

Organic Chemistry
These are early visual design prototypes for the game. Covalence went through dozens of visual design ideas before settling on the look we eventually went for.

What Went Right – Expertise and Vision

An advisor once told me that the job of an educational designer is to have one foot in game design, and one foot in the subject matter. You don’t have to be an expert in either, but you should know how a decision in one affects the other.

For Covalence, I had a Biochemistry major advising for the subject matter alongside professors with years of game design experience, which left me to act as a mediator to create a cohesive vision around both worlds. A guiding vision is crucial for educational games. A subject like Chemistry can be taught in dozens of ways, so an established teaching style and intended audience greatly helps to guide design decisions.

Whiteboard
For a few months last year, every whiteboard in our building was covered in complex Chemistry figures.

In my case, I intended Covalence to be for students starting out in Organic Chemistry, like an interactive lesson to play alongside traditional classroom lectures. This framework drove the core subject material (to align with the common ‘table of contents’ section of any textbook), and I could identify common stumbling points from OChem tests and talking to teachers, and use them as frameworks for the mechanics.

If I had widened the audience to “young kids that are interested in science”, the amount of directions I could go would have been dizzying. Conversely, having a focused vision allowed me to decide upon the current visual design – an underwater ‘in the test tube’ view, made to look like a chalkboard via handwritten text – something visually attractive, but also familiar to a Chemistry student.

A focused vision didn’t happen overnight. When I first pitched my idea, it was a hodgepodge of chemistry lingo, vague mechanic conception, and attempts to allude to Cut the Rope. I learned to think outside of the educator role and instead ask myself, “Why do I, as the player, care?” This forced me to imagine steps as the player would encounter them, and also led me to evaluate whether the mechanic I was making would both teach the player and be fun to play. If I couldn’t describe what I wanted the player to do in a pitch to possible collaborators, then how could I move forward in making the game itself? In reality, learning how to pitch the game made it possible to make it.

Hodgepodge
Our artist, Mike Longley, drew some other figures in to stem the tide of Chemistry figures

Challenges – Team Management, Time, and Money

When I started work on Covalence, I didn’t have much programming ability, so I gratefully took on anyone that was interested in the project. Soon, the team ballooned in size, and even with the help of a producer, management became a job of its own. This was coupled with an ambitious feature list I was reluctant to pare down. Because of this, I organized the team into feature silos (‘you’re writing atom logic, you’re making the molecule formations’), with little knowledge of how each silo’s features would interact. Naturally, that didn’t go well.

What fixed this was forcing myself to think of deliverables instead of features, and using that to make milestone deadlines. I could then playtest something real, instead of looking at a page of theoretical features. Something that greatly helped our production was the Burndown Chart – a To-Do list graphed against the time you think tasks will take. When we employed this tool, we could quickly see what was progressing as we’d hoped, and what was getting pushed back repeatedly.

Getting Professional Help

During the second semester, in order to accelerate the game’s development progress, I decided to use money from a scholarship to hire outside help.

I understand now that a better way to manage expectations and negotiate reasonable time-frames with hired programmers is to enlist the advice of a programmer friend outside of the project.

During early meetings with the contracted programmers, I laid out what elements of atoms and molecules needed to be programmed and the basic functioning logic behind these elements. We agreed upon a basic toolset build and timeframe. After the first few weeks without check-ins, I received a build from them and realized it was for a one-off deliverable instead of a re-arrangeable toolset. This left little room to modify due to playtesting feedback, severely limiting enhancement and growth of the user experience. The contractors had completed the tasks I set for them without heeding to the critical functioning logic I had explained.

I understand now that a better way to manage expectations and negotiate reasonable time-frames with hired programmers is to enlist the advice of a programmer friend outside of the project. This friend can help to set realistic buffer times, break down the project into discrete asks/deliverables, and can help you explain how a more complex toolset addresses needs of the subject matter where a one-off animation does not.

Instead, I had presented the group with a large game design document, and said “I want to make all of this, how long do you think it will take?” Because of this ambiguity, the contractors focused on the achievable pieces of the overall project, and by the time I reviewed the code I was receiving (nearly a month after I’d started with them!), it was too late to course correct to complete all facets of the project within budget.

Victory

Initially, I wanted Covalence to reflect my personal fascination with organic chemistry. As I bounced ideas off of professors, colleagues, and my team in the form of pitches and playtests, I learned what worked well as a game and what worked better as things for the player to explore on their own. In my opinion, this was the real victory of making Covalence.

