I haven’t had much chance to make games lately. Lots of leading design jams and student work, but not a project where we make a game and play it. A game we spend some time and energy on, where we try to realize a singular vision. Not in a while. But this last year, in my spare time on weekends and such, I found myself lucky enough to work on a new game. A couple weeks ago, we finished a 1.0 and ran it up the flagpole. It was exhilarating. It felt great to see it come to fruition and put it through its paces. I’d like to tell you a little about this project and where we might start to look for learning and games to come together in ways that can lead far.
My design partner’s name is Alex, he’s 5, and he’s my oldest son. Our game is called Another Awesomenauts.
This is a cute story, but I think it’s also something more. I hope that hearing it inspires some of you out there to take a few moments to try something like this yourself, with someone close to you, just for funsies. Too often, it is easy to get wrapped up in big picture concepts of how to change education, and overlook immediate opportunities for trying something new and a bit out there. We forget that the most important opportunities to learn involve something that we take home with us in one way or another. Place-based game, game design, and the rest aren’t just for research projects and course curricula. One of the litmus tests for educational interventions generally is if they serve goals other than what is already in the curriculum, if they point towards a general improvement of life. Papert spoke of his early experiences putting together a newspaper as extremely influential, and as a teacher and parent, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to hand other learners something that they can invest themselves into and develop ownership of.
One of the things I like most about how we’ve managed ARIS is to leave the door open in how and why someone might want to use it. And it feels good to actually make it happen by making a game for fun with my kids in our “backyard”. Rather than seeing ARIS game creation as something whose use is confined to satisfying the demands of a particular curriculum or to enact standard learning outcomes for a classroom of children, I have found this work to enrich my life and learning in many expected ways. Most recently, I found that it was a really fun and valuable experience to make a game with my kids and you might too.
Here, besides selling the message that you too should get out there and make something that scratches an itch, hopefully with someone else who shares your vision, I wanted to share our game and the process through which it was made. Hopefully there are some ideas that one of you out there who’s looking to make games with youth could use or mutate.
Before getting to the game, one last thought on where and how this setting for making and playing games can be beneficial. I remember in 2011 bringing a new grad student on our Mentira project. She was not especially comfortable with new technologies and found ARIS in particular difficult to wrap her head around at first. But this did not last. And her first step into feeling agency with these new tools was carrying out a task she assigned herself: use ARIS to make a scavenger hunt for her 10 year old’s birthday party. This simple, purposeful quest both familiarized her with the technical setting and also some of the open questions about what kinds of experiences this technology would be good for. She saw it from the perspective of discovering what problems it might solve and in what situations it might fit. Making a game for her son and his friends, and seeing them play it was far better training than we could have hoped to set up in the classroom.
Making a Game Together for Fun
When Alex and I began Another Awesomenauts, the idea was not to prepare for coding, or anything along those lines, but to share an interest that might become common. I enjoy making games, we both enjoy playing them, and ARIS is a tool that makes it so people like us, without any special background, can make games that not only scratch a bit of the itch we have from other video games but that also involve exploring our outdoor world together. ARIS too represents a part of who I am and what I’ve committed myself to do in life. It felt like a great idea to share all of that with him in a way that blended into his interests and how we choose to spend time together anyway. In this case, both of my boys happen to think a fun weekend adventure is to get on scooters and ride over to campus to visit my office. Making this game gave our occasional journeys a new flavor.
We started work in January, finding time occasionally to work on the game despite our busy schedules, mostly on weekends spent at the office instead of home.
Those hours paid off a couple weeks ago. We finished a first version of the game, not everything we wanted but a solid story: beginning, middle, and end. We playtested our game with a couple other stakeholders (younger brother and their grandmother), and it went well. There were a couple tiny bugs but they didn’t really get in the way. It was a great feeling to be out running in the sun, seeing it all come together.
I wanted to tell you about this project, not because I want to advertise the game—although if you like Lego superheroes, Plants vs. Zombies, power suits, and a sprinkling of Pokemon, maybe you’ll like this game anyway. I hope to put together a place agnostic version using factories shortly, and will notify when it’s available. If anyone wants a copy of the game to play with, just send me a message.
How to Make Your Own Awesomenauts
Especially given my boys’ interest in Pokemon Go this summer, and in general how much we like to explore our neighborhood, an AR engine like ARIS was a good match to our setting. We enjoyed the idea of making something that would coordinate with and extend our usual local explorations in a couple ways:
- Location scouting. When out and about on scooters, the strange places and things in our environment became fodder for design. Below is a cable tv/internet hookup that Alex stumbled across and decided to put into the game. I took a photo and put it into our folder for the game. There are lots of little mysteries around us, and making a game like this gives us a reason to notice and reimagine them.
