Green Door Labs: THE BLOG

Building mobile games for spaces. Museums, games, education and other great adventures.

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PLATFORMS!! Building games without a dev team

This week, I’m off to the SeriousPlay conference, another once of my favorite organizations in the Games for Good movement. (My other favorites are Games for Change and the Games, Learning and Society conference, which I STILL Haven’t been to!)


SeriousPlay is seriously awesome. Last year Jesse Schell was a speaker- and he was inspiring as always. But I think the most inspiring thing was watching him in the hallways on calls and on his laptop feverishly managing his Schell Games team to get games out the door- just like the rest of us. We’re all putting in the hours to get good stuff into the world!!

So that said, for this Serious Play conference I wanted to talk about PLATFORMS— to increase our efficiency and flexibility in getting that good stuff out into the world. I think platforms give us the ability to get MOAR good stuff out there. You may say “what is a platform?” Fear not- I’ll go through all the basics.


So What’s a platform?

When you build a game, there’s a million ways that you can do it but I like to boil it down to two main approaches

#1: You can hire a team and build something unique from scratch. This is awesome when you have either an in-house dev team, a genius volunteer developer or gobs of liquid cash to hire a really good for-hire dev team to work with you.

#2:  You build off of an existing online platform and customize the content to make it unique. This is great when you’re short on resources but long on ideas- and who isn’t?

But since a picture tells a thousand words. Building from scratch looks like this:


This is how you’d program something in javascript (ish)

Building on a platform looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 5.05.05 PM

This is how you’d build something off of the Edventure Builder.


Platform projects vs. Custom Built projects

So there’s a lot to be said for a custom-built project. Most of the big-deal projects that you see are custom built. Things like Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Portal, Minecraft, big AAA games- these are all custom-built projects with an in-house dev team. If your kid is paling a game by Disney or Toca Boca, that’s custom-built.


Toca Boca games are custom-built

But you might be surprised about some projects that ARE built off of platforms. Murder at the Met was built off of a platform (TourSphere/On-Cell) as was Planet Mania (the Baltimore Science Center built their own platform) as was Play the Past (Aris). Pretty much every indie game out there right now is built off of a platform called Unity. Unity is so complicated that it might as well be a programming language but technically, it’s still a platform. Some very big brands like Ebay and Yahoo, groups that have plenty of cash- but still choose to keep their blogs on a platform, WordPress:


Murder at the Met was built with a platform

Why would I use a platform?

The fact that Ebay and Yahoo use a platform for their BLOGS is a tip-off. Platforms are really best if you expect to have to change or edit or update your content. (Which, when you’re any sort of educator is pretty much always.) Platforms are usually created to be simple enough that anyone can get in there and add change or update content: you don’t have to hire a developer to custom program every new sentence.

If you’re flexible and creative enough to figure out how to shoehorn quality content into existing frameworks, platforms can cut both your production time and budget in half. MORE than in half. With platforms, I’ve seen really quality projects go out the door in under 2 months. This is possible for custom projects… but highly unlikely.

Last but not least, platforms let your content scale if you happen to be an organization with a lot of content. Say for instance, you build a custom-coded game for your renaissance exhibit. Once you’re done, it’s done. But if you happened to build that same project on a platform, now you know how it’s done and you can rotate your content monthly and make similar games with content from other exhibits. You can even edit it if new pieces come into your collection or make change if you find (God forbid) that visitors are responding to a different part of game than you’d predicted.

Why would I not use a platform?

Sometimes you have a very clear idea of what it is that you want. (I want Angry Birds with asteroids. That is what I want, I will be seriously bummed out if what I get is not exactly that.) Platforms force you to be super flexible with your content. Most platforms will work with you to try and make their platform do what you need it to do but a certain amount of flexibility is essential or else you’ll go crazy trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.


What are some platforms I should check out? 


An App-building platform is usually an online site that will let you drag-and-drop content and then publish it to an app or mobile website. My app-building platforms of choice are TourSphere (Now On-cell) and Tapwalk. On-cell lets you build out great interactive stories with beautiful visuals. Tapwalk has a pretty robust background engine to let you build content-heavy mobile interactives. We’re building a great game with TapWalk now that’s similar to a “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego” with probably over 400 screens and multiple, multiple pathways. It would’ve taken a ridiculous amount of time and money to custom code it. YAY platforms!!



Okay so this isn’t exactly for games (I guess technically neither is an app-builder) but if you have an idea for something that you want to include in your game or interactive project, you can create a quick blog or website on WordPress or Squarespace. There are a million others like Wix or Weebly as well but I think WordPress and Squarespace are the easiest to work on. One of the projects I’m working on decided we wanted to have the characters blog and use the website as a way to unlock information. It’s really easy to build something like that on WordPress, all you need is content and some time to build it.


Text-based Story Builders

Did you ever play one of those 1990 room-escape text-based computer games? The text describes everything “you’re in a room, you see a table, a desk and a window” … the curser waits. You type “open the window” it responds “the window is locked”. You can build these! Quest is a free online platform that will let you create exactly these choose-your-own adventure stories. For a mobile version, try something like Guide By Cell, the platform that Rev Quest at Colonial Williamsburg.

rev quest

People get totally into Rev-Quest, a text-based game at Colonial Williamsburg. Built off of a platform!


