What 12 year olds taught us about our tech startup

October 2, 2015 – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-12-year-olds-taught-us-our-tech-startup-jean-leggett?trk=mp-author-card

Remember back to the age when you didn’t have adult responsibilities. How summers were filled with drippy popsicles, skinned knees and wet bathing suits? When you had no worries and everything was kinda sorta fascinating and cool? That seems so long ago. And when you’re adulting (yes, I said adulting), our world view and assumptions are shaped by our experiences to the point that we typically don’t deviate from them. Spending 22 months in relative isolation building our platform meant we were focused — but it also meant we might benefit from a new perspective.

By inviting young teens to our games studio for four week-long summer camps, we saw our tech startup with fresh eyes and it was invaluable.

Background

The team at One More Story Games has been building a games publishing platform since January 2014. That’s 22 months of building tools for emerging and established writers to create, publish and sell interactive story games. We worked with writers to develop the tool and to work through critical issues. Our focus was building a solution that broke down narrative elements (people, places, things, events, etc.) and create a tool with minimal computer coding required.

We focused on adult writers creating content for adult game players. After all, women gamers comprise of 44% of games consumers and our mission is to offer narrative-driven games as an alternative to the smashing candy, farming and hidden objects games so popular with women but…

The crazy (but brilliant?) idea

With six workstations available during the summer, we decided to run a single week-long summer camp and invite teens to learn the basics of storytelling: what does branching narrative look like, how to create a sandbox storyworld for players to explore and teach them some basic programming skills. We did this for two reasons: to validate our theory that this is easy-to-use software and to generate revenue.

Our first camp had four students: Two 12 year old girls named Rachel, Graydon (12) and Spencer (16). We were curious: had we made our software easy to use? Was the game making experience fun? Or were we completely out to lunch? Were these kids going to still like us when camp was over? They did — and based on the success of the first camp, we added three additional camps. Our AHA moments follow:

What we learned

The proof is in the pudding

If a 12 year old can figure out your software, you’re probably on the right track. We’re still in limited alpha and not everything is ready-out-of-the-box but with some instruction, the kids picked it up within minutes. Our creators add, tag, and describe graphics, maps, characters, items, events and finally, they use some simple LUA scripting to connect the story elements together. Logic includes something akin to “if player visits Bob’s Crab Shack, then reveal the missing sneaker.” We were quite surprised at how far ahead of the course schedule our first camp had gotten by the end of day one — they took to the concept quickly.

Our task now is to translate what we taught at the camps into a more intuitive UI and user tutorial videos and FAQs.

We had one vision, the kids had another

When you tell an adult “these are the parameters of the software,” they’ll accept that. Kids will nod and say, “can it do this, this and this, too?”

If you spend enough time with a group of young teens, you’ll find a handful that play Minecraft. Rachel #1 wanted to create a game that was more like Mazerunner, the popular novel and film. The player would be able to click on the edges of the screen to advance in any direction to get out of a giant maze and avoid danger. This particular feature was something we’d scheduled for a few months down the road but the dev team hunkered down and implemented the feature in 2 days. During that time, Rachel created her maze in Minecraft, took screenshots and prepared her story elements in StoryStylus. By the time she left camp, she’d completed her first video game ala Mazerunner. Were all the requests made by the kids feasible? No, our software wasn’t build to make platformer games and no, it can’t port over to Unity (yet). But all their great ideas and suggestions will help us better shape future versions of the software.

We continue to embrace feedback — there are lots of choices you make when you build an minimal viable product on a limited budget — and each passing month sees continual improvement and new features.

Learning about creating is fun

I’m sure the parents were sold on the concept of us teaching narrative and basic coding skills and the kids were sold on “hey, I get to make video games for a week.” One of our activities was to play Once Upon A Time, a card game where you win by using your imagination… you have to piece together the best story using the different elements — people, places, events, items, etc. This prepared the kids for our engine’s elemental story pieces as well.

Each kid got 30 minutes with our in-house writer and got to plot out their game. Some of them had incredibly complex stories that branched in ways we hadn’t expected from 12 year olds. My favourite story was the murder mystery set on the classic USS Enterprise, where the player had to choose if they would be Kirk or Spock and investigate who killed the Klingon. Rachel #2, our Star Trekenthusiast, stole my heart (and the hearts of all the geeks we’ve talked to). Here were kids who were given free rein to create — no idea was stupid — and were encouraged to have fun. In our post-camp follow ups, they told us how much it meant to them that someone listened and supported them in an educational capacity.

I admit I had a proud mama moment when I saw the kids transition from the basic functionality of the engine to the LUA scripting. Here are 10, 12, 14 year olds starting to program. How cool is that? Some of kids took to it easier than others but by the end of the camp, they were all miniature programming wizards. They’d spent a week learning about communication, creating and coding and they didn’t even know it.

Patience, grasshopper

That first set of campers got a slightly shorter straw. It was the first time we were teaching kids to use the software and they found some great bugs for us. With each cluster of bugs that were fixed, we deployed a new version of StoryStylus so they could continue working away. By the time the third camp rolled around, we didn’t need to deploy a new version — all the significant errors had been dealt with. That first camp made a contest out of who could find the most bugs. Spencer was gloriously successful in this endeavour. They were patient with us and knew that they were helping us make the software better for future storytellers.

In limited alpha, we’re working with early adopters that see the long-term value of our engine. They’re patient with us and know that new features are on the way and that help videos are coming shortly. They’ll benefit when we publish the story games of very well known authors in 2016 by being among a select group alongside them.

Kids get excited

Maybe they have less to be jaded about in general, but I find that kids get excited and they show their emotions. My favourite kind of adults are the ones that let out the occasional squee over good news. Whether we were teaching them about storytelling through Once Upon a Time, getting them to plot out their story flow or the one hour lunch breaks where they got to play video games or watch YouTube… they were happy and excited to be in an environment learning about stuff they love. I don’t see too many adults that create opportunities for themselves to get excited. The camps (and our software) are about What’s Possible.

Kids can master complexity

With each camp, we started with ice breakers on the first day. The kids were nervous and none of them knew each other. By the end of camp, some lifelong friendships had been established because they worked together. On the last day, we asked each kid what is one piece of advice you’d give to someone on their first day at camp learning our software? Spencer said “it looks hard, it isn’t.” Imagine what these kids could do if they had a course on interactive storytelling in middle or high school? Imagine what’s possible then?

All of the kids said they plan to continue using StoryStylus to keep making games, and we know Ben and some others are working away on their 2nd game.

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While our CEO would say that we’ve built a fancy word processor that publishes games, it’s so much more than that. Even in alpha, it can do some incredible things. We’ve done this on a bootstrapping budget over 22 months and have raised $240,000 from friends and family. We’ve signed our first international best-selling author with over 20M novels sold and we’re just getting started. We’d been so focused on the adult market all this time but this summer has shown us that we need to make sure we’re nurturing the future storytellers, too. Especially in smaller communities like ours.

I speak for the team at OMSG when I say it was an incredible and humbling learning experience to spend time with 22 incredible 10–16 year olds this summer and watch them create interactive story games. I know we ALL learned a lot from the experience.

My biggest proud mama moment was an email from 13 year old Keane. Here’s a kid that traveled 14 hours to come to our camp. Keane asked us when we were planning to do our next camp, you know, for the advanced game design kids. Next summer, Keane, next summer!

CTV News covering our summer camp:https://www.youtube.com/embed/guWmh5NXBRc

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Know a writer, screenwriter or game designer who wants to create interactive story games? One More Story Games is running a Write A Game contest with $10,000 in cash and prizes. Visit www.onemorestorygames.com for more details.