Interview With the Minds Behind Mathbreakers
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Educational games rarely get the buzz the triple A games get, understandably so with everything from Leap Star games to whatever lacking in polish games parents download that feature that new "in" cartoon character to teach kids about where the commas go. Now ever wonder why that is? Why hasn't anything new really captured a kid's attention since you had to chase a globe trotting international thief with a penchant for red trench coats? The answer is simple, because the back catalog of educational games featuring Shrek teaching kids to spell... suck...
Let's think for a minute what an educational game could be, it's like most developers forget that not only do these experiences have to be educational... but also games. Now here comes the meat and potatoes of this whole thing, enter Mathbreakers. Developed by a small team, the folks at Imaginary Numbers built this game to not only educate kids, but entertain them. Check out their kickstarter and watch the video, you'll see kids having to literally be pulled away from playing an educational game. How wild is that? I got the chance to interview these fine folks, so let's get on with it.
Lifted Geek: Let’s get better acquainted; introduce yourselves and what your role on the project is.
I’m Charlie -- I played video games since I was 7, sometimes until 5 AM, and I want to make an educational game that kids will stay up all night to play. I have a degree in business and started in real estate, but I’ve done video games for 3 years now. I do game design, biz dev, and wear lots of startup hats.
I’m Vivian -- I’ve always loved the idea of using games and virtual worlds for learning. Even back in the 90’s I would make these point-and-click browser games that let you hunt for treasure and learn about art. Now that I have tools to make non-lame 3D graphics I’m much happier. I majored in economics and have a doctorate in law. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I'm also a multi-hat wearer. I do the 3D artwork and oversee art direction, as well as biz dev and the legal nitty gritty
I’m Morgan - I’ve been developing games my whole life. I like to be involved in all of the pieces of the process, and for Mathbreakers I do backend programming, web development and 2D graphic design. I studied Interactive Media & Game Development in school.
LG: The game is mathematically centric, do you have background in mathematics?
Charlie: No. We are all gamers, but we are fascinated by mathematics (and physics, and ..)
Vivian: Um, I’m Asian? I’m actually not even the biggest math nerd on the team, and in fact I’m terrible at basic math. Fortunately I hear there’s a game for that.
Morgan: Only the computer science side of mathematics - discrete math, linear algebra, etc.
LG: Educational games are… hokey at best, but Mathbreakers looks to be a truly polished product, where do you feel that your product can succeed that other educational games could not?
Vivian: We’re really inspired by Valve’s philosophy behind designing educational games. They understood that it’s even harder to create something fun than it is to make something that teaches well. So instead of trying to gamify a math worksheet, we started by building a game that kids actually wanted to play. Mathematics is already inherent in the code that makes the game run; we just brought it to the surface. Say you attack a monster in any video game and it loses health points -- that’s a lot of math hidden from the player. Our monsters are made of numbers so you have to use math to zero them out, and you can see it happening.
Charlie: Mathbreakers really puts the video gameplay first. We have very high expectations for games because we grew up in the computer gaming era, so we hold Mathbreakers to that standard. The experience of the game had to be fun and engaging from day 0, so we worked on it until we were satisfied with the mechanics.
Morgan: Mathbreakers is motivating to kids because they really like playing it and have an interest in getting better at it. Many of the educational games we have played in the past approach the problem from an education angle. As a result, the products often end up being worksheets with game-like elements tacked on. Their puzzles and levels do correspond closely with curriculum, but kids see right through the gamification tricks.
Instead of doing this, we decided to make a game where the world is made of numbers and all the interactions are mathematical. In addition to making the game fun, this allows kids to engage in a lot of experimentation and play.
LG: For those who worked on the art, what were your inspirations when developing the overall direction of the aesthetics?
Charlie: We wanted to bring the visual feel-goodiness of 3-D Mario worlds with the interactivity and modularization of Minecraft.
Vivian: Yup. For the math gadgets, we took some design cues from Dr. Seuss’ “Butter Battle Book.” The landscape, buildings, and bigger math machines were trickier. We needed modular parts to streamline the creation process, especially since we were paving the way for a level editor and adaptive gameplay in the near future. Implementing the hex grid was the best design decision we’ve ever made… so it turns out that math has a big role in the aesthetics too ;-)
Morgan: A lot of the time in game development your art direction is influenced by technical constraints. In our case, as Vivian mentioned, we needed modularity to make level development easier for our small team. These constraints can be positive and make your art direction more cohesive. In our case, our art style has been slowly converging over the past year and a half and will hopefully continue to improve!
LG: Is it safe to assume you guys are also avid gamers? What are some of your favorite games in recent years?
Charlie: Portal, Quake, Starcraft, Second-Life.. Halo
Vivian: Second-Life (I had a fashion brand in there for a few years), Portal, Little Big Planet, Assassin’s Creed, and I’m a big fan of Final Fantasy XIII for the gorgeous artwork.
LG: Mathbreakers looks to be a third-person action/shooter, what other games genres did you experiment with (if any) before deciding on the third person perspective?
Charlie: We started with first person, but moved to third person because we felt players would identify more with the character and story of the world with a visible character. This also allows you to visualize the gadgets you're using more easily.
Vivian: We also dabbled with a 2.5D side-scroller for a bit, but ultimately having a character move through a 3D world provides a much richer and more interactive experience.
