Lee University grad heads development of multiplayer online game that teaches kids science

Lee University grad heads development of multiplayer online game that teaches kids science

August 4th, 2014 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

"Tyto Online" cofounders Ryan Tropf, Caroline Lamarque and Paul Burgermeister, from left, watch as children play the prototype during One Spark, a crowd-funding festival in Jacksonville, Fla.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Early in-game screenshots show environments inside the biodomes of "Tyto Online." Players complete quests to help the game's scientists balance biodome ecosystems, which mimic grassland, rainforest and desert habitats.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Early in-game screenshots show environments inside the biodomes of "Tyto Online." Players complete quests to help the game's scientists balance biodome ecosystems, which mimic grassland, rainforest and desert habitats.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

THE PREMISE

Three hundred years in the future, the prospects of life on Earth are bleak. The environment has been damaged practically beyond repair. The forests are gone, and the air is barely breathable. Clean water is practically a myth.

Nations around the world have decided the only way to ensure mankind's survival is to start over on another planet. Billions pack themselves onto enormous interstellar spaceships known as Pathfinders in forced evacuations and make the four-year interstellar voyage to the alien world of Ovo. Along with them, they bring small populations of Earth's plant and animal species, which will be housed and nurtured in biodomes that replicate their native habitats.

The first colony on Ovo is Espeth, a former research facility that has become a thriving community. It is also the home of Tyto Academy, a prestigious center of learning that accepts only the best and brightest students -- the game's players.

Awakening from cryosleep, the players must assist Espeth's scientists as they seek to learn more about their new world and to balance and sustain the ecosystems inside the colony's massive biodomes. In the process, the students will gather information about the ecology of Ovo and Earth in the hopes of one day returning to and restoring their home world.

LEARN MORE

To find out more about Tyto Online, view gameplay footage, contribute to its development and read updates from developer Immersed Games, visit the Kickstarter page at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/immersed/tyto-online-learning-mmorpg. See an early gameplay video at Vimeo.com/101659510.

Lindsey Tropf and her team at Immersed Games have set themselves a fairly monumental task - and it's not figuring out how mankind could survive on another planet or designing a balanced, extraterrestrial ecosystem.

Those burdens of fiction are practically featherweight compared to the real challenge of developing a massively multiplayer game -- known as MMOs -- in which players learn actual scientific lessons while also having fun.

On July 10, the Gainesville, Fla.-based games studio launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of "Tyto Online," an role-playing game with a decided emphasis on "science" over "fiction."

"We aren't making a game where you either do fun game things or you do learning things -- they are one and the same," explains Tropf, who graduated from Lee University in 2008. "You learn by doing quests that are a large part of game play.

"You level up through these quests, just like in a game like 'World of Warcraft,' except that our quests are linked to real-life learning that matters outside of the game."

The Kickstarter campaign ends at midnight Sunday. As of Thursday, 146 backers had committed more than $38,000 toward the project, about 80 percent of the $50,000 goal. If Immersed Games is unsuccessful in reaching its goal, the studio will receive no money from the campaign.

In "Tyto Online," players will take on the role of students enrolled in a futuristic scientific academy established in a colony on another world. They will be tasked with helping the game's scientists by tackling "quests" and solving puzzles such as exploring the landscape to catalog new extraterrestrial species and maintaining the Earth-like ecosystems in the colony's biodomes.

The game's missions are rooted in actual science and are being crafted in consultation with educators. Example quest scenarios listed in the funding proposal include figuring out why plants in the rainforest biodome are dying -- the humidity needs to be adjusted -- or discovering the cause of strange behavior in a colony of ants -- a parasitic fungus is responsible. Student-gamers also will be able to use the lessons they learn about balanced ecology to create their ecosystems using a Create-Your-Own-Biodome feature.

If the Kickstarter is successful, "Tyto Online" is slated to enter a closed beta test in the second quarter of 2015 with a second round of testing slated for the third quarter. Tropf says its too early to propose a date for a public beta or for the launch of the final game.

AN EPIPHANY

After graduating from Lee, Tropf enrolled in the University of Florida at Gainesville, where she is in the final year of her pursuit of a Ph.D. in school psychology. Her dissertation is on educational games.

Tropf says her interest in games' inherent educational qualities originated six years ago while she and her husband, Immersed Games co-founder Ryan Tropf, were living in Chattanooga and playing "World of Warcraft," an almost 10-year-old online role-playing game with more than 7 million monthly subscribers.

Although she was playing a game based entirely in fiction, Tropf says she realized one day that skills such as memorization that she used while gaming were just as crucial to learning new material in a classroom as they were to effectively slaying earth elementals and frost giants. Additionally, the ability to safely fail in a game encourages experimentation in problem solving, and the narrative structure of a game could provide context to learning that's lacking in textbooks.

