Hello my fine feathered ARKiver’s. My name is George Rowe and I am a Producer at Thought Den, a digital design agency based in Bristol, UK. We’ve been lucky enough to work with ARKive on a couple of exciting projects, including ‘Survival’ their endangered species gaming app, and I wanted to tell you a little about our most recent: Team WILD.
Why did ARKive choose us? We’re a specialist digital studio and our working philosophy is that of ‘playful learning’. People engage more deeply, learn better, and are generally more involved with content if they can experience it through play.
Games are rewarding because we are evolutionarily hardwired to enjoy learning patterns. And games that reflect real challenges have even more appeal. If the content of these challenges is also educational then so much the better!
Team WILD began life as an idea called ‘The Wildlife Apprentice’, an online game that would get kids to engage with scientific careers.
In the early meetings it was clear there were two different routes we could take with this game. We could either try and TEACH in the game, actively having people complete puzzles based on curricula learning outcomes (a la Manga High), or we could REINFORCE classroom learning with a game that would let kids explore the concepts in a playful way. Naturally, our preference was for the latter.
Science IS cool, but our challenge here was to find a way of showing the amazing things scientists do in an engaging and plausible wrapper. ‘The Wildlife Apprentice’ was a nice simple hook to hang it on, but it was quickly shelved due to potential copyright issues. What other hooks could we use to frame our game? Some ideas from our original proposal:
- Science Armageddon: all the scientists have vanished. You must now do all the science!
- Alien Scientist: you have infiltrated ARKive’s science department. You must now do science well enough so you are not discovered!
- Science Superheroes: A team of science superheroes need your help to do science! You must travel the world doing science!
The question we ended up asking ourselves was: who wouldn’t want to be a science superhero?
The team at ARKive spoke with some tame scientists to learn more about the tasks they performed. Once we had our mega list of science, we sat down with the Key Stage 3 UK National Curriculum and our own list of game types and mechanics and explored different ways to turn these activities into individual mini-games.
Scientists survey predator and prey on the savannah to work out the dynamics between them. What if you were running along the savannah, pressing keys to count predator and prey? An idea was born. And scientists collect uninfected frogs in the jungles of Montserrat to breed them? This thing is designing itself!
Reward is also a key mechanic in games; it gives an extra little nudge for players to try again, to try and do BETTER. Along with the classic highscore table, by scoring enough points in Team WILD you can also join the team and unlock super cool treats.
From the outset we thought a comic/graphic novelesque style had the balance of fun with a slightly more adult edge. Once the concepts were finalised we brought in specialist games illustrator Nat Al-Tahhan to create our science superhero characters. Wanting to get away from the whole ‘scientists wear white coats’ stigma, we decided to give our heroes lab CAPES instead.
Parallax scrolling, where different layers move at different speeds to give an illusion of depth, was used for this exact purpose. Our wonder-intern Ellen created the beautiful layers for these (as well as the Team WILD logo), under the tutelage of Creative Director Ben T and Senior Designer Ben W. Ben W then tied everything together with a lovely user interface and some spit and polish.
An important part of any game project these days is deciding what platform you are going to produce for. We decided to go with a faithful Flash game for a number of reasons: it’s a proven platform, nearly every school computer can run it, and it delivers the most bang for buck.
Our Senior Developer Corin nailed the game mechanics, parallax scrolling backgrounds and interface screens, while developer Ben M (we have a lot of Ben’s) whipped up the backend for the highscore tables.
We took a beta version of Team WILD into a couple of local schools in Bristol for some essential user testing. The kids liked the games, and though some understood the science content it wasn’t quite clear enough, so we took the decision to add in some more feedback information after each play.
So, after another couple of weeks of refinement, play testing and level design we had a game!
Team WILD has had around 80,000 plays so far and an average play time of six and a half minutes, which is really great for an online science-based game.
We really admire the work that ARKive do, and the chance to work with them again was really fantastic. Hopefully Team WILD will help inspire some conservationists of the future.
George Rowe, Thought Den Producer & Studio Manager