Gameplay
It was important to be able to put text in the game in a way that still fit the look, and from that, a draw-on-the-board text style was born.

Going forward, I am expanding Covalence, applying the lessons of distilling Chemistry into a tangible experience beyond bonding and into molecule-sized reactions. I’ve changed my production pipeline as well, working by myself from deliverable to deliverable, and slowly building up a team to help grow the project. Despite the setbacks, Covalence proved to be a great learning experience for me in educational game development, and I’m happy to say that Covalence is gaining traction as a viable educational tool as well!

Jason is currently continuing Covalence, and looking to slowly build a team to help grow the project into a PC and tablet game to be released early 2014. For more information, follow Jason on Twitter, email him at Jason.Mathias@gmail.com, or learn about the game at ochemgame.com.

ContributionsPostmortem

Night & Day Studios’ Yummiloo Rainbow Power

September 4, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Night & Day Studios is a mobile app company based in Portland, Oregon with over 70 apps produced. Founded in 2008 by Nat Sims and Erin Rackelman, their first app, Peekaboo Barn, was released at the dawn of the App Store. These friendly farm animals have gone on to be played over 50 million times. Their main focus has been children’s educational apps, developing new proprietary content, and also working with licensors to bring many childhood classics to the mobile world for the first time, such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Richard Scarry’s Busytown. Yummiloo Rainbow Power is a collaborative project between Night & Day and yummico, a new children’s media company. Kate Kiehl from Night & Day Studios tells the story. 

Initial meetings between our team at Night & Day Studios and our partners at yummico started in February 2012. It was immediately clear that our two companies were a wonderfully complimentary match. At Night & Day, with over five years of app development under our belts, we have talented creatives and programers who have a wealth of knowledge about development and game concepting. yummico is a new children’s media company with TV and film industry veterans, including Traci Paige Johnson, creator of the beloved, groundbreaking preschool television series Blue’s Clues and co-creator of SuperWhy, and Caroline Baron, award-winning producer of acclaimed feature films, including the Oscar-nominated Capote and Monsoon Wedding. United by the common goal of delivering delightful and educational media with a home-grown aesthetic, the collaborative project of the Yummiloo Rainbow Power app was a natural partnership.

Playing Smart, Eating Smart

An initial pre-production period between Night & Day Creative Director Brianne Baker, Senior Programmer Justin Hawkwood and the yummico team formed the direction the project would take. First and foremost, Yummiloo Rainbow Power was to be focused on nutrition education and the theme of healthy eating for children ages 2-7 with a target focus of 3-5 year-olds. For parents, often getting little ones to eat their fruits and veggies can be nothing short of a miracle. Our hope was that by creating adorable characters known as the Yum Yums and their world of Yummiloo, we would assist in cultivating young, adventurous, healthy eaters.

Yummiloo-Rooty
Our hope was that by creating adorable characters known as the Yum Yums and their world of Yummiloo, we would assist in cultivating young, adventurous, healthy eaters.

In designing the Yummiloo Rainbow Power game play, the goal was to provide a fun and engaging experience while also helping kids develop food identification skills and healthy eating habits. The game play was envisioned as follows: after being introduced to the Yum Yums, users would be instructed to gather fruits and vegetables by dragging them into the corresponding colored bucket to help fuel the Rainbow Machine. Children would also be provided with a compost bin for spoiled foods, making room for more fresh foods to grow once the rotten ones are removed. Once all five colored carts were filled with food, the Rainbow Machine would begin to run on full power, unleashing the carnival rides and a Yum Yum party. The celebratory end of the game would reinforce the importance of ‘eating a rainbow,’ educating kids about how eating a mix of bright, vibrant colored foods helps their bodies grow. In addition, the app would encourage fine motor skills development, color recognition, and recognition of different fruits and vegetables.

Jumping the Hurdles

Production began in earnest in June 2012 ,as we embarked on the challenge of bringing the Yum Yums and the world of Yummiloo to life. Given the complexity of what we were aiming to accomplish, we were weary of getting tied into Corona as the language, so we chose to build the app in native iOS. To maximize user experience and the ability to interact with the app, we began development right from the beginning in Xcode. One thing that quickly became clear was that the initial conception of having additional games at the carnival was more ambitious than what was realistic for the scope of the project. Scaling back to a fun animated video celebration at the game’s end allowed us to stay within budget and launch in the time-frame we were aiming for.

Yummiloo-Carnival
Scaling back to a fun animated video celebration at the game’s end allowed us to stay within budget and launch in the time-frame we were aiming for.

