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!!





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…)





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On Magic Vests, Cloud Hats and the Oxymoron of Needing Rules to Play

I was really struck by Nina Simon’s post on “Magic Vests” and then Jay Cousin’s post on “Tag Cloud Hats”– all about getting strangers to interact with each other in a positive way. Nina talked about how as a gallery guide at a science museum, she would wear her magic docent vest and people would chat with her. Jay talked about how he made people wear silly hats at a conference and it made it easier for them to chat with one-another. I think one thing that’s interesting about these two examples is the concept of permission to interact. Permission to play. Which is essentially what games are: permission to play.

Ideally every museum visit would be a Ferris Bueller adventure but in reality, people need some prompts.

Ideally every museum visit would be a Ferris Bueller adventure but in reality, people need some prompts.

We have this romantic movie idea that play just magically happens- like we live in an 80’s movie and food fights erupt or people giggle and dance on the street or join 1st grader tour groups in museums. In real life usually play only happens in highly structured environments. Where do you play? Playgrounds (notice we need a specific, fenced-in ground to play), clubs, games, sports, events, fairs, playdates, concerts, laser tag. Even kids don’t have much unstructured play right now. Play is actually something that need lots of rules and lots of permission to happen. Boundaries, tickets, age limits, liability waivers, Is this ideal? No way. I would love a world where people trusted each other enough that play spontaneously erupted everywhere. But since that’s not going to happen, if we want more play we have to acknowledge people’s nervousness and safely guide them to the positive interactions that we’d like them to have.

I’ll get a little more philosophical about it. I suspect the reason that people are so very socially anxious in our day and age is that there are no rules to fall back upon. Anything goes- and that’s really stressful. Once upon a time, social interaction was highly structured. There were calling cards, cotillions, dance cards, sirs, ma’ams and misses, neighborhoods, churches, hat tips, curtseys, ladies’ circles, gentlemen’s clubs (a la 80 days around the world, not a la strip clubs). Even imagine this- when you danced, there were steps. Signals were clear. We know what those clear social signals caused for years and years: racism, classism, repression of some groups, lack of opportunity for others, lots of bad things happened from those strong social structures. We’d like to say we’re past that and that’s a good thing… but it’s stressful thing because now that signals aren’t always so clear, I don’t always know if I can say hello to you.

Prof. M J Koncen's

There is no Prof M J Koncen’s Ball Room Guide to interacting with strangers in our era. But games can help.

This is where magic vests, cloud hats and games come in. As game builders we need to understand two things:

#1: People need permission to play. We want play to be something that’s easy, fun and sanctioned, not weird and uncomfortable or makes people feel like they’re “acting up” and drawing attention. That happens with adding more rules, not less. Set the fence, the rules, the expectations.

#2: Establish a framework for how they can begin to interact, don’t expect them to figure it out on their own. You’re not letting them be free and creative, usually you’re stressing them out. The truly creative souls will find out how to break the rules anyways- and let them. But you don’t want the bulk of your audience’s energy to go into trying to figure out how to appropriately deal with this social situation. You want their full attention on learning and sharing.

Please understand, I don’t think people are all walking stress balls thinking “can I talk to you? can I talk to him?” Mostly stranger danger is just part of our normal lives: I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me. But then there are those moments at conferences or cocktail parties or on the train or at the library where you’d love to have someone to chat with but you think “it’d be weird.” Would that be weird? Would I be creepy? We want to use play to remove that question from people’s minds. Remove that stress- that barrier to entry. “weird?!” Nope, not weird. This is part of the game. Talk to that stranger. Share your stories, learn some stuff. It’s a safe place.

The magic vest did just this. Nina was in a museum, she could approach people while wearing the vest and it was okay- they had permission to speak with her and a framework to do it in: things to talk about, an environment where people felt safe talking, a person that they could clearly talk to. She mentioned that later at a zoo, she saw a lost child and attempted to help but she was vestless- just a creepy stranger. Jay’s project did something that I think is always fascinating: silly hats. The rules of civility have already been broken: you’re wearing a silly hat. We might as well talk. I like to set up these same parameters when I teach dance classes. The first thing I always do in a dance class is a ridiculous group warm-up. Bunny hops. Chicken pecking. shake your butt. We’re all in this together and we’re not here to look sexy. Permission to play, here are the steps, now let’s dance.

So the moral of the story is that if you want people to have fun, relax, share with strangers and create community, you need more rules, not less. Give them permission, rules and frameworks for meaningful interactions to happen. Having a party with alcohol and social media and lots of screens around your art collection is sort of cheating. Dulling people’s senses through loud music, dark rooms and alcohol will also make them into interact but for very different reasons- it’s sort of like blue comedy where people laugh because they’re uncomfortable but they still laughed so we think we got it. You don’t want people just to party in a cultural space, you want them to have meaningful interactions.


How long would it take museum security to detain you if you actually joined a 1st grade art tour?

This is no cotillion. You’re going to set people up to be a little uncomfortable and you may not have a ton of takers at first but as the person building the game or running the class, you have the authority to set up a play space and see what works. Give them permission, set up the frameworks, break the barriers by getting a little silly and then… let’s dance.