Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Josh Hughes of Team Kaizen delves into the fun side of education, and the educational side of fun with Burst!, a PC/Android title that mixes explosions with science.



What's your game called and what's it about?

Our game is called Burst! and it's meant to be the indie rhythm game for indie musicians! In Burst!, players queue up and detonate fireworks to the beat of music. We've also integrated a tad bit of STEM design (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) into Burst!: Players unlock different elements off of the Periodic Table as they advance, which enables them to make new colors of fireworks -- this is how real fireworks get colors.

Burst! is currently in a limited-functionality Flash-powered beta on the Android Market and it is available to play online.

How can video games help students learn more about science and technology? What advantages does gaming offer teachers?

Games naturally offer a "safe to fail" environment. Meaning, if you're testing out a physics-related problem, if something goes wrong you can asses it, start the problem over again and tackle it with the newfound knowledge from the failed attempt. This means users are engaged to solve problems instead of being presented with the fallacy that they are "too stupid" to solve them. I believe that, in true-blue educational settings, some of the most powerful game tools come from these user-generated-content games. This is because they not only can be used to teach information, but they directly engage users to go into create mode and experiment with the knowledge.

It isn't something you regurgitate on a test anymore; it becomes key information in solving a problem within a game you care about. This relates directly to the test group of kids we are working with at a local grade school. These kids (eight of them, four boys and four girls from grades fourth to sixth) are learning STEM one meeting a week and learning LittleBigPlanet and game design two meetings a week. Within a very short period, they were asking their teachers if they could stay after school to learn, coming in on vacations and skipping class parties so they could engage in learning more.

On their own accord, without teacher prodding, they asked if they could use school computers to build a shared-knowledge database on the school's network so their levels are as historically and scientifically accurate as possible. They've commandeered white boards and begun drawing out details of their levels, including time periods they need to research to make them perfect. And this is only a test group!

I believe that these kinds of games will have an increasingly important role to play in education because of this kind of engagement; the learned knowledge means something and directly plays into self-empowerment and self-expression, so retention goes through the roof.

What's the coolest aspect of Burst!?

I'd say there are two things. First of all, I love that we're aiming to give indie bands their rhythm game -- we hope to, in the Unreal-powered version, have an infrastructure in place where bands can easily create song packs of their work and sell them to fans. This way Burst! could have an unlimited number of songs spanning every possible genre while giving smaller acts a game to proudly lift up and call their own.

Secondly, the way we naturally include STEM elements as part of the game design. We're normal game designers by trade (our other major title, Shattered Soul, has no STEM in it what so ever) and we got involved in educational circles through our crew winning a $40,000 grant from Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory and The MacArthur Foundation to develop a free-to-play educational LittleBigPlanet 2 level pack. Once we got that grant, we got involved with several people in educational gaming spheres.

At first, we were nervous about this -- we wanted to develop games like Shattered Soul and were afraid that getting involved in STEM and education would somehow be abandoning that. However, we realized we can have our cake and eat it too here so we jumped in and are now working on several projects both educational and standard in the game industry. With games like Burst! we're trying to push an attitude of what we call "educational lite." To us, educational lite games are games that naturally mix STEM into normal gameplay and have a more mainstream market approach. In other words, instead of coaching someone to pass a test we just mix STEM into the game so they learn it naturally as a key part of playing the game -- much like the use of the Periodic Table in Burst!.

How did winning $40,000 from the LBP Digital Media Learning Competition change how you develop games or how you view indie development?

It was a whole other world! By the time we won it, I had been working to build relationships in the game industry for years, so I figured the educational-game industry was basically going to be the same thing just with different terms or something. I was way off base, and HASTAC introduced us to a whole new vibe. They wanted normal game designers to be a part of their conversation, they wanted people who had no aspirations to make educational products in the established way.

I'm glad that we got over our fear and jumped in! I think normal game designers like us have a lot to add to the discussion on where educational games should go, especially when it comes to people realizing we need to abandon the "carrot and stick" method where kids are forced to take a bland test and are awarded with gameplay that isn't connected to the content in any meaningful form.
There are many people who didn't know what Objectivism existed before BioShock, and I'd be willing to bet more than one person studying Greek Mythology in school first had their interest sparked by God of War.

Also, I think there is much more to be said about the educational-lite games like Burst! that mix STEM naturally into standard game design. The general soul of that idea has been around for a while. There are many people who didn't know what Objectivism existed before BioShock, and I'd be willing to bet more than one person studying Greek Mythology in school first had their interest sparked by God of War. When you mix real things into games people naturally become curious and inquisitive, and if you make those real things based around STEM principles players can naturally learn things without ever feeling like they played a game that could be classified as educational. I think we're only scratching the surface on this.

