When I was growing up in the 90’s, we had some pretty killer “edutainment” games on PC. There was Fatty Bear, Pajama Sam, Putt Putt, and the totally awesome Treasure Mathstorm/Galaxy games. But if you dig a little deeper than the half dozen or so good ones, there turns out to be a mountain of shovelware and, well, just plain boring, bad “games.” Perhaps I’m way out of line, but shouldn’t games be able to mix education with fun?
That’s the idea behind Little Worlds Interactive’s The Counting Kingdom. It blends tower defense gameplay with basic mathematics to create an experience that’s satisfying as both a companion tool for reinforcing math skills, and as a strategy game. The craziest part? It’s fun too. I spent some time with the game’s Early Access build on Steam, in anticipation of a potential full release sometime in late August. After delighting in the fact that I had actually retained some of my math skills, even long after abandoning any endeavors that required more than writing ability, I chatted with studio Founder Jenna Hoffstein. She clued me in on to what folks can expect from The Counting Kingdom going forward, and why games can be used as exemplary teaching tools.
IGM: As an introduction to the studio for my audience, Who are the members of Little Worlds Interactive, and how did you come up with the studio’s name?
Jenna Hoffstein: I am the only full-time member of the studio, but I work with some incredibly talented folks who contribute part-time. I do all the design and development, as well as the miscellaneous bizdev, management and a lot of the marketing. We have Luigi Guatieri doing the art, who you may recognize as the artist from Girls Like Robots. Sam Cleggett does animation, Brendan Wood and Jonas Friedman do music and sound effects, and Emma Clarkson helps manage our social media.
Naming is always tough! I think it’s my Achilles’ Heel, even coming up with a name for a game or a monster takes me forever. I’ve always enjoyed making games because I feel like I get to create worlds (and what could be more amazing than that?), so in the end I thought it would be a good name for the studio.
IGM: Makes sense to me. Shifting to The Counting Kingdom, how did the idea for a strategic tower-defense math game come about? Did you first decide to make a math game, or a tower-defense game?
Jenna: I first decided to make a math game. I have a big bucket of pieces that have been cannibalized from board games over the years, and I use this to prototype games. I busted out some paper and markers and just played around with numbers. I tried to find ways that I could interact with them that would be interesting, and the tower defense mechanic was born out of that process. I tried to create just enough challenge to make it exciting, and give the player enough choices that it was interesting, but not so many that it was overwhelming.
IGM: In your mind, what made tower-defense the right fit for making a learning/math game?
Jenna: It was really the grid structure that made it a great fit. By placing monsters with numbers on the grid, the game lets players can connect them in different ways to make different sums. The tower defense mechanic gives you an interesting goal, and a reason for the monsters to move. Using a pre-existing genre also helps kids understand the mechanics of the game – I don’t really need to explain that the monsters reaching the towers is a bad thing!
IGM: Very true. Is there a story component to the game? If so, how is the story conveyed to the player?
Jenna: The story component is pretty light. You are the Wizard’s Apprentice, and when monsters invade the kingdom and knock down the wall in the Wizard’s Tower you set off on a quest to defend all the castles in the kingdom! Right now we have an introductory cinematic, and eventually we’ll have one at the end of the game as well. Instead of going deeper with the story I tried to prioritize making the math and the main mechanics as polished as possible.
IGM: Gotcha. Can you talk a little about the spells and potion systems in the game?
Jenna: Absolutely! The main mechanic of the game is casting spells. Every monster and spell has a number, and you can cast a spell by chaining monsters together and using a spell that is equal to the sum of those monsters. For example, you could add a 4, 2 and 1 monster (as long as they’re next to each other), and cast a 7 spell to remove them from the board. There are a few things you can do on top of that that really give you some more options, and this is where the game gets more strategic. You can recycle a spell to get a new one, but this will bring a new wave of monsters onto the board.
You can also combine spells together to make larger ones, which you can generally cast on more monsters. There are also eight types of potions that you unlock as you go through the game, and these can be used on the monsters to do anything from adding or subtracting from their number, to freezing a whole row. While the underlying mechanic is always math, the players has a lot of options for how they make the best move possible every turn.
IGM: As the game progresses, how do you incrementally ramp up the difficulty for a numbers-based tower-defense game?
Jenna: There are a few different things we’re doing. First is the easiest – we gradually make all the numbers higher. We also slowly bring more monsters out with each wave, so as the game progresses you need to cast spells on more monsters at a time to stay ahead. We also have a few things in the works that I don’t want to spoil, but I can say that in an update later this summer you’ll start seeing some special monster types that make you think a little harder!
IGM: Ah, that was my next question: What sorts of additional features or post-launch content would be possible for a game like The Counting Kingdom?
Jenna: The game as it stands right now is about 80% done, and we have a few specific goals with Early Access. Feedback from the players will help us bring up the overall polish level of the game, as well as stomp out bugs (players have already found a few!), and balance the difficulty level. I also have a handful of small features I’d like to get in the game, including new monster types and a special type of grid tile. In terms of what comes post launch – I don’t know! It will depend on exactly where the game is when we launch, and what the feedback from the community is.
IGM: Aside from bug reports, what sort of feedback are you looking for from the Early Access community?
Jenna: Anything and everything! It’s so crucial in game development to get an understanding of how people are experiencing the game. I’m probably most excited to hear about kids playing – I’ve had the chance to play test with lots of adults, but not nearly as many kids!
IGM: Do you see The Counting Kingdom as a game specifically targeted at a younger audience?
Jenna: Yes and no. The high level goal of the game is to help kids practice their basic math skills in a really exciting and engaging way. So many educational games are just not that interesting – how can we expect kids to play them if they’re not fun? That being said, I designed the mechanics to be interesting to anyone, regardless of age, and we’ve gotten lots of great feedback from folks since releasing on Early Access saying they’re having fun! Some of the funniest moments from PAX East this year came from when some typical hardcore gamers would wander over and try the game. Inevitably they’d look up after a couple of minutes looking really surprised and be like “Hey, this is actually really fun!” I’d kind of just nod and reply “Yup, that’s the idea!”
IGM: Are there any other types of educational games you’d like to tackle next? A language game perhaps? Or do you think you’ll shift focus and develop something different once The Counting Kingdom has launched?
Jenna: I definitely would like to continue working on educational games, but I have no idea what subject we’ll tackle next! One of the nice things about math is that, from a development perspective, it’s easier. Computers already understand the rules of math; I don’t need to teach my game that 1+1 = 2. Subjects like English are trickier, because computers don’t inherently understand that “bananas orange lollipop” is not a valid sentence. You have to build in the rules yourself, and especially in a language like English there are just so many exceptions. If we continue to focus on math I think that fractions could be an interesting subject to explore, but we’ll see!
IGM: “Bananas orange lollipop?” You’d be fun to play a word association game with.
IGM: Have you reached out to any elementary or middle school programs about integrating the game into classrooms?
Jenna: I’ve spoken with teachers mostly about the design of the game and features they look for in educational games. My general understanding is that getting a game into schools is a pretty slow and arduous process. In the long-term I’d love to do that, but I’m hoping that by targeting the consumer market first we’ll see some schools pick up the game organically.
IGM: In your opinion, what makes video games a worthwhile medium for exploring ideas like educational games?
Jenna: Every medium has its strengths, and games are a powerful tool in our educational toolkit. Games have so many advantages – they can be responsive, tailoring the difficulty level depending on the child’s input. Since they’re built as systems, games can give kids a way to play around with ideas in a non-linear fashion, poking and prodding to see what happens. The best educational games are also lots of fun, and more playtime results in more time engaged with the educational material!