Category Archives: Ariella’s Blog Posts

Advice for Fellow Toy Inventors

I just returned from my favorite conference of the year, Toy Fair. I still enjoy many traditional toys (skip to the end of the post if you want to see my personal favorites), but this year I attended, along with HitPoint’s CEO, Paul Hake, to get feedback on our first connected toy prototype. It was a hoot.

Paul and I walked the three looong convention floors for three days, lugging a big black box filled with a 3D printed play set, wires, lights, etc. All the coolest stuff is pitched behind closed doors; we finally made it into the inner sanctum! We got an earful, about the business in general and about our toy in particular.  Feedback ranged from, “This is the best implementation we’ve ever seen using AR,” to “Connected toys with AR have tanked at retail. We need to understand why yours will succeed when others haven’t.” Two other general rules that wannabe inventors need to be aware of include (1) The “plastic” sold to retail must function successfully as a toy, even if the child never downloads the app or has an AR experience; and (2) Every bit of technology that adds costs to the toy (like bluetooth, approximately $5), must be carefully justified (and otherwise ruthlessly discarded).

Are we discouraged? No way. Folks were very generous with their feedback, and I actually think we landed on an even better concept as a result of our Toy Fair experience. Stay tuned. Plus, I am convinced that 2018 is going to be a great year for AR gaming for kids (thank you Niantic and Harry Potter) as well as for AR connected toys (see below). Like every entrepreneur, I have high hopes that we will find a more receptive audience next year.

One AR enabled toy that I predict will rack up big sales this year is Merge 6DoF Blaster. It plays like laser tag. I tried out the demo at Toy Fair, and loved the fact that I could hide from virtual enemies by ducking behind virtual obstacles. The final peripheral will probably look similar to a Nerf gun, and hopefully less purple than the current version on the website. Of course it all depends on the games that come bundled with the device, but the concept is intuitive and fun.

Another favorite example of AR-driven connected gameplay was Hasbro’s Hero Vision Iron Man AR Experience. Undoubtedly inspired by Lenovo’s successful Star Wars: Jedi Challenges released last year, the Hasbro product is less versatile, but also much less expensive ($50 compared to $200). The mask comes with three AR targets that can be placed around in your environment. Each target triggers 3D buildings to protect and villains to destroy. It is a simple and well-understood gameplay pattern that utilizes the license in a rather brilliant way. It is also highly extensible, with the purchase of physical Infinity Stones for new powers. (Plus it will probably be applied to other superheroes at some point in the future. Wonder Woman anyone?) I expect Hasbro to do very well with this toy when it comes out later this Spring.

One final note about this year’s Toy Fair: physical toys will never go out of fashion, and some of my favorite companies continue to inspire and delight. (You’ll notice my distinct preference for German companies in the following list, but their quality standards are generally the best, in my obviously idiosyncratic opinion.)

I recommend: Ravensburger for puzzles and games; Playmobil for play sets; Crocodile Creek for puzzles; Mary Meyer for plushes; Melissa and Doug for anything, Lego for building, Crayola for creativity, and Haba for infant and toddler toys.

Enjoy and keep playing!

Hake in the Heartland

What a guy! Reprinted from the Heartland Series: Q&A with HitPoint Studios CEO, Paul Hake

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) spoke with CEO Paul Hake about the advantages of being located in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and how his studio leverages the surrounding talent pool to focus on the technologies of the future.

Showcasing the geographic diversity of the video game industry, the Heartland Series features interviews with video game publishers, developers, and innovators from across America, highlighting the groundbreaking work and innovation they bring to every corner of the nation.

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get your start in the video game industry?

A: My father was a computer programmer for a financial company and he brought home a sweet IBM PS/2 and introduced me to programming when I was in junior high. We programmed games together, and throughout high school and college, my plan was to start a game studio. I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass Amherst) specifically to design my major around starting a game studio. I took computer science classes, art classes, and business classes. After college, I worked for Hasbro Toys in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in their visual studios department, editing toy demos and commercials and used that as a jumping-off point to work for Tiger Electronics which was based in Western Massachusetts. There, I started designing and developing all sorts of handheld games, plug-in TV games, and eventually PC games. So that’s how I got my start in the video game industry. That allowed me to build a portfolio, which led to more deals. Then in 2008, I basically took my studio, which was about eight people at the time, and merged it with another studio that was also in western Massachusetts to start HitPoint Studios.

