The game design document, graphics of Lotta’s house and face, and her voiceover, were provided by TVO. Untold Entertainment produced the remaining assets and created the game based on TVO’s specifications.
If you’re curious about the conventions of preschool game development, A Lotta Dessert showcases a few tricks:
This is a preliterate audience. The only text in the game is the title, and absolutely everything is voiced over.
There is no “play” button on the title screen. After a brief countdown, the game automatically begins.
Mice are lousy input devices for preschoolers, who often struggle to use them, so the game doesn’t require any drag n’ drop actions. Everything boils down to a single click with generously-sized hotspots. (See Mouse Control for a game we developed to help small children practice using a mouse)
Visual patterning is reinforced through sound.
The “answer” is entered twice, to confirm comprehension (otherwise, the player could just be clicking around and “winning” coincidentally).
Little-to-no chainsaw violence.
Untold Entertainment is an industry leader in preschool game development. Contact us to talk about your upcoming project.
Untold Entertainment was commissioned by marblemedia, one of our preferred clients, to create a game for Splatalot! Splatalot! is a kid-targeted mash-up of American Gladiator and Japanese obstacle course game shows like Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. The program airs on YTV in Canada, on BBC in the UK and on ABC in Australia.
The second segment of Splatalot! has the contestants assembling a ladder to escape a pit, while the adult Defenders (think “Gladiators”) shoot goop at them. marblemedia called the game Spladder (splat + ladder – you see?). They wanted a more puzzle-oriented game than the catapult and obstacle-based games in the show’s suite, so we built the fun puzzle platformer game that you see above, in the style of Abe’s Oddysee or Lost Vikings.
(What ever happened to the Lost Vikings developer? Meh – probably faded into obscurity.)
It’s Been a Slice
We used the Citrus Engine to build Spladder. It’s a framework of classes that speed up platform game creation. Citrus uses Box2D for its physics bodies. It gives you some great customizable character control and a level editor out of the box. The engine wasn’t quite set up to handle tiled platforms (in the examples, every platform is a discrete art asset) – strong-arming that to work was probably the most challenging aspect of development. That, and the level editor eventually became more of a hindrance than a help, to the point where i wound up hand-coding most of the levels in xml. The latest version of Citrus Engine drops the level editor so that you’re free to use your own solution.
The art and animation in Spladder are by veteran Canadian kids’ game artist Elizabeth de Fazio, who was an absolute joy to work with. marble’s Johnny Kalangis and i hammered out story details together to build an enjoyable game that we’re quite proud of. i hope you like it!
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:
The reception from both students and educators has been very positive. Here are some comments from students who look very grateful to not have to fill out dull Essential Skills questionnaires:
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
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
Our entry for TOJam 5 (the Toronto independent game jam) was Heads.
The jam theme was “missing”. Heads is about a fellow who wakes up one morning missing … well, his head. The first puzzle in the game sees you constructing a makeshift head before you can leave the house. From there, we introduce a somewhat novel mechanic where you can switch heads with other characters to use their abilities. The game was the second title we created with UGAGS – the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System.
Worth 1000 Words
Heads was one of the games on Untold’s “Games to Build” wiki. The intended scope was much larger than what we ended up with, but the advantage of creating Heads at a weekend game jam is that we finished it and got the idea out to the world. The innovation we attempted with Heads came directly out of the first UGAGS game we created, Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two. Jinx 3 had a LOT of character dialogue and was very wordy. Heads was a reaction to that; we tried to create a game with absolutely no character dialogue whatsoever.
The resulting challenge was that everything we needed to communicate to the player required a new animation. The unique Heads style required us to draw every frame 3 or 4 times to achieve a Squigglevision-style effect. This all added up to a very time-consuming process that tested the limits of what we were able to pull off in a single weekend.
Most goals and challenges are communicated to the player by shrugging and thought bubbles.
Acclaim for Heads
Heads won “Best Use of Theme” at the public TOJam Arcade exhibition. It was featured in the START video game show at the Ontario College of Art and Design. You can play Heads for free on the Blackberry Playbook.
Corus Entertainment asked us to create a game for their Treehouse preschool brand. We had this idea kicking around from an earlier planned preschool site, and i was worried that it would never see the light of day. So, we built it for Treehouse, and are very happy with how it turned out!
Mouse Control gives the early preschool player the opportunity to develop computer mouse skills. Familiarity and capability with the mouse are taken for granted by so many preschool games. It first dawned on me that young children have trouble piloting the two-button brick when i taught computer classes to kindergarten students. While computer mice have become far sleeker and more ergonomically friendly, they’re still very much tailored to fit big hands.
Mice are also unintuitive! Just watch a small child (or your grandmother) try to steer the mouse like a car, rather than keeping it rigidly positioned and pointing “North”. Kids take to touchpads and touch interfaces much more naturally. But as long as we’re stuck with computer mice for the foreseeable future, why not create a game that helps our little players out?
The game introduces a series of progressively challenging mouse skills as it escalates:
Skill #1: Move the mouse to guide the cursor to a hotspot
Skill #2: Avoid certain areas of the screen
Skill #3: Guide the cursor to connect with a moving hotspot
Skill #4: Click the mouse button to activate a hotspot
With each level the camera pulls back, making the cursor and hotspots smaller so that they demand finer motor control.
Many of our industry partners approach us with concepts in hand and ask Untold Entertainment to execute those plans. Mouse Control is a great example of what we can do in a short time frame, where we’re responsible for developing the concept and the creative. We hope you share Mouse Control with the tiny, adorable people in your life!