August Updates: Words, words, and more words

WordsVsTimeOnce again, the major project has been our intereactive e-book, Exploring Matter … In SPACE! On this front, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that I finished a full first draft. The design document – which details narrative, dialog, and workings of interactive elements – weighs in at just over 23K words. Being a numbers person, I tracked both hours and words, and discovered that I’ve produced a remarkably consistent 270 draft-words per hour (see image). While this draft is rather lumpy – hanging narrative threads, some excessive wordiness, etc – I’m really proud of all the concepts.

The bad news is that rough estimates put the production cost of this design at 5x the current production budget. Yes. Five times. 500%. We’re not in the ballpark. We’re somewhere out in the Arctic Circle. Best case is that we’ll have to cut over half the interactive content. This means losing all the playful/narrative interactions, and perhaps losing some of the science-focused interactions as well.

This bad news really knocked me on my keister. For all that the draft is flawed, I am truly proud of the concepts. It has bad puns, cow jokes, interactive thought experiments, and a culminating life-and-death mini-game where you have to use your knowledge of science to save your home.

Having had a couple weeks to reorient my expectations, I’m back upright, though still sad. I’ve made a rough prioritization of the various book features. When the official page-by-page cost estimates come in, I’m ready to do what needs to be done, cut what needs cutting, and make this the best it can be – within real world constraints.

The book will be much less than I’d hoped, but it will be solid, and better than average. We will not allow the ideal best to compromise the good that can come from a solid job.

This month, I’ve been particularly grateful for the support of friends, family and patrons. Hugs and positive words make a big difference when this sort of news hits.

– Tim

Sad ; Hopeful; Intrigued

Some happenings from the past four weeks:

This year, for the first time in a long time, Mindful Mammoth did not participate in the Santa Monica Mountains Science Fest. A sad deal. The 2013 SAMO Science Fest was a sort of coming-out for us, so the Science Fest always felt like a special event. It’s also been a consistently rewarding event, where we have been able to provide information and inspiration to hundreds kids, and also to do some useful networking with adults from other outreach organizations.

This year, the Science Fest was scheduled for May. However, this May, I was teaching two wholly new classes – classes which I had designed over the previous two months, but which still needed quite a bit of on-the-spot tweaking: Rocket Science – a middle school class on Newtonian physics and model rocket construction; and Critical Game Studies – a class on media, messaging, and game design at the Los Angeles Film School. In combination, those two things were more than a full-time job, and there just wasn’t time left to organize and staff a Science Fest dealeo. Sad. Very sad. Hopefully we’ll return there next year.

Once those two classes were sorted out, I took the time to write up Fire Tag, an ecological experiment/game that I created for the 2012 Science Fest, back when I worked for the NPS. I’ve already shared that process, but what I haven’t shared is that  I then submitted the game to IndieCade 2016. One of the great things about IndieCade is that they welcome games of all sorts – digital games, board games, card games, and playground games. Being a playground game, Fire Tag is totally within the scope of the festival. With a little luck, we’ll get a nod again, and have the opportunity to share Fire Tag with this year’s festival attendees. Keep your fingers crossed!

While all those things were going on, I was also plugging away at my quota of entries for the 2016 Serious Play Awards (a part of the 2016 Serious Play Conference). The entries were a very divided bunch. Some were playful but shallow, just games with a pinch of educational value. Others were deep but unfun, powerfully interesting simulations but with little imagination or whimsy. Very few entries were in that sweet spot of being both deep and fun. It was a little disappointing, but also intriguing.

Everything we know about game design, education, and learning says that learning happens most and best when people are 1) emotionally engaged, and when they are 2) as directly as possible practicing the things to be learned. Most of the SPC games did one or the other, providing either engaging play or opportunities to apply skills, but not both. For sure, it’s terribly hard to do both those things well at the same time, but we (the serious games community) know that this is the thing to do. What can we do to make that happen more often? To get more educators and designers to aim for the big prize instead of settling for the same-ole strategy, the strategy that has made ‘educational game’ into a phrase that evokes rolling eyes and disappointed sighs.

