A High Steaks Game

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Martha Steaks splash screen
Martha Steaks: Image courtesy of WGBH, 2014

Suspended over a suburban landscape, dogs leap, hurdle, glide and tumble through a floating landscape of meat products. In other words, this is a typical day in the life of Martha Speaks, the PBS KIDS web site of the TV series of the book series. This latest game, produced by my friend and colleague Laura Nooney, is the newest combination of vocabulary instruction, mobile gaming, and canine mayhem from WGBH in Boston.

I asked Laura how a game like this is put together.

GeekDad: Please tell us who you are.

Nooney:  My name is Laura Nooney and I am a Senior Producer of Children’s Media. I work on the digital side of things, mostly making games, apps and websites. I started here 13 years ago writing quiz questions for a game called Chicken Stacker and reading kids submissions to the ZOOM website. It’s been pretty much all fun and games since then.

GeekDad: And what do you do on Martha Speaks?

Nooney:  I produce the Martha Speaks website, which means I oversee all digital production of content aimed at kids online.

GeekDad: And what is this latest game all about?

Nooney:  The goal of this game, as with almost all the games we’ve made for Martha Speaks, is oral vocabulary acquisition. So, just like the TV show, the idea is to expose kids to a range of vocabulary words that they may not know.

GeekDad: Walk us through it.

Nooney:  We start with the curriculum, the words we’re hoping to teach, like leap, hurdle, glide and tumble. Then we come up with a mechanic we think would be both engaging and the best vehicle for the vocabulary: these words are all verbs we can model with Martha’s doggy pals. Then, we test out some rapid prototypes with kids in our age group. We refine our ideas based on what we observe in testing, do more play testing, make more changes, record some audio, check for bugs, and launch.

GeekDad: This game is in HTML5, software that’s increasingly used to make web games work on mobile devices. We also know it’s not as flexible as Flash which was the tool of choice for web game makers until recently. How have you found it to be?

Nooney: Working in HTML5 to make games for kids feels like going backwards about 10 years in terms of the kinds of bells and whistles we can include – especially if those bells and whistles are actually audio as HTML5 doesn’t handle audio well. So this can be pretty tricky with learning oral vocabulary, which needs kids to be hearing the words. So, if a line of dialogue isn’t absolutely necessary, it gets axed, which may not be altogether a bad thing. What’s great about producing games in HTML5 is that kids can be online on the couch, at the computer, in the car – anywhere – and play our games. It enables us to provide a seamless connection to Martha’s world, which leads to more engagement with the character, the content and the curriculum.

GeekDad: What kind of testing so you do? What do you learn from it?

Nooney:  We conduct play testing with different groups of kids in our target age range, which is 4-7 year olds. We test our game concepts with really rough prototypes to see if they are appealing and intuitive. We learned a lot about the best mechanic to use on this particular game, and we settled on a gentle, endless runner variant. And we saw that although we wanted to put in a double-tap for an extra high jump, the kids at this age just weren’t getting it. Likewise, it was confusing for them to have different mechanics for the different levels. Kids were expecting to just use one action throughout. So, we met their expectations. We also learned that the falling meatballs we had in an earlier version looked like poop. So, we swapped them for hamburgers. You can see that play testing is invaluable to our process for many reasons.

GeekDad: Keen-eared viewers (and Bronies) will know the voice of Martha in Martha Speaks to be Tabitha St. Germain, who plays Rarity in My Little Pony. How important is voice-over in games like this?

Nooney: Talented actors like Tabitha add immeasurably to the narrative context for the games we produce. Having the characters voiced in these games creates the experience for the player of really being in that character’s world regardless of the medium through which it is entered. A few years ago we’d describe this as creating a full transmedia experience. I’m not sure what buzz word we’re using for it now. Plus, Tabitha will ad lib a little in our recording session and take the kind of lame lines I’ve written and breathe real life into them. I wrote a couple of responses for failures in this game, but “oopsy doodle” wasn’t one of them. That was all Tabitha channeling Martha way better than I can.

GeekDad: Martha is one of the hardest working dogs in showbiz. What else is she up to this summer?

Nooney:  Martha is having a super busy summer. We’re premiering two new episodes the week of June 16th for Martha Speaketh Weeketh. We’re also re-versioning a couple of apps we made last year – Word Spinner is being made available for Android and Story Maker is re-launching for iPad. Online, we’re redesigning and expanding Martha’s mobile site to include seven HTML5 games, a video player and True Stories, which are interactive non-fiction stories with related videos and “quizmos.” Plus, we’re launching another HTML5 game in late August. So, no relaxing by the pool for Martha.

GeekDad: But I’ll have a bacon smoothie.

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