Q: Can you give us a quick overview of HitPoint Studios? What types of games and technologies does the studio focus on?

A: When we started HitPoint in 2008, we were mostly working on PC download games. We did a lot of games with Big Fish Games, WildTangent Games, GameHouse and iWin Games, which were in the casual game space. A few years after that we started working with Microsoft on developing launch titles for Windows 8. We were one of two studios that developed launch titles for the Surface tablets and when Windows 8 came out, our games were bundled in with its operating systems. In addition, we worked with Disney to create games for Windows 8 and through those work-for-hire projects, we raised some money to develop our own platform for social and mobile games. With that platform, we launched our own titles, some of which we’re still operating, some of which we sold off.

We developed some mobile titles for clients who still use our platform and then about 18 months ago, we got started in the mobile augmented reality (AR) space. We began developing games initially for Google’s Project Tango devices, including our first AR game, Crayola Color Blaster. What we learned through the nine years HitPoint has been around is that the team really likes technically challenging projects and projects that are still a little bit nascent that show promise because most of our team are engineers and they really enjoy working on projects that are cutting-edge. When AR came around and Project Tango was an opportunity, it was a great fit for us and now we’ve made a name for ourselves in the AR space. We’ve launched a few titles and we have a couple more in the works. It’s about half the work we’re doing right now. The rest is some of our own games and other mobile game development projects on a work-for-hire basis.

Q: Could you tell us more about your recent projects? How do you think immersive experiences will impact the future of games?

A: We made a conscious decision a couple years ago to focus on AR because it seemed like it was a technology that would be more readily adopted by people who would be downloading our games and that was the bet we made. So far it seems like it’s paying off. Since then, Apple and Google, the two biggest players in the space, have released their own AR platforms for their devices, so we’re well positioned at the moment to not only be on the cutting edge in terms of the technology, but also there will now be hundreds of millions of devices worldwide that will have AR technology built into them a few months from now.

For our AR titles, we’re mainly focused on creating experiences that encourage exploring player’s physical spaces and moving around, instead of tabletop AR apps and games. One of the games we did was called Color BlastAR for iOS, where you have to run around your house, your room, or outside and it spawns AR characters in your environment, making it a get-up-and-run-around arcade game. That kind of immersion I think is going to be more powerful because you can see AR take over the space you’re moving around in, which is a whole new experience. The next phase for this game we’re working on is making it a multiplayer AR experience to allow for collaborative and competitive mobile AR play.

Q: You also focus on mobile games. In 2017, mobile games generated nearly 43% of the global market. Do you think the popularity of mobile games will continue to grow? Why?

A: About half of mobile phone users are playing games, and I expect we’ll see this percentage increase along with the number of mobile users worldwide. There’s a lot of room for growth, especially if you’re thinking globally. In addition, more people will become accustomed to spending money on mobile games. However, I believe there needs to be more ways for users to spend money on games outside premium purchases and in-app purchases. Right now, mobile game developers have premium, IAPs and ads as our ways to monetize games. I believe we’ll start seeing more subscription based models that will give developers another way to monetize in a form that consumers are already very accustomed to through HBO, Netflix, Hulu, etc. Hatch has been announced already as one streaming subscription platform and I believe we’re going to see more people using these platforms treating gaming like Netflix accounts. This will allow the mobile game developers to monetize their games a fourth way and continue to grow the overall mobile game revenue.

Q: Why did you choose Greenfield, Massachusetts, for your headquarters? Are there specific advantages this area provides to video game companies?