Well, we can have more things like the Serious Play Conference, like IndieCade, and like GLS. We can have people like me out in the world, beating the drum, sharing games/information/inspiration. Perhaps there are other things we can do too. It’s worth thinking on.


Photos from the Science Fest

According to the National Park Service, around 2500 people attended this year’s Science Fest, and several hundred visited our tables to try out the Puzzle. You can see a few of those people in the photos here:

FYI – There was a sign near the event entrance warning visitors that cameras were around, and that they might be photographed. I thought the wording was rather vague, so I was careful to get consent before taking any photographs.

Overall, it was a good day – a bit cool and misty, but that was a big improvement over previous years, which were mostly very hot. We had all sorts of people at the event – tall and short, old and young, thoughtful, hyper, and so on. Most seemed to enjoy the Puzzle, though they did so in many different ways. Some people focused on finding solutions, some drew various sorts of natural objects, and some just drew what they wanted to draw – just because. I see that as a big win, as I very much wanted the Puzzle to be a flexible thing, something that players could use to make whatever they wanted to make.

I’m grateful to the friends and family who helped to transport chairs, tables, and other stuffs, and who stayed around to help staff the Mindful Mammoth booth. I feel a bit embarrassed that I didn’t organize a group photo of the bunch of us. That lack makes it a bit hard to give proper thanks. My only defense is that it was a busy day, and I just couldn’t quite keep track of it all.

I was particularly happy to see several friends from One Spark Academy. They offered encouraging words, looked happy to be outdoors and exploring, and I was happy to see them being happy.

I was also happy to meet several folks from from nearby environmental and outreach groups. We traded email addresses, and over the next few weeks, we’ll keep in touch, and see about working together to expand the scope of the Puzzle and to bring it to more SoCal classrooms and events.

Twins! Beta 3 returns from the printer!

And it looks good! This is the first time I’ve worked with Up In Pieces, but it seems like they do good work. I’m very happy with the result, which you you can see in the image below:


Each piece is a sandwich: acrylic – image – acrylic. Not knowing any better, I’d expected the images to be glued on the outside of the acrylic, as image-acrylic-image. However, now that I’ve looked at the pieces, I kinda like this design. The glossy acrylic surface makes the pieces a bit hard to photograph, but I think the acrylic will protect the images from hard play, meaning that this kind of sandwich will be more durable than the one I’d originally had in mind.

Notice that there are those two versions I was talking about. The top set of tiles have straight edges, while the bottom set have pointed/dimpled edges. You can see the difference a bit better in closeup:


As I’ve had these pieces for less than 24 hours, I’ve only been able to share them with two folks. Interestingly, both of them strongly preferred the second style, with with pointed/dimpled edges. I want to do some more playtesting before making a final decision, but right now, the points have a strong lead.

The year past, and the year ahead …

One year ago, the Kickstarter for Fire and Flora had just come to an unsuccessful close, and I was on my way to CU Boulder, to try out an alternate pathway through the serious games world. I had thought to continue my work on game projects throughout the school year, but that turned out to be unrealistic. Getting to know a new town and a new state, as well as the demands of grad school, more than filled my time.

Boulder was a mixed bag. I met some great people, survived a 100 year flood, and learned all sorts of interesting things about learning, but I struggled to stay connected with the people who were most important to me. At the same time, I was also struggling to stay motivated. After two years of nose-to-the-grindstone work, first at the NPS, then at Mindful Mammoth, I was kinda burned out. In hindsight, I should have deferred my entrance into grad school for a year.

Fortunately, UCB has a generous program that allows grad students to take a year off, with few questions asked. So, I’ve done that.

This summer, I worked half-time as a web-developer, and spent the other half camping, relaxing, and reconnecting with friends. I’ve got one more short trip planned – to see the new Exploratorium – and then I’ll be getting back to more purposeful work.

