Jenna Hoffstein, Founder of Little Worlds Interactive, shares her experience in creating educational games for children. In this interview from 2015, Jenna and Steve Waskul first talk about her first venture into indie gaming: “The Counting Kingdom.” Later they discuss the tools Jenna utilized to make her dreams a reality, as well as the invaluable partnerships she’s developed in this industry.
As the interview begins, Jenna reveals that although she loves the process of game development, what has really drawn her to this facet of gaming is bringing creative content to children. “When their eyes go wide- that moment is what I live for,” she shares.
“I’m just concerned about your Q & A,” Steve jokes. “It’s a challenge,” Jenna laughs, explaining how she prioritizes staying grounded and getting the game to as many kids as possible.
So what is the game and how do you play it? Steve wants to know. “The Counting Kingdom,” Jenna replies, is their first game. “You are the wizard’s apprentice and you defend the kingdom from invading monsters using the magic of math.”
So how does the mathematical process work? Steve wonders. Jenna explains how she wanted to stay away from quizzes and develop something more strategic and engaging. For example, when you approach a monster, you’ll have 3 numbers that appear on the side as your “spells” and 2 monsters with numbers on them. By selecting the correct spell you’ll banish the monsters. So, she continues with enthusiasm, if you have 6 and 7 monsters and a 13 spell, and you select the 13, then the monsters will disappear with “lots of particle effects and explosions.” It’s really crucial that games meant to be played at home are fun, she insists.
Sharing his experience with his own daughters, Steve suggests that getting games like “The Counting Kingdom” to kids at an earlier age might unlock potential skill sets usually seen in older kids. Nodding in agreement, Jenna shares some of her research in this area. “Kids as young as 5 are developing what they call ‘math anxiety.’” Essentially kids feel so much pressure to perform in math that they turn away from it entirely, even as young as five. In developing these games, Jenna hopes to change that trend.
So you’ve been developing games for the past 8 years? Steve inquires. Working as a designer, Jenna has created game concepts in a variety of genres. Now she has moved into the indie realm with her own company. “There’s just something really nice about being in control of what I do on a day to day basis,” she discloses, as well as to fully owning the praise and press the game receives.
“What kind of platform did you use to build the game?” Steve asks. In reply, Jenna says she used Unity in tandem with Playmaker, a visual scripting tool. “I work with contractors who do the art, audio and help out with the marketing as well.” Jenna explains that she’s used Unity throughout her career. “It was a natural fit” for this game. “When I need to make marketing products I use adobe products generally,” she finishes.
“I’m just curious,” Steve interjects, “What is the learning curve for unity?” Jenna explains that Unity has great tutorials and a thriving user community, so it’s relatively easy to problem solve any issues you might have.
With enthusiasm, Steve shares that he loves the fact that you can purchase a creative piece from Unity users and fairly quickly put something together while learning the basics. “It can be really engaging!” he enthuses. In agreement, Jenna reveals that she purchased some of the explosive effects for “The Counting Kingdom” and then put her own twist on them. “The amount of hours of work that that saved me was well worth the investment,” she says.
Steering the conversation in a different direction, Steve asks, “What kinds of partnerships have you developed?” Right now Jenna is talking with GlassLab Games, a company that has created a marketplace for third party developers to put their games in front of more teachers. She’s also conversed with tablet developers with the hopes of putting her game into kids’ hands via tablet.
“How have you been received here?” Steve asks. “Good,” Jenna smiles. This year has been particularly exciting because a lot of people have heard of “The Counting Kingdom,” validating her efforts. “I always feel like an underdog when I come to things like this,” Jenna shares. “Educational games for kids is just not a sexy area,” she laughs.
Winding down, Steve asks, “So what’s next?” Jenna says she will be continuing work on “The Counting Kingdom,” as well as starting pre-production for her next game, which will most likely be set in space. “I’m a huge space nerd,” she effuses, “Any excuse I can take to put a game in space, I will do that.”
“Do you find that the relationships you make here are valuable to you afterwards?” Steve inquires. “Absolutely” Jenna confirms. She insists the game developing community is rather small. “You start to recognize the handful of people who are really active in events like this.”
In closing, Steve wonders if Jenna has found any new technology at the show that she hopes to incorporate into future game development. Although she doesn’t think she can incorporate VR into her own games, she is very excited about the possibilities VR will bring to the gaming world. Agreeing, Steve says that he can see VR being used in education. “I mean, if we’re talking about the American Revolution,” he encourages, “let’s put the kids on the streets of Philadelphia.” Laughing, Jenna agrees, “Make them be part of the Revolution.”
Sharing her final thoughts, Jenna says that she thinks VR will revolutionize education so long as it is cost effective for schools. “Kids learn in so many different ways. I think this will be yet another way that we can really make these worlds come alive for them.”