A: Western Massachusetts is a great location to be running a software company. There are at least five major colleges here, Greenfield is not far from two of them and not far from Boston. There are a couple colleges in Vermont with computer science and art programs. Worchester Polytechnic and Rochester University are also not far. So, we’re in a really nice location for all these schools that are putting out really talented engineers and artists, so it’s a great spot to be for that. We weren’t always in Greenfield as we bopped around the valley a little bit, but we just started a video game co-working space in Greenfield and we found a spot we really like. The city has its own municipal internet connection that’s high-speed and it’s near the rail service and there’s a lot of great places to eat, hang out, and relax. We’ve worked with other studios that are in Boston or in other major cities that all have issues with parking, commuting, and extremely high costs of rent, which we don’t have to deal with out here, but we also have a lot of talent coming out of the colleges. Once people come out here, they really want to stay and it’s our open secret that Western Mass is a great place to recruit because the quality of life here is fantastic.

Q: Do you usually hire from local universities or are your employees from around the country? Are there specific areas of study you usually target when hiring new employees?

A: More than half of the people at HitPoint went to one of the five colleges here and the other people we’ve brought on are from other studios in Boston, who either commute out here or work from home. We have a very flexible work-from-home policy. We have a couple other people in our office in Los Angeles, another employee works from Buffalo, New York, because he has family up there, but our main hub here is in Greenfield. What’s really nice is UMass Amherst has a career fair, which we’ve participated in. There are two people who work at HitPoint who have been adjunct professors at Hampshire College, so we have a great connection with that college. They have a great game-focused program there, and in addition, we work with the local colleges to host a Global Game Jam and we actually have one here next month at our co-working space. They’ve been great opportunities to get juniors and seniors in college to get to know us. We get to see them, get to see their work, and basically keep them in mind and keep in touch with them after they graduate. We’ve done stuff like that and we have several employees, myself included, who have spoken at the local colleges dozens of times, giving talks about different career paths.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: I studied computer science and art, and I’m not that good at either of them [laughing]. I’m an ok programmer and I’m an ok artist, but what I do like doing is organizing the teams or really talented people we have here and watching them be successful in their product launches. What is really nice about how HitPoint is structured and operated now is I have to spend less time doing hands-on management and overseeing things because the studio has matured so much over the past eight years. We just launched a Facebook Instant Game for the new Star Wars movie, which got a lot of great coverage, but I happily had very little to do with that. It was great to just tee up the project for the team and see where they would run with it. Things like that are what I like most about the job; making sure the right people are in the right room or Slack channel, on the right project, and giving advice where I can.

Q: What is your favorite video game of all time?

A: That’s a tough one but it’s probably Myst. I had a very limited amount of game time available to me growing up, and we had a strict no console policy at our house. But Myst was one that I played multiple times, and really shaped the kinds of games I like to design and play today. It had great puzzles, a strong narrative that wasn’t in-your-face, and for the time it had amazing graphics and groundbreaking animation, music, and audio. That game probably got me into video games more than anything.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring video game developers? Which skills should they invest in today to break into the video game industry and become successful?

A: This is one topic that I am asked to speak about at colleges a lot. For me, it’s always important for artists and engineers to be focused on the fundamentals. For engineers, make sure you have a strong math background, traditional computer science skills, not just focusing on the latest, hottest game engine and make sure you understand the fundamentals of engineering because those things don’t change. The game engines change, the languages change, “what’s hot” changes, right? I’ve seen a lot of colleges get tripped up by that by having their engineers focus their curriculum on the Unity game engine because that’s what’s hot right now or on the Unreal game engine or some other game engine and the students will have a decent portfolio on that game engine, but they don’t have a good base on which to build.

Same thing with art, too. A strong traditional studio art background, understanding lighting, colors, perspectives, and concepting. We’ve hired some artists from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where they have a strong traditional art program, and some of the best artists we’ve worked with have come out of that school.

The other big thing is having a portfolio that shows off only your best work, even if it’s just five pieces on your website. If there’s something you’re not proud of, don’t show it. It’s definitely quality over quantity. For engineering applicants, I don’t think you can go into a job interview or expect to get hired when you have a game you worked on, but can’t send over the sample code and a playable build. We receive a lot of resumes that show what games people have worked on but are lacking the sources because it’s on the computer at the school they went to or it’s on a repository they no longer have access to or some other reason. That’s not going to work. You have to have games you worked on, even if it’s in the Apple Store or some Android APK that we have to side-load, students need to have sample apps available with details of what their role was in the development of that app or game. That’s the number one thing you need and you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t have that when they apply.