Mobile Games

Full disclosure: I built a platform. I did. It’s the Edventure Builder and it’s awesome and I love it. I am not objective about it. There’s a floating balloon that I will not pretend not to be completely enamored with: The Edventure Builder does all the things that I need it to do- it’s a fast, flexible jack-of-all trades mobile web platform. It was not built to be drop dead gorgeous, it was built to be a workhorse of a platform and you can build pretty much anything on: scavenger hunts, choose your own adventures, interactive stories, quizzes, personality tests, all sorts of stuff. Here are a few games you can play with it:,,

three apps

Three games off of the Edventure Builder, all with completely different content, dynamics and game goals

But I’d be totally dishonest if I said the Edventure Builder is the only story-based mobile game building platform out there- we’re just the one that does what I need. Others are Stray Boots , a great scavenger hunt company that started as content creators and now they let you build content. There are a bunch of fun apps that will let you build uber simple scavenger hunts like Museum Hunt or Aware Square


Video Games

Say you want to build an actual sprite-based video game: a Toca Boca or a Candy Crush of your own. You can do that! Game Salad is a good place to build some really simple image-based games, though it takes maybe an hour or two to figure out. Scratch is a platform that you can get up and running on ASAP but the games will be really basic. Construct2 is pretty straightforward to build on and lets you include some nice graphics. Here’s an overview of game building engines for Indie Gamebuilder:



So out of all of these, what can you start playing with NOW??! Good question! Quest is free and you can get in right away. Edventure Builder is a licensed platform but you have some connections (me!) so I’d be happy to set you up with a tester if you want to play. Scratch is completely free and you can start building with it instantly. The others take a little more time and effort to learn how to build with but definitely all worthwhile. Did I miss any platforms? Have you built with any of these and what have your experiences been?? (Especially the video games, I have yet to build a full game on any of the video game platforms and I’d love to hear about it if anyone went through the soup-to-nuts process!)

So what are you waiting for??! Go build a game!!



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Badges and Gamification

So…badges!! People often ask me about “Gamification” and “Badges”, two words that make any game designer cringe. It’s sort of like when you spend 15 years learning to lindy hop and someone says “can you do the pretzel?” No? Is that not a generalized enough analogy? Maybe if you’re a professional educator and someone tells you that they used to babysit. Or if you’re a museum professional and someone tells you they liked the “bodies” exhibit at the convention center. Essentially- “badges” is the most visible but reductionist and often harmful version of an otherwise complex study. “ification” or “ify” usually suggests that something is NOT something and you’re shoehorning it to make it that.
A dead giveaway is that nobody who works with AAA games or high-quality games talks about badges or gamification. Why? because those things are already fun. You don’t need to “ify” Portals, it’s already a pretty fun game. Is education so impossible that we have to “funify” it rather than just make it fun? Why do we need to hack education and culture with gimmicky level ups rather than just make it engaging? I think that’s lazy on our parts. We want to teach the same old way we’ve always taught (even though kids in today’s world respond to information in a totally different way than they ever have) but we’ll throw them a bone and give them a meaningless prize for slogging through our bad design. Shame on you, gamification. We don’t need to “gamify” education, we need to bake fun, engaging, interactive strategies for teaching right into the heart of it.
As for badges: I do have some experience. We had badges at SCVNGR and while SCVNGR had a lot of good parts to it, the badging was totally useless. One time we sent out a “Kim Jong FUn” badge and everyone got it for no reason…which pretty much undermines everything. I’ll never forget Jeff Kirchik on calls trying to explain to Universities why he had the “Justin Bieber badge (“So on this screen are my badges… I didn’t actually earn the JB badge… in fact I don’t know why I have it. In fact I hate Justin Bieber.”) I think to be successful, badges have to serve one of two purposes: either they show progress/success or they build community. Most badges are just progress bars essentially- it’s just a more colorful way to show people that they succeeded. SCVNGR badges failed because we really gave them out randomly– they didn’t mark any sort of success or mastery or progression.  Bieber badge
I think one group  that works with earned badging well is CodeAcademy ( It’s challenging content and they show you a nice grid of what there is for you to learn- it’s essentially a curriculum but it looks like badges. Every badge you win gets you closer to being able to actually have a marketable skill. I hear DuoLingo does that as well (I haven’t played its recent iteration) but the badges mark your progress on learning a marketable skill- a language. I think kung-fu belts are another good way to see this. Or grades. Alone, the belts are just a colored strip- the grades are just a letter. They’re only worth something if everyone agrees that these random symbols can represent that the user has achieved mastery on some level.
The other type of badging is community badging like FourSquare or Ingress. FourSquare was interesting because you knew the other players (usually). You could steal badges from them or compare badges. Girl Scouts have a similar dynamic. You all work together as a community to get that badge and you display it publicly so everyone can see how much you belong. The badge doesn’t necessarily show mastery of a topic as much as it shows the amount of time you’ve spent with the community. Ingress also has a sort of social-badge system where you level up and when you’re a level 8, you can do all sorts of extra stuff. Level 8’s help level 1’s and level 1’s work hard to become level 8’s so they can hang out with the cool kids. (SCVNGR wanted to be a social badging system but it didn’t work because players weren’t a close-knit community and a lot of the badges were given at random.)
The trouble with badges is that it’s usually a colorful band-aid that people put on bad design. People don’t care about badges, they care about success and community, which can be represented by badges if you do it right. This quick article I thought hit it spot on: In 2014, Gamification isn’t working the way they  thought it would, mostly because of MEANINGLESS POINTS AND BADGES (it took them this long to figure this out?):
I think it really hit a nerve with those of us who’ve been saying for years that good game design is just good educational design.
After a while even FourSquare got smart and realized that their badging/gamification system wasn’t the right approach to achieve their user and business goals:
Someone once said to me, “let’s hurry up and get over this badge hype so we can get some real work done”. That was years ago but even now I couldn’t agree more. Badges and Gamification are good in that they maybe interest people who wouldn’t think about games and playful design otherwise. Like the person who wouldn’t consider going to a museum until the “bodies” exhibit made them think about it or a person who started babysitting and that made them consider a career in education. It’s a great gateway, a low barrier to entry to get people thinking about a practice that might be able to help them out. But it’s only an entry. The trouble comes when people insist on making the gateway the practice itself. I HAVE to have badges. I want to tag gamification onto this already fully structured system and not change anything else at all. There are situations where badges and gamification are what’s needed but best to go through a solid design process first and figure out that it’s actually what you need. I’m all for the terms to bring people into the practice of playful design but once you’re through, keep an open mind! There’s so much more to game building than Badges!!