My half-time web job runs out at the end of August. So I’m looking for another part-time or full-time job to help pay the bills (programmer, data analyst, or game designer). I’ve also become more serious about learning Unity. At this year’s Serious Play Conference (which I highly recommend), almost every speaker made the point that mobile is the coming Thing. I won’t be abandoning my focus on physical games, but I will instead be raising my interest in digital to be on par with my interest in the physical. More specifically, I’ll be working to develop complementary digital/physical products. This means having digital versions of physical games, and offering free digital tools to help players with modding of both digital and physical games.

Continuing on with my plans, I’ll be focusing on developing playable versions of the Puzzle of Life. I’m going to be a bit quiet on that for another couple months, but I hope to have a production-version of the base game available via print on demand by the end of the year.

So far, I’ve been pretty poor on timelines. Almost every piece of every project has taken far longer than I expected. I’m getting better, but this will probably continue as part of my learning process. One thing that won’t change is my push for quality. I think the biggest hurdle faced by the serious games industry is a proliferation of mediocrity. So few serious games have been done well that I think many folks now believe that serious games can’t be done well, that serious games just can’t be fun, and that’s just not true.

So, in the year ahead, I’ll begin moving forward again, slow and steady. Stay tuned. Good things will come.


slow but good

The end of the beginning

It’s official: the Kickstarter funding campaign for Fire and Flora has come to a close. Although the campaign was financially unsuccessful, it was useful in other ways. During the long process of game design and game development, I’ve been collecting new skills, gaining experience, and building connections. I’m sad that this campaign was financially unsuccessful, but at the same time, I feel like I have a solid foundation for future work. More on that in a minute.

First off, I want to thank everyone who helped support this project and this campaign: friends and family, playtesters of all stripe, my artistic collaborators (MarkMatt, andVISCOM), and the 73 adventurous visionaries who backed the project here on Kickstarter. It’s incredibly rewarding to know that there are others who share my vision of games for good, and who are willing to help me turn that vision into a reality.

Then, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that I must now put this project on hold. Perhaps, sometime in the future, I will be able to bring Fire and Flora out to the world. However, for now, I simply don’t have the funds to do that.

The good news is that Fire and Flora was only the beginning. Over the last year, I’ve roughed out ideas for a variety of other serious gaming projects, covering subjects from weather to geology. One of these projects, the Puzzle of Life, is a perfect complement to Fire and Flora.

One of the key features of Fire and Flora is that it was a highly focused outreach tool. Compared to most mainstream board games, it’s relatively complex. On the good side, that complexity means that the game provides an unusually thorough and accurate picture of landscape dynamics. On the other hand, that complexity requires that players be somewhat older (12+), and that they have significant time to both learn and to play. Those age and time requirements limit the range of places where the game is fun and effective.

Where Fire and Flora is complex, with lots of in-game text, and a lengthy rulebook, the Puzzle of Life is simple, and entirely visual. It can almost do without instructions, which means it’s easy to pick up and play. It’s also very flexible. When working with younger kids, or with limited time, you can simply assemble the pieces as with a regular puzzle. However, with older kids, or a longer amount of time, you can use PoL to explore the structure of ecological communities, to tell stories about changing environments, or even extend the scope of the game by creating your own pieces to add to the puzzle. The combination of simplicity and flexibility makes this a game with a much wider potential audience. In turn, that wider audience makes it a better business proposition.

I’ve worked through several playable prototypes, and over the next few months, I’ll be finishing the design for the first edition, and developing a new launch strategy, possibly in partnership with a new friend. In short, rather than using Kickstarter to begin with a bang, we’ll instead take a slower, evolutionary approach. We’ll establish a strong relationship with a quality print-on-demand service, and aim to get a finished product into a single retail outlet. That outlet will provide a small trickle of income and publicity, and we will use that trickle to expand our reach into other outlets, building the trickle into a stream, and then building the stream into something bigger.


Again, thank you all for your support. I’ll be posting regular updates to the Mindful Mammoth blog and on Facebook. Please keep an eye peeled, and keep in touch. Good things are on the way!