A Very Merry Star Wars Xmas

Many of you may already know that I joined HitPoint Studios as President in October. It was a big change for me, given that I was the founder and CEO of Legacy Games for 19 years before that. So I thought that it might be time for an end of the year “how’s it going so far” report to readers of my blog.

In a word, great. It’s been a hang on to your hats thrill ride, with most of the company’s focus on either new platforms or new technologies.

– The really BIG news first. Today Disney released Star Wars: Porg Invasion, a fun social game that HitPoint created. CNN calls it “adorable.” It’s our first Instant Facebook Game, but won’t be our last. We’re pushing the limits of what you can do with HTML5 and Messenger!

– In other gaming news, we’ve launched the first four episodes of Adera on Google Play, a beautiful mobile game. It will soon be out on Hatch, an exciting new subscription service from Rovio, as well as multiple other platforms.

– Our Augmented Reality work-for-hire business has tripled in the past 15 months, to now include games, on ARKit and ARCore, as well as some exciting business applications. I describe, obliquely, some of our more confidential work with retailers in this recent blog post.

– And last but not least, we are working on four different connected device/smart toy projects, all of which include Augmented Reality features. Three are for consumers and one is B2B, where there is a strong appetite for customized, highly technical solutions…right up our alley.

That’s my “Xmas Letter” news. I wish everyone a peaceful, healthy and happy holiday season, and a prosperous 2018.  (A little less busy and tumultuous new year would be nice too!) May the light be with you!

The Future of Retail is Here

“The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
– William Gibson

The future is here and retailers are taking note.  We are in the midst of a major transformation in terms of how we shop, thanks to our ability to layer digital content on top of the real world. Combined with our increasing ability to turn past purchasing behavior into smart product recommendations, customers will soon be able to visualize in-store personalized promotions, coupons, and variable pricing alongside their favorite items on the shelf. The dual technologies – Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) – when paired together, will reinvent retail. 

When Augmented Reality is used in retail, the virtual and physical worlds are combined. Because the technology now exists to easily digitally map the interior of a store and know where every product is located, the customer can be directed step by step to the exact product they want.  Furthermore, when this location-based intelligence is combined with knowledge of the customer and their past purchasing behavior, we can ensure that their in-store experience is relevant to their preferences and more likely to lead to purchases.  

While there are many possible future scenarios regarding AR, AI and retail, my company, HitPoint Studios, has been researching which use cases resonate with customers and are technically feasible given current mobile devices. Retailers, however, are not all equally prepared to take advantage of what we learn about customer behaviors. From the get-go, companies like Amazon have a built-in advantage, compared to “legacy” retailers. Imagine how Amazon can and will transform the retail shopping experience, given their extensive knowledge of the specific customer and the ability of AR to display personalized information on top of the physical world.  

Amazon is already exploring what experiences and information the customer wants in their retail locations. Just in time for Thanksgiving, they announced that Amazon Prime members will be able to buy turkeys at a reduced price at Whole Foods stores ($1.99/lb. compared to 2.49/lb. for other customers). In the not too distant future, we will download an Amazon AR app and be able to see relevant special pricing and promotions, simply by pointing our phone camera over items in the freezer case or on shelves. Similar to how Amazon adjusts pricing on the fly online, the store turkey will cost more the closer it gets to Thanksgiving, and drop dramatically after turkey day. Furthermore, because of our online purchase patterns and the use of AI (Artificial Intelligence), we will be offered personalized discounts in the store. For example, I order avocado oil by the boatload on  Amazon knows this and will offer me a virtual coupon as I walk past the oil shelf in Whole Foods.  Or, if avocado oil is out of stock on the shelf, I’ll be prompted to order it online and have it shipped to my home.  Similarly, customers will expect to access online rankings via Augmented Reality of every physical book sold in Amazon retail bookstores. And the transition between online and retail ordering, for digital or physical books, will be seamless.

