By Oliver Miao (CEO, Pixelberry Studios) and Andrew Shvarts (Designer, Pixelberry Studios)
Change doesn’t happen without risks. And we’ve decided to bet Pixelberry’s flagship title, High School Story, on a chance to change the future of educational gaming.
Since it was released in August of 2013, High School Story has been a big success: it hit #10 on the iPhone charts, stayed in the Top 150 for a year, and generated over $10 million in sales to date. But this month, rather than making incremental changes, we’re doing something unexpected and radical for a successful game played by teens. We’re putting the school in High School Story and adding a fully formed learning feature.
Many developers are wary of educational features, and with good reason. Educational games are fun for preschoolers and early elementary school kids, but once kids get older, they shy away from any game that feels like education. Educational games for teens aren’t as fun because they usually focus on education first and then try to add in fun. In contrast, highly-successful games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga focus purely on the fun factor, and it shows.
So why would we risk turning off our current user base by introducing academic learning into High School Story? Quite simply: we believe in the power of games to reach people in meaningful ways, and to make an impact in the world. And we think that if we can change how educational games are designed, we can teach teens without turning them off.
Traditional educational games focus on learning first and then layer in elements of fun. We flipped this model. We focused on fun first and then layered in elements of learning. That sounds like a simple change, but it’s a fundamentally new approach to educational gaming.
Focusing on fun first meant we had to launch a hit game without the constraints or subject matter of an educational game. Creating a hit would make our game more scalable and dramatically expand our reach from the get-go. By bringing in players with fun first, we could gradually add educational elements own the road.
As most developers in the industry will attest, creating a hit game is really hard. Fortunately, even though Pixelberry is a startup and High School Story was our first game, we were not a new team. As a team at EA, we had launched two top-25 grossing games in the App Store.
Based on our experience, we thought combining the instant appeal of a simulation game with the retention of a story-driven game had the best chance to crack the top 50. We themed the game around high school because we thought it had mass appeal and was an unexplored genre on the App Store. High school was also a perfect fit for future educational elements.
It took us over a year and a half to create High School Story. Although we discussed education during that time, we focused all of our actual development time on making the game as fun as possible.
The focus on fun worked. In its first month, High School Story was downloaded 2.1 million times.
Adding Social Education
Shortly after launch, players told us how they had really connected with the game’s story. Our team of seven writers had written about a group of students who didn’t always fit in at their old schools and came together to create their dream school. Some players told us that playing High School Story gave them the confidence to be themselves and not worry about fitting in.
Then, a month after launch, a series of tragedies in the news prompted us to leverage the game’s newfound success to teach players what to do if they or their friends were being bullied.
We partnered with Cybersmile, a great anti-cyberbullying non-profit, to make sure that we were teaching the right things. The update was a hit with players and, at its peak, we connected over a hundred players a week with Cybersmile counselors to discuss bullying, self-harm, and sometimes even suicide. We also raised over $300,000 for Cybersmile via in-app purchases.
We followed cyberbullying with a storyline written in partnership with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Over 30,000 of High School Story’s players were directed to NEDA’s website to learn more details about body image and eating disorders.
This new focus on “social education” was not something we planned for, but it was an effective way to introduce learning to players in subtle ways. It was also proof that focusing on fun first and then layering in education was working.
Adding Current Events
The next step to add learning into High School Story was through a feature we called “Your Voice.” This feature was designed to get players to think more about world events while still having fun.
At its heart, “Your Voice” is a set of polling questions that allows players to share their views on a wide range of topics. Each question has a set of four multiple choice answers. Player’s answers appear in their friend’s games and vice versa.
Some of the questions touch on the latest trends - like Taylor Swift’s latest song or the new Star Wars trailer - while other questions are designed to get players thinking about more serious topics, like the Middle East or net neutrality. “Your Voice” makes the game more fun and exposes players to important topics they may not otherwise spend time thinking about.
Shortly after we launched “Your Voice,” players shared that they were spending time outside the game researching world issues first raised by our question. We were ecstatic. High School Story was fueling player curiosity and expanding their horizons.
Ready for Academics
Over the course of just 9 months, High School Story went from purely fun-focused to teaching players about important social issues and current events. After introducing our players to these features, we thought we were ready to tackle our original goal of a robust educational element.
We decided to begin with vocabulary for several reasons:
Teens face a lot of pressure preparing for the SAT and ACT, and we could help them prepare while they play our game.
Parents care about the SAT and ACT and would be more willing to support spending time and money in our game if we helped players prepare for something tangible.
We want to help level the playing field for teens whose parents can’t afford expensive test prep courses. They could study in our game and have a better shot at their dream colleges.