2. Where to next? We used the game as a new way to imagine where we wanted to explore When placing locations in ARIS, we were imagining our next trip together. Making the connection between locations on an abstracted map and places we visit in person was a pretty cool thing to do as well.
As a game engine, ARIS is a good choice for novice/casual creation like this (beyond just the obvious connection to Pokemon Go). In particular, it strikes a nice balance regarding complexity. Most game creation software is either way too simple (you can’t make anything that feels real or yours) or way too complex (you need to pursue a CS degree before yielding a finished game). Instead of having to animate a bunch of sprites on a screen and painstakingly create environments, all of the movement in ARIS comes from the AR—the player navigating the real world. The excitement comes from the storytelling. Media is simple, but not too simple. A few cartoony pics, easily sourced through Google, are enough to make what shows up on the screen feel like they’re worth looking at. This especially makes it feel immediate and personal compared to tools that have generic collections of shapes or leave you on your own to create sprites or models from scratch. In total, I found that there wasn’t so much overhead that we got bogged down in it. It did take us the better part of a year from start to finish, but that’s not the fault of ARIS. It’s just hard to find time.
Obviously, my experience with ARIS and leading game design gives me a leg up on where many would be starting. But if this sounds like a fun thing to do, that shouldn’t get in the way of trying. As much as I’d like to think I’m Father of the Year (TM), this should be doable by a lot of people in many different circumstances. But at the same time, I know there are some hurdles for newcomers, and hope to provide a little help in getting started.
Introduction to ARIS and Advice for Newcomers
First among the things that I have that others might not is my previous experience with the ARIS engine. I’ve been using ARIS for many years. Even if I haven’t gotten to make a new game in a while :(, the idea of how ARIS works to produce an experience is no mystery to me. There’s a lot of conceptual work and practical training in that experience. So what to do if that’s not you? What if ARIS is a new and strange thing for you or you’ve never made a game before? Well pretty much all the advice I give to people pursuing things like ARIS for other (maybe more serious) reasons applies:
- It doesn’t have to be ARIS specifically. Maybe there’s another tool you are closer to or another form of creativity it would make more sense to share with your kid. The rest of the steps below are written in terms of ARIS, but they would apply tons of other places.
- Take a bit of time to prepare by learning some of the basics on your own, to where you can make something simple with ARIS, like a tour. This will save you some frustration in front of your little one.
- Try a basic tutorial, like this one.
- There are others here and some videos here.
- The manual is your friend.
- So are all the other users of ARIS. Ask any question on our forums.
- What you aim to make together doesn’t have to be intricate, and certainly should be simpler than you think. ARIS has a lot of features and some games you may have played are complex. Don’t overreach. A simple tour can already feel like a game.
Simple Steps to Getting Started with a Game Design
Here’s a way to keep within boundaries of what you know and what is feasible in a small amount of time and effort:
- Think of something really cool.
- Now take the smallest possible piece that would still be interesting and think about how to bend ARIS to that possibility.
- Brainstorm a bit and then try to pull just one idea together.
In the name of keeping it simple, it might help to remember:
- Especially if this is a co-design with someone else like a 5 year-old, you can let them come up with all the crazy cool ideas and it’s your job to put it on rails and scope it (just try to do some small part of their grand plan).
- This is a fun activity on its own, even if you never make the game, or even if your eventual platform is a LARP. As No Man’s Sky has reminded us, it happens quite often that coming up with an idea for the coolest game ever can be better than playing the resulting title.
- When working with very young people, you do not need to formalize the brainstorming phase. They haven’t yet forgotten that key skill yet and it comes naturally. All you need to do is frame things with a leading question or two.
- Create some design documents from these initial conversations. Since Alex and I were working in my office and already had a pattern of using whiteboards to draw, we just kept the habit.
Below, you can see the result of our first conversation about what should be in Another Awesomenauts.
In this image, you can see what it means to spec out an idea into a game that fits with the scope of the situation in which its made and the engine being used to make it. Maybe seeing our correspondence between game and design document could help you see how ARIS could work for you, or also about this aspect of learning game design generally. Laying out these specifics isn’t about giving you everything you need to copy this game (Go ahead though! Like everything I do, consider this a creative commons licensed work), but to illustrate where you as the director might want to use what you know about making things do-able to rein in your creative lead.
Another Awesomenauts – the Story
It might be a little hard to read in the whiteboard image above, but the game has three phases (or at least did at this stage).
- Work to build a powerful suit, now known as the Fire Anchor.
- Power up this suit by sucking up plants.