Newer retailers, many of whom started out as online businesses, may have an easier time merging the online and physical world within their retail locations. Stores like Warby Parker and Sugarfina are not only “cooler,” according to millennials, but they know more about their customers. In addition, because their store locations are newer and often utilize the same inventory and planograms, mapping their physical interior and identifying the location of every item is a snap compared to older stores. Finally, I expect these formerly online-only stores to use in-store AR games and ties to social networks to attract younger buyers who want to share information and have a fun experience while shopping.

How do legacy retailers compete?  They are at a decided disadvantage, certainly. First, they need to know their customer.  Do they gather individual customer information, like purchase history and wish lists, that they can link to the customer who walks into their physical stores? How accurately do they track inventory and are products located in the same place in every store? Is there consistent pricing across stores? And more basic yet, do they have wifi throughout the store?  All of this is necessary information and infrastructure before AR can work its magic.

Someday your local retail store will know as much about you as Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Your online persona – your friends, preferences, purchases, and history – will be reflected in what you see and experience at your neighborhood mall. This is the promise and power of Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence, but its full implementation will probably arrive at some retailers sooner than others.

If you’d like to know more about the exciting AR projects we are working on at HitPoint, just drop me a line at

Play Patterns, Character Interactions, and AR

Do you remember the Burger King web game, Subservient Chicken? A man in a chicken costume performed a wide range of actions based on the user’s input, showing pre-recorded footage. There were more than 300 commands that the “chicken” could follow. I remember watching a 7-year-old type, “Show me your butt,” and of course the subservient chicken did just that. It was hilarious.

This type of gameplay appeals enormously to kids because, at its core, controlling another character’s actions is highly empowering. Providing them with experiences in which they are the “boss” of another person, whether digital or real life, is immediately appealing. (I know many grownups for whom it works similarly.)

I believe that controlling increasingly life-like virtual characters will be at the heart of the most successful Augmented Reality (AR) experiences, and that classic play patterns will point the way towards satisfying gameplay and interactions.

With the advent of ARKit (Apple) and ARCore (Google), we have a new generation of 3D virtual characters to enjoy. Pet simulators are popular…surprise, surprise. Dress, feed, and play with Tamagotchi–like pets. The big difference is that these characters appear superimposed in your physical environment, as seen through your mobile phone. Keep up their “happy” meter, or they’ll run/fly away. These new AR virtual pets seem more life-like because they appear in the real world, and thus even more compelling to children.

You also control, albeit indirectly, virtual characters in HitPoint/Legacy’s new first-person game, Color BlastAR, on Apple’s ARKit. (A BIG update just launched, with extra-scary Halloween-themed graphics.) This fun walk-around AR game for kids of all ages combines tag and paintball with dragons, gnomes, yetis, zombies, and more for a very active experience!

Working on Color BlastAR has encouraged me to draw on other design inspirations, like classic outdoor multiplayer games, when thinking about virtual character interactions. What are some other interfaces, environments, and gameplay patterns that are relevant in designing an AR game?

