Want to make a game and have it teach something to someone? How to make a good educational game? Let me share with you a golden recipe with some examples to boot.
The previous post was about how games build interest. This article builds up on that from a development standpoint.
Summary from previous article
In case you don’t want to read the previous article first, here’s the TL;DR version:
Don’t make an “educational game” – Instead, make an actual game with good gameplay. Use what you want to teach either as the setting for the game or build an interesting system that corresponds to some system you want the player to get familiarized with. If the players like your game as an actual game, they’re more likely to like it enough to even suggest it to other people. Remember that people, even children, can smell a game that’s supposed to be “educational”, and it’s rarely a good thing.
Don’t be afraid to simplify – If you’re a big fan of whatever you want your game to teach, you’re prone to want to cram in every detail possible about it. Don’t. The gameplay doesn’t need to be super simple, but it needs to be satisfying. Usually, simplifying an overly complex system helps with that. If you want to go complex, make sure to ease your players into the complexity bit by bit.
Easing the player in
I mentioned that complexity is a bad thing, but many games are pretty complex, aren’t they? If you’re setting your foot into the Total War series or Civilization for the first time, you’re going to be stumped. World of Warcraft and the like require hundreds of hours if you want to grasp most of the details. Yet, many players love those games. What’s the deal?
With strategy games like Total War, Civilization or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, many things have been simplified enough to make them understandable. Let’s say you want to attack a neighbouring city. This can be somewhat complex: choose which troops to create, train them, declare a war, send your troops out, navigate them to the city, fight and so on. However, the parts of that equation are much more simpler: training a group of soldiers happens by clicking a few buttons. Making an army and have it walking around is easy to do.
It’s slightly complex, but nowhere near as complex as doing it in real life.
RPGs and MMOs
With games like World of Warcraft, it’s important to understand that they use multiple ways to ease the player in. The game itself has a ton of things in it, but very few things of those things are complex. WoW is basically a ton of small, somewhat easy to understand systems that it introduces one by one. As you start the game, you don’t have access to mounts or professions. All you need to understand is how to walk and talk, then how to right click an enemy to fight it. And then how to press a key or click an icon to use abilities.
The other thing is that although your character will later end up with dozens of different abilities, you start the game with only a few. Your character will learn the new abilities one at a time as you play more. This gives you ample time to get used to them and practice them before you learn a new one.
What about tutorials?
Much like the best educational games aren’t usually called “educational games”, the best tutorials are usually not called “tutorials”.
In World of Warcraft, you get to immediately play the game. However, at the same time, you’re on a really, really long “tutorial” to understand how your character and the game works.
With old real-time strategy games like Warcraft 3 and Starcraft, the single player mode (often called “story mode”) is what many consider to be the meat of the whole game. But actually the story mode is just a well-made tutorial to prepare you for the multiplayer mode. That’s where you’re expected to know more or less how all the units and buildings work.
So, about tutorials:
Don’t consider them tutorials. Design your game so that the player is eased in to understanding how to play.
If you can call your “tutorial” a “story mode” or something else, it’s probably a much better tutorial.
Gameplay is king
If you’re making a game where you want to teach something to the player, remember: Gameplay is still king.
If your game isn’t first and foremost enjoyable, it’s not going to grasp the player. It’s not enjoyable, it’s not fun, it’s not interesting… then it’s not going to be educational.
All the games that have ever taught me anything or got me interested in anything have also been good games.
You don’t need to make the next World of Warcraft. You don’t need to make the next Minecraft or Tetris. But you do need to make something that’s quite a bit more interesting than filling out random forms or switching around arbitrary numbers.
There are some excellent games that show that you can also weave informative elements to gameplay itself. However, this needs to be done well. Some examples of these games are Wingspan, Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin and Dragonbox series. Notice that despite these games digging heavily into their respective subjects (birds and farming), they still have excellent gameplay and a relatable world.
There are also simulation games that allow you to step into the shoes of a farmer, bus driver, train driver or pilot. Those can be fun and relaxing in their own way. I personally like being able to just walk around and enjoy the views or go sit in the tavern in games like Skyrim and Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
Example 1: Wingspan
Wingspan is a card game about birds and resource management. The game combines bird facts with its gameplay quite smoothly, because the things you have to manage are all bird related.
- Feed (what the bird eats)
- Clutch size (small if the bird typically only has a few eggs, etc.)
- Habitat (does the bird typically live in forests, grasslands or by the sea).
Fourthly, most birds have some gameplay mechanic related to their species, such as laying eggs in another bird’s nest or tucking away food for the winter.
A downside is that the game is somewhat complicated. Especially if you’re not used to card game mechanics. And the tutorial is somewhat long. But it’s a fun and relaxing game when you get the hang of it, and if you spend a long time playing it, it’ll help you familiarize yourself with a ton of little details about all sorts of birds.