Do you want Burst! in every classroom, or do you see other avenues where it can teach people about the periodic table?

I honestly don't see Burst! in the classroom; I see it on people's Android and iOS devices. I think everyone has this idea that STEM and educational games belong in the classroom and everything else not so much -- this distinction has to end.

As game designers, what we do is present players with a problem and the newfound knowledge, tools and ability to solve the problem. If STEM principles are naturally mixed in with that knowledge to solve the problem, the game becomes educational but not necessarily in a way that hammers it over the heads of players. If you take a close look at the subjects, there are a lot of cool concepts for game ideas if you're willing to be creative, and it becomes a great experience in widening your scope as a game artist.

From conversations we had with people who played the Flash version of Burst!, they really thought it was cool we incorporated the Periodic Table. They had no idea different elements made different firework colors and it took those elements, which were before just hard-to-understand cards on a weird table, and added a context that was memorable and made them feel more informed as a player in the process -- and I really think we are only beginning to scratch the surface of both what game designers can offer STEM and what STEM can offer game design!

To add a caveat though: If teachers want to use Burst! in the classroom I certainly wouldn't object and wouldn't mind working with interested parties to develop content along those lines.

What inspired you to make Burst!?

Well, I've personally been a part of start-up studios for years -- before starting Team KAIZEN with my brother, I was part of a different indie studio called XrucifiX -- and I can't honestly remember how long I've wanted to do a firework-based game.

I've thought about it off and on for years and, earlier this year, we decided to do a mobile game while we also work on the Unreal Dev Kit-powered tech demo to our 3D brawler, Shattered Soul. Around this time, on the 4th of July, I was watching our city's firework show and figured I'd pitch it to our crew that we take the basic game idea I had and run with it -- they provided their own input and within about two months we had a working prototype that we entered in the Adobe Air App Challenge. We learned a lot from that prototype (it's the one on the Android Market) and the overall reaction was great. People loved the gameplay and the natural inclusion of STEM elements, so we decided it was time to move up to UDK and really crank the concept to 11.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

We certainly wouldn't mind working with publishers! For us though, it started in 2002, my brother (who was 7th grade at the time, I just graduated high school) was diagnosed with severe kidney problems with a transplant in the future; he spent Christmas 2011 in the hospital as he had his bad kidney removed in preparation for the forthcoming transplant. Our father told Trev to his face he didn't want the bills of a sick child, so he left the scene and Mom, Trev and I went bankrupt.

We lost everything, moved in with Mom's parents and did our best to make ends meet. Two and a half years later, I told Mom "normal" wasn't working for us; we had to try crazy. Crazy meant taking our lives back by starting a studio and starting up a movement. That became the plan that, within 5 years of us receiving principle funding for our projects, would make our turf of Great Falls, Montana, the Park City of the game industry. The Great Falls Development Authority found out about this and contacted us. They told us that, if we were serious and willing to work hard, they'd take us under their wing and teach us how to pitch and be business people. That was 2006, and now, after some hard work, we got projects like Burst! and Shattered Soul in the making as well as an LBP pack under our belt.

So, in the end, for us it was about succeeding against the odds and showing the world you can rock it, and we have so many people that have helped us both within our crew and outside of it, like the Great Falls Development Authority. Being an entrepreneur is hard but very rewarding!

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

In some ways, yes. Around here we kind of have a disproportionally large artistic community but we're one of the few game artists in town, so we've had to network a lot and build relationships and learn from others in their quests to rock the world through art, and I think that has been a very enlightening experience. In other words, I don't think we just feel a connection to other indie studios, but also indie artists in general. There are a lot of different people out there doing cool stuff and, if someone is thinking of starting up, I highly recommend reaching out and networking -- you'll never know what you'll learn from who unless you try!

Sell Burst! in one sentence:

Rock out to your favorite indie artists as you play around with pyrotechnics without setting your house on fire!

What's next?

Well, we want to get our Kickstarter funded, of course. From there, we want to get Burst! out there more as well as the other projects we're involved in. Shattered Soul's tech demo was a long road for us to walk but that will be investor/publisher pitch ready by March. From there? I'm a huge fan of the Japanese symphonic metal band, Versailles Philharmonic Quintet. When they first started hitting the scene, someone asked the lead singer Kamijo where he saw Versailles going and he replied, "Sekai Sefuku," which is Japanese for "World Domination." I plan to get that tattooed on me somewhere (Once I conquer the fear of tattoo needles!). I feel as if "Sekai Sefuku" and Sir Frances Drake's "Sic Parvis Magna" ("Greatness from small beginnings") are our two life mottos.


Burst! is playable now for free via Flash or through the Android Market, and its Kickstarter is under way right here! Educate yourself!

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This article was originally published on Joystiq.