  1. Back to Subservient Chicken. What if we could directly control virtual characters, with simple commands (voice or text) like “turn around” or “touch your toes”? Could we re-create the game red light-green light with virtual characters? Could we control them with music, e.g., the character dances until we turn off the music, or as in musical chairs? Or perhaps we control them with our movement. As long as we continue to move our arms, the character will move.
  2. Similarly, what if virtual characters could interact with each other, not just with the player? In Color BlastAR, I’d love to add a new gameplay mode – freeze tag. Once you color in a creature it remains frozen until another creature touches it, and unfreezes it! Meanwhile, you are still racing around trying to color all the zombies, orcs, dragons, ghosts, etc. before you get “chomped.” Would be frenetic but super fun!
  3. I wish virtual characters were able to interact more with their physical environment. Unfortunately, occlusion doesn’t work well with ARKit and ARCore…yet. Characters walk through each other as well as through physical objects in their path. But even before occlusion is solved, the phone still knows something about the environment. We could use day/night, inside/outside, GPS data, etc. to make characters smarter about where they are and change up the gameplay accordingly. Maybe we make the ghosts in Color BlastAR only appear when you play outside at night?
  4. Is it possible to combine target based and world-sensing AR so that virtual characters can interact with signs and symbols on the ground? I’d start with a virtual robot game, where it reacts to the symbols I draw in chalk (e.g., arrows) on the ground. If the robot steps off the correct path due to faulty programming logic, they disappear! (Naturally, you could control a virtual robot through programming from your phone as well.) Next we’ll be playing hopscotch with a zombie and designing mazes for our virtual friends!
  5. What if virtual characters were invisible, while playing Hide and Seek or Marco Polo? You follow puzzle clues, both visual and auditory clues, until you get close enough to reveal the hidden character (who then pops out and scares the s— out of you!) Or perhaps you find the invisible character by throwing color or light around, and if it intersects with the character, that part of them is now visible. I’m smiling just thinking about it.

I haven’t discussed sports games with virtual characters, which could be massive, especially once AR Cloud and multiplayer is implemented in ARKit and ARCore. I’d love to let kids play Color BlastAR together, teaming up to paint the creature horde in tandem. (It’s on the road map.)

How important do you think interacting with virtual characters is to future AR gameplay?

There is Nothing Permanent Except Change*

I made a BIG career decision, to join HitPoint Studios. I have worked with this talented team in Massachusetts on four projects already, and am convinced that their tech and software development skills are incredibly well suited to pursue massive opportunities in Augmented Reality. Wish us luck!

I also want to say that I am incredibly grateful, at this stage of my career, to be able to do what I love best – envision and help build the very best games and experiences that we can create. We truly are at the beginning stages of what is possible, and I hope to contribute to reimagining learning and fun in a virtual world.

*A quote from Heraclitus

Color BlastAR on ARKit…What Have We Learned So Far?

One week ago, Legacy’s first ARKit game, Color BlastAR launched. HitPoint Studios, Legacy’s exclusive development partner for the past two years, is publishing the game for us. What have we learned so far?

First, a brief description of Color BlastAR. A combination of coloring and tag, kids splat paint on life-size virtual zombies before they steal your color. There is a story game mode and also a fast-action arcade mode. The game utilizes the unique world-sensing, computer vision ARKit technology in order to integrate motion and SLAM tracking directly into the gameplay while transforming the world with interactive creatures, virtual flowers, rocks, treasure chests and more.

Here’s the good news. We were able to get some nice press coverage, in Venturebeat and CNET, among others. Kudos to our awesome PR consultant, Elizabeth Olson!

But here’s the bad news. We have not been featured by Apple and as a result, Color BlastAR has only been downloaded 10,000 times. Given that we were one of the highest rated and most downloaded games on Tango devices, this is very disappointing.  Clearly, an Apple feature is key to success at this early stage in the evolution of ARKit.

But we are indefatigable and have planned an awesome update on October 19. Here are some of the new features and content that is planned:

– Seasonal Halloween update including new icons, trailer, description and spooky Halloween environmental effects;
– “Paint My Dragon” story pack – a second storyline that adds 8 additional characters (IAP);
– Spooky Creature Pack, adds 10 new characters to the Arcade Mode including two brand new Halloween-themed creatures (IAP); and
– Dynamic shadows and maybe directional lighting to improve realism.

So stay tuned and, hopefully, we can turn 10,000 downloads into 100,000!

Kody Kapow – 3 Lessons Learned

In my last blog, I wrote about Legacy’s design process and inspirations for creating a new cooperative mobile game for kids ages 4-7, based on the animated series, Kody Kapow, on the Sprout daily preschool programming block on Universal Kids. Our game, Kody Kapow Village Defender, is now available for free on iOS and Android.

How did the actual game development go and what did we learn?

