Summer in Smallywood is an online educational game built with UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System.
The project was funded by the Government of Canada’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, and was produced by the Center for Skills Development and Training in Burlington Ontario. It aims to teach three workplace skills to 15-30 year olds. Here’s how the project came about:
Ontario employers have apparently had as much trouble hiring young people as i’ve had teaching them. They’ve identified nine “Essential Skills” they want the Ministry to help instill in young people, so that those young people can thrive in the workplace. What are these “Essential Skills”, you ask? Poetry recitation? Wire-walking? Differential calculus?
‘Fraid not. It’s stuff like “thinking.” Really. This is where we’re at. We need to teach thinking.
Historically, these Essential Skills have been taught via somewhat dry worksheets and booklets – the kind you’d see in a typical guidance councilor’s office (next to the 1986 Ziggy desk calendar and the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels). Summer in Smallywood presents the information in a far more interesting format: as a video game.
What Went Very, Very Right
Teaching three of the nine Essential Skills in video game form was the brainchild of the Center, and our client Matt Markowiak in particular. The Smallywood project was the perfect example of everything that can possibly go right on this type of project:
- Video games are very much a generational thing – you either grew up with them in your life, or you didn’t. Matt was asked to take the reigns on this project because he understands games. It was an excellent decision.
- The Center involved a game developer (us!) very early in the development process. Often, we’re approached to pull the trigger on a project long after the stakeholders, who may not have a strong grasp of video games (“i used play Pac Man”), have decided on every minute aspect of the project … without benefit of a game developer’s involvement. Hiring a game developer to consult at the beginning of a project is a very smart move! It keeps your vendor invested and interested in the project, and often results in a better final product.
- The Center wasn’t completely hyper about hammering home the message. There’s a real fine line to walk when you use a game as a teaching tool. If there’s too much preachy instruction, it becomes a complete bore and you might as well have put the info in a 3-ring binder to begin with. If it’s too gamey and not learny enough, the stakeholders might kick up a fuss. Summer in Smallywood strikes a really nice balance between its “edu” and its “tainment.”
i do feel the game is too dialogue-heavy, but it’s difficult to convey this information in this genre without having a lot of lip-flap. It would be amazing if Summer in Smallywood could have received a full voice-over treatment, if time and budget had permitted.
I Don’t Have Time To Play It – Give Me the Gist!
Summer in Smallywood pits you as a shift supervisor at a low-rent amusement park called Smallywood, where the rides and attractions are upsettingly tiny. One exhibit features miniaturized versions of Canada’s largest roadside attractions (Sudbury’s Big Nickel is an actual nickel).
Thrill to the spectacle of the World’s Smallest Roller Coaster!
The boss, an eccentric entrepreneur named Mr. Wood, challenges his employees to learn three essential skills: Oral Communication, Thinking Skills, and Working with Others. Master these, and you may be up for a raise and a promotion at the end of the summer.
Matt’s obviously played a lot of Pokémon. in the Oral Communication module, you face off against customers against an anime action background. Instead of choosing combat moves from a list, you choose helpful customer service responses.
Player uses “nod in agreement”. It’s super effective!
There are other classic video game references to spot. The dialogue window is pure Final Fantasy. Mario’s 1-up mushroom makes an appearance. Matt even had class NES-style video game boxes and instruction booklets printed to play up the initiative’s unique format:
In hindsight, i should have rigged up a Konami code easter egg.
Matt’s love of retro gaming came out in the video he produced to promote Smallywood to schools. Check out this trailer, dripping with “Zelda rap”-esque cheese:
Summer in Smallywood made possible a handful of important new features for UGAGS version 3:
1. Branching conversations/dialogue trees
2. Multiple game profiles
3. Auto-save functionality
4. Navigation meshes (instead of waypoints) for character movement
5. An admin panel for tweaking game variables
FUN FACT: Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was made using UGAGS v3, adding character voice-over, which brings the framework to v3.5.
Maybe it’s a weird quirk in my brainthoughts, but i really enjoy the challenge of presenting bone-dry material in an interesting and engaging way. Summer in Smallywood was Untold Entertainment’s first foray into educational gaming. i’m definitely interested in working on more games like this one, with great clients like Matt.
For up-to-the-minute news on edutainment and educational games, follow @smallywoodgame on Twitter.
For The Center for Skills Development and Training:
- Project Coordinator, Game Design, Script:Matt Markowiak
- Script Editors:Christine Prieur, Lorna Hart and Maria McDonald
- Graphic Designer:Rita Ladjansky
- Project Assistant: Dawn Walker
For Untold Entertainment Inc.
- Art, Animation, Additional Game Design and Programming:Ryan Henson Creighton
- Character and Title Art:Kelly Conley
- Additional UGAGS Programming:Jeff Gold
- Script Editor: Chris Clemens