2 Red Flags When Building Fun Stuff…

People often bring the Green Door crew on to a project to make it fun. “We want people to be happy. Can we add badges to it? Can we add some graphics? How about points?”

This is known- of course- as chocolate covered broccoli or: gamification. Can we have all the mechanics of a game without it actually being playful? Can we make people do exactly what we want them to do in the way we want them to do it but make it look like they’re enjoying it? Oh boy…


oh no…

People’s hearts are in the right place: they care about something. Maybe it’s their product or their cause or their business and they want people to enjoy interacting with it. Badges and points seem at first glance like a quick way to make people happy. So actually- making unfun things fun, I do think this is possible. The key is to have clear user goals and then flexibility in getting there. In fact, In my mind, those are only two really serious red flags that can kill the fun in your fun project. Shall I elaborate? Well if you insist:

#1. Unclear User Goals

What do you want people to do? “We want people to just have some fun, reach out to a younger demographic, engage people in 21st century media.” Wait, what does that even mean?? What are we actually trying to achieve? These are probably good “throughlines” or overall big picture things but how do you know when you’ve achieved them? You need to really narrow down what you’re trying to get people to do, don’t waste your players’ time! What are some good goals?

  • We want 100 people to visit 5 places in Boston
  • We want people to look more closely at these three pieces of art
  • We want people to make connections between art and science.

These are things we can actually achieve and we know when we’ve done it. If you REALLY want people to just “have fun” you’d hand them a bottle of beer and a can of silly string and set them loose. I suspect you want something more, so figure out what that thing is and then you can figure out how to achieve it in a playful environment. Now as you may have noticed, if you don’t have clear goals… then just get them. Not impossible. The only deal-breaker is when people refuse to clarify, they cling to vague goals, they list like 20 goals or they keep shifting their user goals.

#2. Inflexible Dynamics

MY WAYYou want to build an app to make people eat healthier food. Great! But it has to have a flower in it and it has to be blue. They have to get points and they have to reach goals and they have to get badges and they have to play on Tuesdays between 12 and 2 and that’s how it is. NOW U GO HAVE FUN!

If we have user goals, we need be flexible on what to do to make them happen in a playful way. Our goal is not to do it OUR way or the way we pictured it, our goal is to do it in the simplest and most achievable way possible. Sometimes you take a look at your user goals, restrictions and resources and find out that what you need isn’t actually a game at all. Maybe it’s a personality profile, branding, a storyline or more instructions. Sometimes you do need a game but the best way to do it would be with a word game or a board game.  Your goal is not to build a game- it’s to achieve something through a game. If what you want can be more easily achieved through other media, that’s what you should be doing. (Unless your goal is to build a game… and that’s valid too… but chances are you have to build a game FOR something: you want to get more media, more attention, show your technological abilities, research how games work etc..)

So these flags aren’t a big deal, right? You can totally set clear user goals and then be flexible about how to achieve them! So with that in place, can you make your boring training session/ orientation/ historical tour/ conference fun? Probably. Just be super clear about what you want and then be flexible about how to get there.


So I’m not gonna lie, I like broccoli and chocolate covered broccoli might not be half bad. In fact I think often chocolate covered broccoli is better than no broccoli at all so if badges are the only way you’re going to get your project on the road, go to it.

What do you think? Have you come across these problems before in building or playing? Were they deal-breakers for you as they were for me? Are there other red flags that you’ve seen derail a game design project? Come on readers, I want to hear from BOTH of you! (heheh…)