The biggest hurdle that our developers overcame was switching back and forth frequently between video and interactive app content. Throughout the course of launching the app and reaching the final carnival celebration, the switches occur over ten times. The most common issues we faced when switching back and forth were the appearance of a black screen, the video speeding up and issues with the coloration not matching between the video files and the images used for interactive play.

We found solutions to each of our issues. To solve the problem of the black screen and rapid video play, the developer started the video play earlier, but essentially made it invisible with a very quick fade in. The issues with color shifts between the compressed video and image files required a different approach. Our lead developer built a simple application in which you could run a test of the compressed video and interactive image file to check the color consistency. After a significant amount of trial and error and manually color shifting individual files, we had developed a formula that worked consistently each time to produce color matches between the two files.

As the development process continued, the complexities of all moving parts with the in app grew as well, namely: the growth and rotting of fruits and vegetables, rain falling, clouds forming and parting, compost, food buckets, and the Rainbow Machine filling, as well as different Yum Yum characters movements. Out of these many layers, Yummiloo Rainbow Power emerged as a beautiful blend of video, programmatic animation, animation utilizing sprite sheets and frame animation.

Learning from Children

As adults designing apps for end users who are much smaller and younger than ourselves, one of the most fascinating aspects of our process is when the time comes to dive into user testing. Upon getting the app into the hands of little ones, several important pieces of feedback emerged. Having the two different play modes (tap vs. drag) made the app accessible to a more broad age range of users. Based upon user testing, it was decided that drag mode would be the default setting, as that fit best with our main target ages’ motor abilities. Including tap mode as an alternate option also allowed younger children to enjoy the game. There was a significant amount of testing conducted to determine the right amount of sound that should be included in the app. With the potential for a great deal of voice over, we approached testing this in an additive fashion where we slowly incorporated more sound layers to see how children reacted. As a result, we were able to see what they understood without instruction, as well as the aspects that benefited from more verbal explanation.

Yummiloo-Home Screen
As a result of testing with kids, we ended up adding a button to the home screen so the video can be played again without restarting the app.

One surprise we encountered when testing beta versions of the app was how kids reacted to the introductory video. Many of them wanted to watch it over and over again — and as a result, we ended up adding a button to the home screen so the video can be played again without restarting the app. Because of the learning element that results from filling the Rainbow Machine and its function as a metaphor for healthy eating, we did not add an option to play the ending carnival video unless the game is played all the way through. As a result, the child’s focus and effort to fill the buckets with each color of fruits and vegetables is rewarded at the end, while also reinforcing the overarching idea of the importance of eating healthy foods from all colors of the rainbow.

Unleash the Yum Yums!

Yummiloo Rainbow Power was submitted to Apple in February 2013 and launched on March 20th, 2013 in celebration of the first day of spring. Within the first day, it was ranked in the top 50 US App Store Education app downloads and was selected by Apple as a New & Noteworthy or Hot Pick for seven consecutive weeks upon launch. The reception from educators, parents, bloggers, and children themselves has been equally positive. The experience of collaborating with the yummico team on this project was an honor and the process of creating the app was a rainbow-filled joy!

Yummiloo Rainbow Power is available on the App Store for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Night & Day Studios has several new app releases planned for this fall.

Video Coverage

BrainPOP’s Allisyn Levy on video games in education, BrainPop’s goals with animation, and top quality educational games through GameUp

December 7, 2012 — by Nicholas Yanes

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What is BrainPOP? 

BrainPOP was founded by Avraham Kadar, M.D. in 1999.  As an immunologist and pediatrician, Dr. Kadar struggled to explain difficult medical concepts to his young patients.  Dr. Kadar, according to Levy, “found that animation could be helpful in understanding difficult concepts.”  It was this realization that inspired Kadar to create BrainPOP.  Since its founding, BrainPOP has created animations, games, mobile apps, experiments and several other types of activities designed to assist educators and engage students across multiple subjects.

According to Levy, Dr. Kadar “found that animation could be helpful in understanding difficult concepts.”

Levy notes that, while the company started off as an informal learning resource, through careful research and curriculum development, Kadar and his colleagues ended up filling an unmet teacher need.  BrainPOP now has over 11 million monthly visitors, is used in 20 percent of US schools, and continues to grow rapidly. BrainPOP now has a professional community of over 200,000 members, and its critically lauded apps have been downloaded more than 1.5 million times.