LG: Briefly explain how you developed the play style, from the Wave Gadget to the Mighty Fraction Sword. Were there any conventional weapons you wanted to use but couldn’t turn into a weaponized calculator?
Charlie: HAH - Weaponized calculator! Well, we work in the game engine Unity3D and we would brainstorm different interactions for the game, and rapidly prototype it to “see how it felt”. We went through rotation machines, vacuum pipes, giant spheres full of numbers, and number bees -- none of those made the cut so far. When we made the sword, we knew instantly we were on to something, because it was so intuitive and fun to play with.
Morgan: And we still have a long list of gadgets we haven’t triet yet...
LG: Looking back on the development, was there anything you wanted to include that you just couldn’t get to work well?
Charlie: So actually it turns out mathematics is extremely broad topic, much broader than we anticipated, so our vision to include all of mathematics in our game has to be met with reality -- we can only make so many features. We want things like geometry and linear algebra but each new feature takes time to develop and perfect, so we have to pick our battles for making a useable polished product.
Vivian: Yeah, it was hard but we had to choose to focus on creating game levels for kids ages 7-12 in order to make a polished product. But now we have Math Labs -- experimental levels outside the main game so we could keep hacking at design ideas for higher math. We’ve also learned that trying to be punny and using pie props in the game for explaining pi just confused the heck out of everyone.
LG: Any other notable challenges during development?
Charlie: Since the beginning we’ve wanted to do Multiplayer and a Level Editor, but both of those are technically challenging so we haven’t been able to tackle them yet.
LG: The reception has been very positive, especially from kids (those fickle little people always looking for the next big thing with their Etch-a-Sketches and Polly Pockets… kids dig that right?). Did you anticipate that the project would be as positively received as it was? Was it a surprise or did you exclaim, “I know” while brushing dirt off your shoulders?
Charlie: We just focused on making it as fun as we could, and used the feedback from kids to make a better product. We see ourselves in them so we’re always working to make it as fun as possible -- so it has been the goal all along, but nothing is a certainty, and we’ve still got a long way to go to impress our future users.
Vivian: Honestly I feel relieved, flattered, and amazed every time I see kids having fun with Mathbreakers. There’s nothing quite like watching parents wrangle their kids away from the game at the end of play-testing sessions because they didn’t want to quit. But let’s just pretend I expected this all along.
Morgan: It’s always a bit amazing to me how excited kids get about the game. But we do constantly test the game with kids and cut the ideas that don’t communicate well or that feel boring.
LG: What’s next after Mathbreakers? Do you have any projects in the pipeline? Feel free to announce whatever, shamelessly plug away!
Charlie: Imaginary Number is an educational games company -- we would like to bring a Mathbreakers style game to Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and beyond.
Vivian: Play all the STEM things! All of of it! We’re actually talking to some VR headset developers too, to make the gameplay even more immersive.
LG: Rando-dando: if you could have any superpower… what would it be and why?
Charlie: My superpower would be to re-live any day as many times as I wanted to correct mistakes!
Vivian: Oooh, what Charlie said. Or fly. Or go to space. Or a superpower that lets me make decisions.
Morgan: Infinite legs.
LG: I love that you guys are taking such a creative approach to educating kids, any other subjects you’d like to teach with videogames? Personally I would have loved a historically accurate Assassin’s Creed game when learning about European history in High School.
Charlie: Yes! One of our ideas for a chemistry game involves using chemical tools to form and destroy structures in space to fend off an alien invasion while terraforming a planet. Students would learn about how chemicals interact with heat, pressure, and aliens.
Vivian: I’m so with you on a historically accurate Assassin’s Creed! I’d love to make a game about art and history, perhaps after tackling the STEM subjects.
Morgan: I’m interested in maybe trying to teach linguistics in a similar sort of environment. I think it makes sense to do topics where we can represent the atomic bits and pieces (like numbers, or letters/words, or chemical elements) as objects in the world. Physics would also be pretty straightforward!
LG: Any plans to market a similar product to kids in Middle/High School?
Charlie: Yes. As Mathbreakers expands its curriculum, we will begin offering things like Calculus and Set Theory. In fact, we’ve already done a Set Theory level at mathbreakers.com/labs/
Vivian: The beauty of math and this game is that we can build more advanced levels upon the foundational ones. We really hope these kids would grow up with Mathbreakers and the game will grow with them.
Morgan: I’m really excited about some ideas we’ve come up with for algebra and functions, so I’m looking forward to moving on to middle school math.
LG: Before we cut out, for our g33ks and readers here on LiftedGeek.com, what would you like to say to them about your project?
Everyone: Yes! Do any g33ks out there want to see a cool math related concept represented in our world? We meet with math geeks each week to design a brand new level with their concept. Head on over to mathbreakers.com/labs/ and see what’s possible!
Fantastic! I can't wait to see more from these guys. I absolutely love the concept and adore that there are folks like the fine people of Imaginary Numbers out there who really contribute to geek culture, your talents could really make a difference when it comes to teaching kids math. Charlie, Vivian, and Morgan... you three are the definition of a Lifted Geek. Here's hoping I can finally get my historically accurate Assassin's Creed. Just with less killing and a more historically accurate recreation of the Boston tea party. Stay Frosty and Get Lifted folks.