Example 2: Harvest Moon / Stardew Valley
Both Harvest Moon and its spiritual successor Stardew Valley put you into the shoes of a young person who has just inherited their grandfather’s old farm. From there on, you forge the land to your liking, raise animals and get to know the local townsfolk. The games don’t put much emphasis on the minor details of farming. For the most part, all you need to do is buy seeds, plant them and then water them every day until you get results. In Stardew Valley the differences come to:
- Season (what season each seed grows in)
- Days (how long it takes for the seeds to mature)
- Single/batch (does the seed make a single vegetable/fruit per seed or grow a vine that produces new ones continuously)
You also need to carry and use different tools for different jobs. Scythe for cutting plants, hammer for breaking rocks, axe for cutting trees, hoe for tilling soil etc.
To me, a big part of games has always been a sense of mystery. A feeling that you know just enough to be able to do things, but there’s stuff that you’re not sure about. It lets your imagination flow. You can’t really achieve that if you tell the player how absolutely everything works. Stardew Valley does this really well by giving you just the basic controls and some objectives (introduce yourself to citizens, raise your first plants). Then you’re off to try things out on your own. (Including navigating and wondering what all this stuff you can see in the menus mean.)
Example 3: Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin combines hectic side-scrolling combat and exploration with farming rice, set in a pseudo-Japanese folklore setting. (If you specifically just want to experience a lot of Japanese folklore mashed into one, I’d suggest Okami instead.) Unlike in the aforementioned games, rice is your only farming option in Sakuna. This may sound like a limitation, but there’s few things to consider:
- The process is much more detailed (you get to experience every step from tilling to planting to watering, using fertilizer, keeping weeds out, what bugs are beneficial and what are harmful, harvesting, drying and threshing and hulling)
- Growing good rice works as your means to level up (so you want to do a good job at it, otherwise the combat sections will eventually become quite difficult)
- You collect resources by hunting (for upgrading your gear, eating food and making better fertilizer to improve your rice)
You learn the nitty-gritties of farming slowly, year-over-year, as you play. I think it’s nice for the most part, because it helps you make better and better rice year after year as you experiment. There are some details that are a bit too obscure to realize without googling some help or trying out different things every year. That’s fine too. Things you don’t understand can make the game live in your mind even outside the game.
Example 4: Dragonbox
Thanks to LuckyCheshire for pointing this game series out to me in the previous article’s comments.
Dragonbox is a series of games that each teach mechanics used elsewhere. Learn Chess uses movements used by chess pieces. Algebra uses fundamentals you need to have in order to understand math. Elements makes you play around with geometric shapes.
These differ from the previous examples quite a bit:
- They don’t teach a theme or setting (instead, the mechanic or way of thinking being teached is used in some setting or story to make it more interesting)
- They advertise themselves as educational games
Gameplay is King – World is Emperor
Making a game with super satisfying gameplay is great. But if your characters look like blocks of tofu and the backgrounds are nothing but white mass, few players will get sucked into it. I linked a lot of videos in this article. I don’t expect (or even suggest) you to watch them through, but have a peek at them. The games seem inviting, don’t you think?
People often remind us that gameplay is king. People have a tendency to point at greatest games and how those have good gameplay. However, there’s something that’s even more important. Something that makes games with mediocre gameplay stand out as some of the greatest in the industry.
There are some games that I consider the greatest, most powerful games I’ve ever played. What combines all those games? Awesome gameplay? No. Great graphics? No.
Answer: The world.
But what is “the world”. The game’s story? The game’s visuals? The characters? The setting?
All of the above, and more. The world is a combination of everything that the game represents: visuals, sounds and music, characters, story, setting, expectations and also gameplay.
The world of your game will suck the player to it. If the world of a game is well done, then the players will not only be playing your game. They will be living it. They will be thinking about it even when they’re not playing.
If “gameplay is king”, then “world is emperor.”
Whatever it is you want your game to teach about, creating a worthy world will make sure the players will be interested. Even simulation games do this. A bus driver simulator is bad if the world isn’t fleshed out enough to make you feel like you’re really being a bus driver.
Also keep in mind that the world of any game is an illusion. A big reason why the real world is so wondrous is that we don’t know everything and we keep finding and creating new things. The same goes for video games. A game that explains how everything works breaks the illusion. And then the world is no longer feels meaningful.
Enough banter, what’s the recipe for a great educational game?
Look at the example games in this article. Try them out. What did most of them get right? What are the best elements of them?
These are some things I picked out:
Build a great world – suck the player in, make them dream about the game even when not playing.
Focus on good gameplay – it doesn’t need to be without any flaws, but give us something satisfying.
Teach without tutorials – ease the player into your game by introducing the world bit by bit through exploration and interaction.
Do background research, then simplify – make sure you get what you’re teaching right, but simplify it enough to keep the player interested.
Offer adequate, optional challenge – people remember the occasional struggles and earned successes more often than something that is too easy, but remember not to force it on the player.
Those were my picks. If you came up with any others, don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments!
Also, here’s a funny bit: I don’t think that’s just the recipe for making a great educational game.
It’s a recipe for making an incredibly good game in general.