"And being online, you have a perfect platform for social learning and collaboration," she adds. "In addition to learning about the game world and skills and abilities, I was also learning some great leadership and organizational skills.

"I had learned so much ... without trying, just through the process of play."

She ruminated on the concept of creating an educational tool with MMO trappings for years, and in 2012, Immersed Games actively began working on a concept for "Tyto Online."

Educational games, however, are not a new concept.

In the last 30 years, students have learned about geography, history and problem solving through the "Carmen Sandiego" series and acquired a healthy fear of dysentery and typhoid fever in pioneer simulator/adventure game "Oregon Trail." NASA and Discovery Channel both have dabbled in the edutainment space with in-house-developed titles such as lunar astronaut simulator "Moonbase Alpha" and "Race to Mars," which places players in control of a landing vehicle descending to the Red Planet.

But most edutainment titles are single-player-only affairs. In "Tyto Online," Tropf says she hopes to take advantage of an MMO's inherent social elements, open game world and persistent character development to disguise the educational process and encourage self-driven learning.

Tropf says her dream is that educators and parents will assign "homework" using the quest-based learning system to impart the same knowledge as a traditional assignment in a more engaging fashion.

"We plan on marketing it to schools and home schooling parents as a great learning tool, to parents as a positive non-violent game that will also help their child learn more, and to kids as an awesome game that also happens to be tied to real content," Tropf says.

The game's quest lines are being built around lesson plans curated by educators with whom Immersed Games is consulting. And so far, Tropf says, the response from teachers has been positive, with many offering to test the game out on their students when it becomes available.

"We'll be collecting data to help us decide what aspects [of the game] are the most effective," she says. "I want to see that students are learning and having fun. Ideally, they are playing the game not just to do the bare minimum assigned quests from a parent or teacher, but tinkering and exploring in it, learning even more than what is expected with them."

BUILDING A WORLD

Immersed Games creative director Paul Burgermeister met Tropf and her husband while playing "World of Warcraft" with them about nine years ago.

During their almost nightly sessions, Tropf brought up the concept of creating an educational MMO. Burgermeister was studying visual 3D animation and graphic design at the University of Wisconsin and had plans to enter the video game industry after graduation. He immediately took to the idea of an educational MMO and asked if he could help.

Burgermeister says he was won over by Tropf's argument that gaming, particularly social gaming, offered a novel alternative to traditional teaching methods.

"You have kids playing 'Pokemon' who memorize the attributes of 600 different [creatures]," he says. "They're not even real animals, but [the kids] know extensive amounts of information about them. If those games were using real animals, I'm sure lots more kids would be interested in being zoologists."

Two years ago, Burgermeister joined the ranks of Immersed Games and now is helping to design the look of "Tyto Online's" game world.

The goal, he says, is to create an aesthetic that is quirky, colorful and whimsical enough to be visually appealing while also being grounded in reality. Early gameplay footage shows Earth-native plants and animals in the game's biodomes that look true-to-life, but even the alien species -- such as the lemur-like panganog named Mr. Tipps that has become a kind of mascot for the studio -- will be rooted in plausibility.

"We can actually show players what a praying mantis looks like or what a beaver looks like, and it's an actual beaver, not an alien beaver with seven eyes and four toes," he says. "[Even the alien species] have realistic aspects to them that make them, under certain circumstances, possible as real species of animals or plants."

MORE TO COME

Although "Tyto Online's" quest-lessons will be exclusively focused on ecology in the initial launch, Tropf says Immersed Games has grand ambitions for using the game as a much broader educational platform with future "modules" centered on a range of topics, from history and math to arts and entrepreneurship.

Achieving those long-term goals, however, will require far more than the $50,000 goal for the Kickstarter. According to the crowdfunding proposal, fully realizing the developer's "stretch goals" could require more than ten times that amount.

Historically, MMOs such as "World of Warcraft" and "EVE Online" have carried a monthly subscription fee, but in recent years, the industry trend has been shifting to titles that are free-to-play but that lock some in-game content behind a pay wall.

Tropf says her studio has yet to settle on a system for "Tyto Online," but they are considering a hybrid, "freemium" model in which content that is paid for by government grants or corporate sponsorships -- such as a bank-sponsored module to teach personal finance -- would be free to access while content that was created solely by Immersed Games would only be accessible to subscribers.

Regardless of how it's ultimately paid for, Tropf says, the goal is for "Tyto Online" to be a launching-off point, a platform with educational value throughout a student's grade school years.

"This is a game we want kids to be able to grow up with," she says.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.