Education <3 Videogames

“As a classroom teacher for 11 years, I’ve always integrated games into my classroom. I knew I could count on ‘Heads Up, Seven Up’ to motivate my students to get cleaned up at the end of the day; my weekly Scrabble club pulled students of all abilities together and increased our enjoyment of spelling and language.”

For BrainPOP (and similar companies), its greatest uphill battle and contribution to the videogame industry and culture is showing that digital games can be educational.  Like many educators, Levy has known that traditional games are quite effective for getting children active in their education.  Levy herself said, “As a classroom teacher for 11 years, I’ve always integrated games into my classroom. I knew I could count on ‘Heads Up, Seven Up’ to motivate my students to get cleaned up at the end of the day; my weekly Scrabble club pulled students of all abilities together and increased our enjoyment of spelling and language.” Despite skepticism that might exist towards the use of videogames in the classroom, Levy has found that videogames are an invaluable classroom tool.  “I had a small arsenal of digital games that increased student engagement,” and according to Levy, videogames “brought even my shyest students out of their shells, and provided opportunities for students to collaborate, problem solve, fail in a safe environment, and succeed.” According to Levy, videogames are excellent educational tools because “good games are memorable, and they’re where kids are spending their time by choice. So if we meet them there, games can provide goals and motivation, encourage participation, strengthen critical and systems thinking, pose adaptive challenges, and spark inquiry. They offer opportunities to employ just-in-time knowledge, where students mustfind information and apply it right then and there in context, instead of learning cold facts that they may or may not need down the line.”

“[Videogames] brought even my shyest students out of their shells, and provided opportunites for students to collaborate, problem solve, fail in a safe environment, and succeed.”

When summarizing her experiences and knowledge of using videogames to educate, it is clear that for Levy, there is no doubt that digital games belong in the classroom, “In short, games fit into the mix of learning environments I tried to create for my students that had the most positive, lasting impact. I saw it worked, and I took advantage.” However, it is important to note that not all games are equally educational.  For Levy, educational videogames “should offer multiple opportunities for experimenting with strategies, applying and observing the consequences, and trying again to master a goal in a risk-free environment.”

Based on her years of experience, Levy claims that games that can enhance the educational experience “should provide ongoing feedback, and students should learn through failure, which is often not the case with traditional school experiences where standardized tests are emphasized.”  Additionally, “good games should spark students’ interests and encourage collaboration among players.  They should allow students to step into someone else’s shoes, make choices playing that role and experience the consequences of those actions.” The final attribute a game should have to truly lend itself well to the learning process in Levy’s eyes is that “good games should be recursive; offering new experiences and learning opportunities the more they’re played.”  Overall, videogames lend themselves to learning because they provide an environment filled with instant feedback that allows students to learn from their mistakes; an environment that can also be typically altered to provide varied experiences, allowing students to approach similar problems with dissimilar methods.

BrainPOP’s Future: GameUp

Through GameUp, BrainPOP’s latest feature, teachers can bring a variety of games based of the curriculum into the classroom. For example, Food Fight can enhance a child’s understanding of food webs.

One of the obstacles that educators encounter when attempting to bring technology into the classroom is the cost of these items. Fortunately, as Levy points out, “there are plenty of free, quality games that tie into curriculum and align to academic standards available.”  And a new source of free games that is designed to be used in the classroom is BrainPOP’s latest feature, GameUp. GameUp is a collection of online games from leading game creators designed to contribute to the educational experience, and it has become so popular that, according to Levy, the past year saw “over 900,000 hours of game play!”  The diversity of games that GameUp provides access to is staggering.  If you want a game dealing with the government’s budget, you can access Budget Hero; if you are teaching a unit on body systems, your students can play Guts & Bolts.  In other words, if you are teaching it, GameUp most likely has games that touch upon that subject.

BrainPOP has also developed a “mixer tool in beta that allows teachers to create and share their own BrainPOP-style quizzes and design their own custom assessments.”  This mixer tool not only allows instructors to share what has or hasn’t worked for them, it allows teachers new to this technology the comfort of knowing that they don’t have to invent an entirely new curriculum, but instead can ease into this type of teaching by building upon the groundwork others have already developed. It’s important to remember that no technology is a magic wand for teaching, because no matter what tools you have at your disposal, as Levy makes clear, “it really comes down to using it in meaningful ways – otherwise, it doesn’t matter what technology you’ve got!”  So it’s important to look at BrainPOP’s products and other educational videogames not as replacements for a teacher, but as fantastic tools to help bring education into the 21st century.

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