Lesson #1. Assemble the Best Team. Legacy’s model, for many years, was to acquire a license and design the basic game concept, then hand the actual development process off to partners, usually far, far away. This worked great for well-established game genres, like match-3 and hidden object, and with standardized software libraries and engines. It didn’t work as well when we attempted to create an app for which there were few if any design precedents. The model really fell apart when we added brand new technologies like computer vision to the mix. It was hard if not impossible to ship yet-to-be released hardware out of the country as well as maintain the quick iterative dev cycles needed with constantly changing software and big time zone differences.

As a result, a few years ago when Legacy’s business became increasingly focused on AR and computer vision, we began to work exclusively with one of the largest independent game companies in Massachusetts, HitPoint Studios, headed by Paul Hake. The partnership has resulted in four games and counting. HitPoint’s combination of technical brilliance (they never say never), art versatility, and brilliant UI/UX has been the perfect addition to Legacy’s design and child development acumen. And possibly the most important member of the team, Andrew Duncan, functioned as the main game designer as well as producer of Kody Kapow. Virtually every good idea and magical moment in the game came from Andrew.

In addition to HitPoint and Legacy, the Digital Manager on the Universal Kids side couldn’t have been better, or easier, to work with.  Caroline Smigocki led the development effort for Sprout with humor, patience, and competence. We got every resource we needed, and she navigated approvals among the many stakeholders with amazing professionalism and speed.

Lesson #2. Iterate, iterate, iterate.

I’m still rather amazed at how much testing and subsequent revisions we did. Two of the minigames were straightforward and relied on well-known gameplay mechanics. Nonetheless, when we tested with kids in our age range, 4-7, we couldn’t find the right balance between engaging challenge and frustrating failure.

So what did we do?  Call the game doctor, that’s what! Mark Schlichting wrote the book, Understanding Kids, Play, and Interactive Design, which is the best book written on the subject, in my opinion. Mark agreed to consult on Kody’s overall game design, but it was his advice on the minigames specifically that turned out to be critical. He showed us how to break down the levels of difficulty into bite-size pieces, with careful scaffolding between levels. The children quickly learned how to play each minigame because of the onboarding and contextual help. As a result, there are no separate tutorials or endless voice-overs, despite the different types of gameplay introduced.

Lesson #3. Getting featured.

One would hope that creating a great game would be enough to get featured in Google Play and iTunes, but as any game developer can tell you, it is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient. We dutifully submitted our game to both stores, and went through the seemingly endless process of making the changes requested of us…this after we thought we were done! All of Google’s suggestions were reasonable and made the game work better on Android phones, e.g., insert the camera access request so it comes up only when needed, not at the beginning of the app. Check. The Android back button must have the same functionality as the back button in the game. Check. And lots of suggestions about how the pause button should function.

We believe that the feature opportunity with Apple, on the other hand, is tied to the iPhone 8 launch and ARKit. Given our previous experience with ARKit and Tango (3 apps and counting), we were able to quickly turn Mei’s mini-game into an ARKit experience. What fun, capturing 3D lanterns in your living room!

So will Kody Kapow Village Defender get featured by Apple or Google? The jury is still out, but it’s looking good!

Kody Kapow Village Defender is now live on Google Play and iTunes, for FREE. Try it out, with your favorite kid. Kody was a labor of love for us; we sure hope you enjoy it!

Kody Kapow – Game Design Challenges and Inspirations

We love design challenges, but this was ridiculous. A children’s TV producer came to us about nine months ago and said, “I need a game that’s about teamwork and mindfulness, preferably both single player and multiplayer, for ages 4-7.” Sounds pretty daunting, doesn’t it? I couldn’t think of another cooperative digital game for kids that I really liked…plus the age range and COPPA laws further constrain the possibilities. Luckily, my colleagues at Legacy Games and I loved the TV show themes and characters and, together with our development partners at HitPoint Studios, embarked on a grand design challenge to create the game, Kody Kapow Village Defender.

Kody Kapow is a new original animated series for kids on Sprout, the daily programming block for pre-schoolers on Universal Kids. It features three adorable main characters – Kody, Mei, and Goji – as well as a dastardly villain, Mogo Monkey No-Go. Master Li, Kody’s grandfather, is on hand to teach the kids about how to use their superhero powers to help the villagers. There was a lot of great material to work with, including gorgeous 3D assets, witty voice overs, and engaging writing and storytelling, but what kind of gameplay would support the show’s heartwarming values?

