Building AAA Learning Games with Amplify's Game Master

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Justin Leites, Amplify's VP of Games (left) and Brady Fukumoto (artist's rendition) / br80

What do you get when you give an educational game an AAA budget? You might end up with something resembling Lexica, the flagship title in Amplify’s suite of learning games. Curious about what goes on behind the scenes of pitching a vision to News Corp., wrangling games from half a dozen independent studios, and shifting requirements in the midst of development? I asked Justin Leites, VP of Games at Amplify, some burning questions.

EdSurge: You worked on board games as a teen and have a long history of working in the political sector. How did you get into educational games?

Leites: Working with world-class game designers, starting when I was in middle school myself, was a thrilling formative experience. Most of games I worked on then were simulations of historical battles and I quickly learned a lot of American and world history as well as a lot about the craft of making games. But the company I worked for then moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin (from my hometown of New York) and I never thought I'd get another chance to work with genius game designers—until I convinced my colleagues at Amplify that we should be collaborating with such folk.

Just before coming to Wireless Generation/Amplify, I worked for nine years (in a non-political job) at the United Nations Development Program, where much of my work focused on how the organization and its country offices around the world could work more effectively, including by making better use of technology. While at the UN, I helped write an influential Human Development Report about how new technologies could create opportunities for developing countries and poor people; that project gave me a chance to learn from the work of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and others about the importance of empowering communities of people, including school communities, to develop their own capabilities.

There's a fantastic section in Greg Toppo’s new book, The Game Believes in You, about how I took what I learned at the UN and applied it to educational games. One common denominator is Self-Determination Theory, a set of findings about motivation that have been shown to apply both for students as well as for people in the workplace. At Amplify, I brought the leading experts on Self-Determination Theory and education (Ed Deci) and games (Scott Rigby) to work directly with great game designers and great curriculum designers and pedagogy experts. I think it's been a very effective collaboration.

You were with Wireless Generation before its acquisition by News Corp. Can you describe the vision that News Corp. had for Amplify?

As I understood it, the initial insight (which I still believe is an important one) is that the traditional textbook is not an especially good tool for teaching or learning. Turning textbooks into PDFs with a few video links wasn't going to make anything much better. So they gave us the mission of using technology to develop a better set of tools for teachers and students.

What was your early vision for Amplify Games?

This was the (short version) of the original vision:

Games are an activity to which students already devote countless hours, voluntarily, often with an intense level of engagement and focus. Also, with games, “growth mindsets”—a set of beliefs and attitudes that predict positive academic performance—are the norm. Game players tend to understand that there is a relationship between effort and success. Rather than fear failure, they see how it can actually be a fun part of the process of getting better at something.

Great games engage participants in extended play, time for which is not typically available in the classroom. They are experiences that you can’t rush through. However, most existing “education games”—especially the ones for middle and high school students—are simply not great. We believe there is an urgent need for educational games that middle school and high school children will freely choose to play, individually and collectively, for a massive number of hours, on weekends, winter break, summer vacation, and whatever other blocks of free time they have.

What should we expect from the next generation of educational games?

  • High production values. Education games should be as well-made and as engaging as great commercial games.
  • Don’t “be an exam.” If a game has been designed primarily to be an unobtrusive assessment,” kids will typically dismiss the activity as yet another form of testing.
  • Be social. Kids want to play their games with friends. Collaboration is an important part of the learning process. But the games currently used by schools tend to provide mostly solitary activities. They provide few opportunities for peer-to-peer learning or to allow teachers to participate as players. In particular, they don’t take advantage of what for 40 years has been the most engaging game mechanic for ages 10-14: the “explore, build and share” process at the heart of games from Dungeons & Dragons to Little Big Planet to Minecraft.
  • Make failure fun. If you do the “wrong thing” in an educational game, it should do more than tell you that you were wrong, or how you were wrong, or ask you to try again. Screwing up should have memorable and engaging consequences. Great games are the ones that are fun to play, not just fun to win.

Also key to the vision was a set of ideas for making educational games in a different way:

Related to the above deficiencies in game quality, and perhaps most daunting, is the ‘authenticity’ problem. A great commercial game, like a great work of art and great design more generally, is typically the result of a single person’s highly idiosyncratic (weird) and highly coherent vision and sensibility (e.g. Dungeon & Dragons’ Gary Gygax, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, Minecraft’s Notch). For adolescents especially, their experience of games and other media tends to be linked very closely with their experience of the creators of those experiences (and so game designers such as Notch are increasingly treated as rock stars). Educational games, by contrast, tend to emerge from institutional production processes similar to the ones involved in the production of a secondary school textbook (weird is not the path to government grants or funding from foundations) and as a result tend to lack both coherence and personality.

Also—put in terms of software development methodologies—educational games tend to be developed in an exceptionally rigid version of “waterfall”, as compared to (most successful) commercial games which use methodologies closer to “agile.” For instance, educational games tend to be built according to the initial specifications of the original grant proposal or other funding document; whereas commercial games often undergo fundamental changes during an iterative development process.

So, drawing on a production model more common in the art world, we will work with “indie” commercial game studios around the world, asking them to propose the games they want to make, and then working with to iterate on those proposals. One of the American designers who participated in this process, and was accustomed to more rigid expectations from funders, was initially perplexed by the extent to which we were letting the game designers lead the creative process. But within a few weeks he enthusiastically embraced what he came to call “the Montessori method of game design”.

As in the ideation phase, we will take an Agile approach to the prototyping and subsequent stages of game development that require building software. The goal is rapid iteration. Typically, we arrive at a playable version of a game, with a build that includes the key game mechanics, within four to six months. Within that period, most sprint is punctuated by feedback from play-testing.

How has that vision evolved?

