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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.