Project Timeline: October 2013 – November 2016
Status: Game completed. Launch pending company financing.
Clinical research on an attention-training prototype game developed at Duke-National University of Singapore showed great potential to benefit children with attention deficits. In the prototype, children used an EEG headset to control the movements of an avatar in a crude 3D running game; the better a player could focus their attention, the faster their avatar would run.
The founders of Atentiv™ licensed the technology and set out to commercialize the system as a highly-engaging 3-D action game and an inexpensive, medical-grade EEG headset that would bring the benefit of validated attention training to the millions of children around the world with attention-related learning challenges such as ADHD.
I was hired as Creative Director for the company’s games, but in function my role was much more broad. I led the game development effort, bridging the work of API developers, cognitive science experts, clinical researchers, data scientists, and external game development studios to conceptualize, design, test, and build the game that would eventually be known as Skylar’s Run.
My responsibilities during this project included:
- Developer and Project Management – I worked closely with 3rd party game development studios as their primary point of contact with Atentiv. I also led the developer search: contacting and interviewing candidates, evaluating proposals, and reviewing contracts and SOWs.
- Game and User Experience Design – I managed the design of the game, overseeing and co-writing game design documentation, and ensuring that the game’s structure and mechanics effectively incorporated Atentiv’s attention training pedagogy.
- User Research and Testing – I designed and co-administered user tests across the product development lifecycle, including focus group tests to develop appropriate game and story concepts with children, and playtests to validate core game engagement loops. I piggybacked product development research onto multiple cycles of longitudinal, in-home efficacy studies, including surveys, app log analysis, and face-to-face interviews. I processed and summarized feedback from all research, and created action plans to address critical issues during game development cycles.
- Art Direction – I reviewed and approved game art assets including mood boards, concept art, storyboards, 3D character and object models, and UI designs. I created sketches and wireframes to represent options for menu, HUD, and performance reporting elements.
- Narrative Design – I managed the creation of the stories, characters, and worlds in the game, including creating story pitch templates, writing game summaries, leading a “Story Jam,” and co-writing character dialog, cut scenes, and tutorial content.
- Marketing Support – Contributed to company’s marketing plan, language, and imagery development. Directed company’s presence at the 2016 Experiential Technology and Neurogaming conference, including creating booth concepts and editing video presentations.
All images © 2016 ATENTIV
Key Learnings from this Project
- In mental health, the definition of “accessibility” is complex – In UX design, maintaining accessibility is generally understood as designing affordances for users with physical or perceptual disabilities. For example, ensuring that color is not the sole means used to convey information in an app, so that color blind users can complete important tasks. A broader definition might include factors related to age (reducing or eliminating text instructions in an app for preschoolers) or level of familiarity with computer interfaces (explicating the mechanics of the interface for computer novices). But in experiences designed for people with mental disorders, learning disabilities, or other cognitive or emotional impairments, accessibility takes on new dimensions that go well beyond the structure and presentation of visual information. Skylar’s Run was designed for children with ADHD. Common co-morbid disorders in children with ADHD include anxiety disorder, emotional regulation impairment, and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD). Each of these conditions, though they don’t interfere with an individual’s ability to perceive information, can strongly affect how that individual processes or responds to that information. For example, a harsh animation or sound effect used to negatively reinforce a player’s action, which in neuro-typical children may condition faster learning of a game mechanic, might cause a child with generalized anxiety disorder to completely lock up and disengage with the game. So when developing products for users with mental health disorders, it is important to make explicit up-front decisions about the scope of your accessibility efforts. Don’t assume that traditional “accessibility” checklists will eliminate all barriers to using your product.
- Novelty != Unpredictability – It’s tempting to see procedural generation as a magic wand for vastly reducing the budget on content-dependent products. The theory goes that if the player never has the exact same experience twice during a session, their engagement can be sustained much longer using a smaller set of assets. This belief relies on a superficial definition of content, measured in the quantity of visual assets or the number of missions. But a game’s content is better measured as the variety and depth of novel experiences rather than assets: distinct game mechanics, meaningful choices for the player, new types of objectives. Once these are exhausted, regardless of how unpredictable the remaining sessions, the player will experience the game as repetitive. This can be true of non-game apps as well. Don’t underestimate the amount of real content you will need to keep your app engaging.
- Make KPIs part of the negotiation with external developers – Over many years of experience working with external development teams to build software, the most common approach I’ve seen to structuring these partnership can be summarized simply: defining the technical scope of a project and negotiating on costs. On Skylar’s Run, I worked with two game development studios, each with years of experience and deep benches of talent. Ostensibly, we hired them for the added value they could bring to the process as dedicated educational game design firms. Yet, when it came down to it, the incentives of our company and these contractors were not aligned. The company was interested in goals and outcomes, but we hired the contractors to make a thing. With plenty of opinions (researched-based though they were) within our company of what that “thing” should look like, there were no shortage of new things to build, and little incentive for the contractor to assert their own ideas and processes for how to achieve the company’s true goals. Mind you, these excellent firms DID assert, pushing us on many occasions to rethink our approach. But how much more effective would these partnerships have been if, from the beginning, we had understood the deliverables to be experiences rather than code?