Vocabulary is our first academic skillset. If it goes well, we plan to expand the feature to other subjects, like science, history, and math.
When we first mapped out what we wanted from the feature, we realized just how complicated it would be. It had to be fun, and genuinely educational. It had to be enticing enough to draw in skeptical players, but also optional so we didn’t irritate players who wanted to opt out. We had to appeal to teens interested in learning, parents investigating the app, and the players who couldn’t care less about improving their vocabulary.
We began by figuring out how to implement it at the top level. We decided to unlock our educational content after about 5 hours of gameplay in the early mid-game at a point when the players had already seen all the major game features; this would keep our ‘fun-first’ strategy, and not potentially scare off players before they became invested. We created a robust but completely separate narrative track that introduced some compelling new characters and promised exciting interactions. That way, it wouldn’t impede any player’s progress in High School Story’s main storyline, but would be compelling enough that even skeptics would check it out. We also decided to offer generous rewards for mastering the educational challenges, such as a hard-to-get Premium currency, to better encourage and incentivize real learning.
High School Story’s secret weapon has always been rich, emotionally-engaging writing. We knew early on that we wanted to leverage our strong writing team in the new education feature, both as a way to interest players and tool to teach new words. We quickly developed the idea of Story Challenges that would teach players new worlds with short, interactive narrative sequences.
While we initially experimented with a more traditional ‘learning’ mode, where the player simply saw words defined in-context, we quickly discovered that even the smallest element of interactivity greatly increased engagement. To make it more interactive we developed a design that let players ‘learn’ through intuitive contextual clues, and select the answers themselves.
In terms of resource allocation, this was a costly decision: it committed us to creating large stories that were emotionally engaging and segued smoothly into vocabulary challenges. But we believed that the benefits, both in terms of player interest and learning power, fully justified the commitment.
The Story Challenges allow us to effectively teach and test vocabulary knowledge. But we knew that those alone wouldn’t be enough. If Challenges were the equivalent of a lesson and a final exam, we also needed homework, a repeatable practice exercise that solidified player’s mastery. We also wanted the feature as a whole to have an element that was novel, fun, and unique to the educational content.
We decided early on that we wanted a mini-game, butcoming up with an exact version proved elusive. We considered several dozen options, from a first-person dodgeball game where you dodged antonyms to a full Match-3 puzzle game that involved lining up definitions. Eventually, we narrowed in on a game that we felt had the right balance of simplicity, education value, and fun. It was a timed mini-game that involved dragging colorful bubbles containing synonym words into targets with the vocabulary words. We loved the simplicity, the innately enjoyable friction of dragging bubbles around, and the potential scalability of the feature.
We then began experimenting with the game’s visuals. It felt like it took almost as long to nail down a look as it did to come up with the game itself! We played with a huge range of art styles and treatments, before settling on an aesthetic that was crisp, colorful, and simple.
Putting it all Together
Our next step was to connect all the pieces into a solid framework. We had initially planned a simple menu system, where players could choose which Challenges or Minigames to play from a list. But the more we worked on the feature, the more we wanted to put in a progress map, similar to what games like Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans do. These maps promote social play by showing you your friends’ achievements, and provide a great visual way to track progress. It was a significant addition to make at such a late stage, but after playing with some prototypes, we decided to move forward with it.
There was just one final task left: balancing the difficulty. This proved to be much harder than we’d anticipated! There is a huge chasm in the vocabulary knowledge between even a 15-year-old high school freshman and a 17-year-old who has just taken the SATs, and High School Story has a playerbase as young as 13 and as old as 90! Coming up with a one-size-fits-all difficulty for such a broad age range was a massive and often frustrating endeavor, and we went back-and-forth between too easy and too difficult. In the end, we decided to err on the side of difficulty: even if it resulted in some younger players churning out, we felt better genuinely testing and rewarding mastery rather than simply allowing the players to skate by with limited knowledge.
With challenges and minigames balanced and integrated into the map, the feature really came together. We began playtesting it, and the reactions were universally positive. The feature was fun, educational, and engaging!
Entering the Unknown
It’s taken our team much longer than we planned to incorporate academic learning into High School Story - all in all eight months. That time could have been spent on more typical game features, but we’re excited that we’re finally launching this week - 16 months after High School Story was first released.
We waffle nervously between high hopes and fears that players will leave our game in droves. But we’re happy that we remain committed to our vision of focusing on fun first and then layering in education.
We dream that this feature will be successful enough to drive other studios and publishers to take note and follow in our footsteps. We want games and education to be seen as complementary instead of contradictory, and we think it's time that video games were recognized for their capacity to change the way people play and learn.