Indie developer Daryl Hornsby has a novel approach for getting kids engaged with educational games: Don’t dumb things down.
That’s the key to Machineers, the clever puzzle-adventure game his company crafted to to lead kids through various programming logic concepts.
“When you say you want to target 10 to 15 year-olds, you’re told you have to make it overly colorful and bubbly, and that no kids read text,” Hornsby told Cult of Mac. “We’ve been able to prove that this is not quite the case. We’ve found that kids want to be treated like adults, but it still has to be approachable.”
The affable Hornsby was on hand at the Game Developers Conference in March to give us a quick tour of Lohika Games’ puzzle adventure game that aims to teach programming logic to 10 to 15-year-olds.
Dozens of indie game companies come to conferences like GDC to get exposure for their games, something that’s tough to do with the flood of new games that release each month on Mac, PC, console, and mobile platforms. Not many of them are educational games, so Machineers stands out.
The founder and CEO of Lohika, Henrike Lode, started making this game as a thesis project in school, but didn’t want to fall for any of the cliched edutainment tropes that kids sincerely hate. Hornsby came on to the team last year, and loves making a game he believes in.
Hornsby’s game (available on iOS and Android) has a steampunk art style with 12 cleverly designed puzzles to lead kids through various programming logic concepts, like creating and calling methods, update loops, and the like.
Once players make it through each of the puzzle levels, they’re given a sandbox mode, where they can design and race cars with their friends.
“You can choose how many wheels you put on it, lights, sirens — even a disco ball — and
you race it around our test track, set a lap time, and challenge your friends,” said Hornsby.
Hornsby and his team are based in Copenhagen and have an office next to some other successful indie developers, like Playdead (Limbo, Press Play (Kalimba) and developers of larger games like IO Interactive (Hitman: Absolution) and game development engine Unity itself.
It’s a heady mix, says Hornsby, making for a vibrant independent developer scene right where he works.
“We have a Spielbar, or games bar, every three months, where we hear micro talks by people in the industry, have some drinks, and network,” he said.
As lead designer, Hornsby creates the different levels, writes the story, and develops the character dialogue options. He said that some levels are motivated by a need to teach specific coding logic, but others are just pure inspiration. In episode two, due out within the next few weeks, Hornsby built a puzzle inspired by Game of Thrones.
“You’re given a limited reservoir of water and you can build the castle how you want to,” he said. “So you raise towers out of the ground, set different heights, there’s a lighthouse in there, and there are some bells that ring in different ways.”
This design came purely out of his own head, then took two weeks of hard design work to make the level ready to pass along to programming and art. The five person team works closely to make sure it all hangs together for the final result: a game they can all be proud of.
“The best thing about indie game development is that we can make the game we want to make,” he told us. “This is the game we envisioned–of course we listen to our beta testers–but this is what we wanted to make.”