We're devoting more resources than I had originally anticipated to the online community spaces in which students share with each other their reactions to the games. Students [like adult game reviewers] like to make their own lists of which games in the Amplify portfolio they like and which they don’t. One interesting aspect of this is that the lists are really different from each other—just as in commercial games, not everyone likes the same ones. But what does seem (nearly) universal is the desire to share those experiences—the social “rate and review” process turns out to be an important part of how these students engage with our games, and we want to encourage that. One part of this is that—just as we did from thousands of playtesters—we learn from these kids how to make our games better, and they’re often excited to be part of that ongoing game development process as well.

What was the reason for pivoting platforms mid-development from Android tablets to iPads?

When we started this project in 2011, there wasn't any way to do the kinds of games we wanted to do on iOS. While we always knew we wanted social game play, we also wanted meaningful offline gameplay because we knew that many students don't have connectivity at home or the school bus or other places they might want to play our games. We wanted a suite of apps that would enable offline as well as online interactivity (for instance, for a player to go back and forth between Lexica and our e-reader even when offline). When we started, all of that was more feasible on Android. But once Apple started to support such functionality, we switched platforms, because schools have been buying a lot more iPads than Android tablets, and students have more iPads as home as well.

We built everything in Unity, which has a great cross-platform toolkit, so it wasn't so painful to switch, and if schools eventually want Android (or Windows) games, we could provide them.

I have heard differing accounts of why Lexica pivoted from being an always-online MMO (massive multiplayer online) game to an offline, single-player adventure: Some have cited technical limitations, some privacy issues (COPPA and FERPA), while others assert that it was a conscious design/UX decision. Can you confirm which of these is most accurate, or if it some combination?

Your characterization of Lexica is factually incorrect, both in terms of its history and current features. From the earliest concept documents, we knew we needed a mix of online and offline game play—online because social is crucial, offline because many public school kids don't always have access to online. Lexica does have robust offline, single-player elements, but we are especially excited about the multiplayer and social aspects, especially those that will be improved in the version we're shipping in the fall. Scriptus is, for many middle school players, the most important part of the game. And, for the fall, we're also excited about the multi-player versions of embedded games such as MasterSwords. (And while Lexica has never been an MMO, we did have the designer of the first MMO, Richard Bartle, advise us on the design.)

It is true, though, that in many cases we did the single-player version of a given feature or embedded game first, and then have proceeded to build out the multiplayer and social features. That seemed to us (and our designers) the most sensible development process. But even when doing the single-player stuff we kept in mind the architecture for adding the rest.

A major criticism of the iPad is that its lack of a keyboard makes it unsuitable for word processing tasks. It seems counter-intuitive to launch a full suite of English language arts (ELA) games on a device where students can’t easily type out assignments. Given this argument, do you believe that tablets are the optimal device for ELA content?

I think keyboards are especially useful for ELA and a stylus is especially useful for math. Device manufacturers know this and we're already starting to see tablets that have such equipment (e.g. “two-in-ones”). I think they will be standard sooner than we think.

All of that said, I think iPads are awesome and students, including my own kids, are doing all sorts of extraordinary things on them, from reading novels to writing their own stories to making their own levels of our games and sharing them.

You have described the Amplify/developer relationship as Montessorian. A key component of this instructional approach is supervision and guidance from an expert in both subject matter and Montessorian/Constructivist methodology. Considering that many, if not all, of the developers had no experience developing games for schools, the role of the expert is even more crucial. Who filled this role and what were their qualifications? Put another way, who was there to guide developers in the many unique challenges of designing games for classrooms?

We had game developers working directly with leading domain experts in the United States and (for our London developers) the UK. For ELA, one adviser was Deborah Reck, the chief English language arts officer for Amplify Learning, who also co-founded The Writers’ Express (WEX) as a nonprofit to develop literacy instruction tools for teachers. Deb previously taught in the Baltimore City Public Schools and in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She worked closely with the editors of the Common Core State Standards to write reading and language standards for grades K–12. For science, our designers have often relied on experts from the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC-Berkeley.For math, we often relied on a team led by Jere Confrey from the NC State School of Education.

As for educational game design methodology, we arranged for our designers to work face-to-face with Richard Bartle and Scott Rigby. We had them read and discuss the implications of Carol Dweck's work on the cognitive development of adolescents.

Also please note that Amplify games were not designed primary "for classrooms"! As indicated above, they are primarily intended as a way to help students and schools extend learning beyond the classroom.

Precisely because we were in uncharted waters as far as our intended use case, we relied very heavily on what might call “the other side of Montessori”—experimentation, trial and error and creativity. For the past four years we’ve been relentless in putting our stuff, at every stage of development—from concepts to fully-produced builds—in front of a wide cross-section of kids. We learned a lot from Barbara Chamberlin and the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University about how to get the most from that playtesting (she's the leading expert about that). And we’ve piloted the games in schools across the country, including in places where one might think they wouldn’t fare very well (but they usually did).

How many students are playing Lexica this year?

We will have more than 20,000 games licenses in schools by September.

Are there plans to release any of the school-only games to the general public on the App store?

We already released one game, Twelve a Dozen, last year. We were pleased at the uniformly great reviews it got, from players, parents, educators, and journalists. We’ll probably release at least a few more this year, but haven’t made specific plans yet.

If you could travel back to 2011 knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

When we started, I was sometime shy and slower than I should have been in approaching my favorite game designers and writers. I eventually got over it, and eventually recruited great talents including game designers such as Jesse Schell, Zach Barth and Adam Saltsman and writers such as Walter Mosley (who turned out to have his writing studio not far from us and has been working with us to incorporate some of his characters into the upcoming version of Lexica). Had I known how receptive they would be, I would have approached them sooner.

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