- Get to the real fun, discovering and becoming bad guys—mostly lego versions of comic book characters (one of the games we’ve played the most this last year is Lego Marvel; my 3 year old Will, in addition to Alex, knows the names and looks of more Marvel characters than you would believe—don’t let anyone tell you videogames are not an effective means for memorizing essentially random information). The bad guys are to be found in treasure chests made from gemstones.
If you’ve played WoW or any Zelda game, you can see the formal game structure here. A long term goal whose accomplishment is approached through several short term goal, each of which have a couple different sub-quests. Note that the overall story as a whole is not long and winding, and yet you can see that to get to the end, there’s a lot to do. When making your own, if you follow this model, note this. It is really easy to draft a story whose execution takes far too long (for both authors to make and players to play) when you are used to thinking in linear terms.
There is a tight logic linking each of the sub-quests and the short and long term quests. You need to build a machine to detect the treasure. That machine has parts and requires power. This is key to motivating gameplay. You have to want the far goal enough, and understand the rationale for and mechanics of the preliminary parts enough, to both know where you’re headed and to bother with the routine and repetitive act of gameplay, here it’s walking.
This story doesn’t really follow a classic Aristotelian structure. It’s not entirely off, but it’s very video gamey. Instead of rising and falling action, it is a story of getting bigger and better and stronger, doing and getting more. Above, you may have thought to yourself, “So what happens after you get all the bad guys?” Nothing. You just get more or we make more things for you to get. This game only needs to satisfy two critics, Alex and Will.
Have you ever played with a 5 year old? Endings do not exist. You just do more and more and more until you’re doing something else.
One of the things I liked most about making this one ARIS game in particular is that I felt free to have it not make sense. No ending. Lego characters mixed with Pokemon and Plants vs. Zombies. The goal of getting to be a bad guy even though there isn’t something special you can to once you are that bad guy. Even the “bad guys” are not all bad guys. Sure we have Big Venom, but Heartbreaker Ironman too. We even mix Marvel and DC. As director, I could apply just enough pressure to contain the ideas and make them possible and rememberable.
Enumerating all the bad guys, and the kinds of gems their treasure chests would be made from was a lot of fun. We had a reason to play on Google, looking for just the right picture, and to mess around with an image editor to color our treasure chest pictures. Part of the fun, and what you might take away for yourself or working with other young people is that we didn’t really need to think about the big picture of the game at this time.
In general, the fact that you can compartmentalize different parts of the game, combined with this as a leisure activity, means you do not need to doggedly pursue your original goal. No matter what direction we turn in, there is something else to learn and try. If you end up in an image editor for hours changing the shade of a “treasure chest” and learning how the selection tools work, that can be fun, and so can coming up with another idea for a totally different game, this one about T-Rex’s in space. It helps if you as the director have an idea about how to quickly get to something that is somehow playable, but you don’t always need to be driving in that direction.
One of the waypoints in our process, we made use of QR codes. Even though we didn’t plan them for the game, I had a set of printed QR codes (made by the Minnesota Historical Society for a workshop we ran together and printed on thick, colored paper—but you can easily print the ones I specced out for an earlier blog post here) laying around anyway, and one day, down in the basement, it was clear that the idea for our game seemed a bit abstract (this was pre-Pokemon Go) to Alex and Will. We were far from having something really playable, so I rigged up a trigger to a plaque that had one of our Googled images attached. To “play” we fired up our game in ARIS and simply scanned the QR code on the other side of the room. Pure magic.
Pro Tip: Kids love being introduced to the verb “scan”. Once they get the idea of seeing and scanning QR codes as something that has an effect on the screen, they become taken with it. They don’t need a reason or purpose to continue, and will scour their world looking for things to scan. For us it is a contrivance, maybe annoyance, and a bit abstract. To them, it is a videogame in real life. I saw this with Alex that day, but even more so in the Minnesota Historical Society game/exhibit Play the Past. When I got to see an early playtest, kids were a blur running around to scan everything they could find.
Alex and I often discuss new ideas to put into our game. He understands that this is something real that he put together with a little help, and considers many additions and spin offs. In fact, we are well on our way to an expansion of the game. In the next chapter, you will use your powers to gain (yes) more powers, ice, fireball. lightning, and scratching with claws. These powers can be used on roaming zombies. This time, we’re starting from the get go using factories so others might easily play.
I don’t want to give away everything but here’s some of the concept art:
If you’re thinking about games for learning, research, etc. but haven’t gotten your feet wet, or if you’ve only been using them to accomplish “serious” ends, find a kid and make a game with them. I think you’ll find that you learn more than you’d imagine. If you’ve been making games with kids, yours or someone else’s, and have good stories or tips to share, I’d love to hear from you.