DECISION #1. We first tried to tackle the design goal of creating a game that plays as well for one child as for three. In order to avoid complicating the game set up, and potentially raising COPPA compliance issues, we choose to focus on a pass and play, turn-taking style of multiplayer experience that would play the same regardless of the number of kids.  Check.

DECISION #2. Next, we wanted to tackle the problem of how to encourage kids to play together cooperatively, especially problematic if they are at different experience and maturity levels. We had to come up with a gameplay mechanic in which each’s child’s contributions could potentially help all the players win, or alternatively, all the players lose. Regardless, the players were in it together.

It turns out that physical board games provide some of the best examples of cooperative gameplay. (Cooperative games like Pandemic, Elder Sign: Omens, and Dead of Winter are popular and well-known to adult board gamers.) To our delight, we discovered Peaceable Kingdom’s popular cooperative board games, like Hoot Owl Hoot, for young children. Its basic premise is that game players must move all the baby owls along a colored coded track back to the nest BEFORE the sun rises (on a separate track). Game players work together to try and optimize their moves.

We borrowed the idea of two separate, color-coded game tracks, one for the protagonists in the story (Kody and friends) and one for the antagonist (Mogo Monkey No-Go). The game player has to figure out the optimum moves for each of the heroes to make, in order to get everyone to the Village before Mogo arrives. That involves problem-solving and strategic thinking, another one of our mandates from Universal Kids.

DECISION #3. We had a solid game concept, but now wanted to add some action elements and a light “retention loop” to keep the player engaged and coming back. Andrew Duncan, our Creative Director, designed fun mini games for each of the three main characters, uniquely suited to their personalities – one endless runner, one arcade action, and one Augmented Reality discovery game. The games become available when you choose to move a character to a specially marked tile. The more mini games the child plays successfully, the more lanterns they will collect. At the conclusion of the game, if the players beat Mogo to the Village, total lanterns are counted and high scores recorded.

Add to the mix a secret passage way and some funny antics from Mogo and his henchmen, and our design work was finished.

Or was it? Next up, how did the actual development proceed?  Stay tuned…

Kody Kapow Village Defender is available on Android and soon to be on iOS.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Have you ever played Phone Stack at dinner? Everyone places their smartphones in a pile in the middle of the table. The goal is to see who can last longer without reaching for their device. It is ridiculously hard, even though the loser usually ends up paying for the entire meal!

What if the mere visual presence of your phone reduces your cognitive abilities? In a recent study, “Brain Drain,” researchers have found evidence that phone addiction reduces our ability to perform mental tasks such as solving math problems and remembering letter sequences. What is surprising is that this finding occurs whether or not the phone is placed with the screen down, turned off and/or silenced. In other words, our thinking is negatively impacted by our device, whether or not we are directly interacting with it.

I believe it. We have limited cognitive capacity, and when we see our phone, scarce attentional resources are diverted from the task at hand. We are reminded about all the things we can do with our phone, messages waiting for us, our Facebook feed, and more. The only time the subjects in the study could effectively focus was when their phone was out of the room and out of sight.

I have one caveat. It’s worth noting that in this study, the effect sizes are small, barely significant. When you look more closely at the data, it seems to be driven largely by a small subset of people who are VERY ATTACHED to their phones.  Because of the important implications of this study, I hope others attempt to replicate the results and also compare to other forms of distraction, e.g., TV.

What are some implications of our constantly distracted state? Researchers have shown that when we are in this distracted state of mind, the increased cognitive load causes us to rely less on analytic and deliberative thinking, and more on intuitive, “emotional” approaches to decision-making. Advertisers and others who want us to buy something (whether products or ideology) already understand this and exploit it for their purposes.

So do yourself a favor this summer, go smell the roses, and ditch your phone for a while.

We all understand the joys of our always-wired world – the connections, the validations, the laughs…the info…But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs.
-Andrew Sullivan (2016)