How do you design a game that can teach something to the players and still be fun?

By teach I mean information or skills that are not part of the endogenous value of the game. For example, in an adventure game it is pretty easy to teach the player that the "B" button is for swinging their sword. And that swinging the sword will kill monsters. But when you have a concept or process you want to teach someone and try to make that into a game, the results are normally dull trivia games that could just be  flash cards or games that are more akin to an interactive slideshow  than a meaningful gameplay experience.

I recently had a client hire me to lead development and design for a small game with the objective of teaching excel shortcuts to the players, as the client runs a website dedicated to content about excel and databases

The game created with this client is Data Defender a grid based shooter with some tower defense mechanics that is controlled using the same buttons you would use to navigate in excel. You will be able to play it here next august  when it launches, here I will go over some of the design decisions that I made to make this game fun while teaching something new to people, an objective that all play-testers have told us (me and the client) was definitely achieved.

Defining a clear educational goal

First we had a talk about what the objective of the game is, what did we wanted people to learn once they are done playing. at the end we decided for the more commons shortcuts for navigating a spreadsheet, arrow keys, shift and tabulation for different kinds of selection and so on.

Excel is a pretty complex program and there is a lot to it. A first draft of the design included the ability to use Formulas inside the game, but it was obvious that would be to complex for the game playtime we expected from people and the time to develop the game so early on we decided to only teach Navigation shortcuts  this resulted on a set of constraints that inform the rest of the design.

So for your educational game, don´t try to teach everything regarding your theme, somethings are better teach with traditional multimedia information and not in an interactive space. that said, there are a lot of themes that can take advantage of interactive simulations (physics and math come to mind)  a great example on this regard would  be the work of brilliant and as they are able to go over some pretty abstract concepts with very cool simulations

So you have a clear and specific  goal of what you want people to teach, next step.

Choosing mechanics and aesthetics that support that goal

The take away point is, don't start thinking about making a platformer or a puzzle game and them figure out how to put your educational theme on it, seek out what mechanics naturally emerge from your theme, and develop on that.

We thought about the kind of ideas that our theme (excel) brought out. One of them was the idea of a data grid and that's what we used as a starting point. we turned the cursor on the protagonist and them give it reasons to have to move along the grid. And the buttons to move? the same ones you would use to move in excel.

This makes for a very odd controlled game when compared to other action or shooter games, but in the context of teaching excel navigation shortcuts the game allows players to develop muscle memory on moving from one part from the grid to other, as they would on a spreadsheet.

To shoot an enemy on the game you have to type the number 1 and press enter, akin to how you input new data in a cell, the backspace button was turned into a combo movement along selection,. To balance the game and prevent players from exploiting the backspace button we implemented it as a powerup you have to pickup first, the pickup function is made with the space key, the same way you would clear a value from a cell.

As you see, we choose a mechanic (moving and shooting enemies) that allowed us to exploit the action we wanted to teach, the players move in the game as they would move in excel, and the game space, a grid is just a more entertaining version of the spreadsheet.

Scoping to succeed

Finally, scoping a game to be developed on time and on budget is a problem general to all game development really, but for educational games specifically I would advise against try to include a heavy stories, cutscenes or other "gamey" features as they will only take away time and resources from actually making a compelling learning experience.

We did add a leaderboard to Data Defender and a points system as it was easy to do and created indigenous value on the game to be re-played. But that´s something you should do only if it makes sense for your own game.

It is way better to fine tune your teaching mechanics than to include a cutscene in your game, focus on the education part.

Some final thoughts

Making Data Defender tough me a lot about making games to teach, If there is something I am not quite happy with is the tutorial part, I wish I could have make something more dynamic when first introducing the controls, something I will have in account for my next educational game is to put more time in the "how to play" section to make for an even more entertaining experience.

You can Check out the game in the in the "Play Game" link, If you happen to play it please let me know what you think about it on twitter and also subscribe to the excel shortcut newsletter, those are some solid excel tips and everyone should really learn to use excel.

Aaaaannd I am still working on URA! my new rhythm adventure game where you use music to save the world!

Ura is new take on the rhythm adventure game formula, where you will explore, play different instruments and do magic to save the world. It is early on development but plays so much fun already I can´t wait for you to be able to play it!

Next post will be the URA devlog #1 so keep a eye out for that one!

I know, I know I broke the streak, but turns out coming up with a good post every week is kind of hard. So while I will keep trying to do so, there will be weeks in wich I problably don't have anything to say. See you next week! (or maybe the week after)

Making educational games that are fun