I’m a geek, but love books first and foremost (# 3) – Storieman and kids book apps

This is the third in a series of posts [1][2][3] that explain just how much I love reading, especially books.

Technology doesn’t discourage kids from reading. As a child, one of my favourite book series was enhanced with tape cassettes that read out the text and guided the reader through the pages. I knew the book series in Afrikaans as Storieman, published by Rubicon-Press in 1982, but discovered today that the original UK version is The Story Teller by Marshall Cavendish.

Storieman cover page

I was reminded of Storieman while reading the ebook version of The Schatzkin Files – a collection of posts about changes in the book industry – especially his thoughts on enhanced ebooks and juvenile fiction.

Storieman was a collection of children’s stories that came with a set of eight-track tapes. You (or a parent) would open the book, play the cassette, and read along with the narrators that spoke in the voices of the characters. Every now and then, a “priiiiing” would sound, prompting you to turn the page.

We -loved- Storieman. I recall getting excited when our mother called us to read and the disappointment I’d feel when the tape player would abruptly interrupt the story by asking us to turn it around to side B. Gobblino, the Witch’s Cat was by far one of our favourites.

Gobbolino, the Witch's Cat

In his post, Mike predicts that juvenile fiction will migrate to enhanced digital products much faster than narrative text. Also, these kids’ titles will be produced by new companies rather than book publishers. He mentions examples of publishers partnering digital media studios – the kinds of companies that film and TV studios have also been to create interactive experiences around their content – to create reading experiences for kids in the form of apps.

PopOut! PeterMonster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street bookMonster at the End of this Book, a Sesame Street book

What if Storieman were available as an app?

I’ve noticed a significant growth in children’s ebook apps on both the iTunes and Android stores.  There are books that read out text, books that let you interact with illustrations (some rather useless; making each object in the scene wiggle and bleep is a distraction at the least), books with puzzles and books that emulate other “enhanced” children’s books such as virtual “pull-out” books.

I also showed some of these apps to my niece, a precocious and loquacious 7 old. Both she and her mom were delighted by these books and it took a bit of encouragement for my niece to part with the tablet.

The Reluctant Catterpillar, a Meegenius kids' book application.Four seasons kids' book applicationFour seasons kids' book application

Storieman was an enhanced book, and reading about Mike’s predictions about childrens’ literature and ebook apps, I wondered what Storieman could have been like today. Then I discovered that Human & Rosseau is planning to release the series again – this time on CD. So far, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to do anything else with the content viz. Pottermore, but I wonder what they could do…

Star Control, teaching game design & mentoring: a proposal

“22 years ago, we founded Toys for Bob, Fred ford and myself; making Star Control 1 and 2, science fiction games, which to this day, have a bizarrely-dedicated fan following and we promise someday, we will make the real sequel.”
– Paul Reiche, ComputerAndVideogames.com interview, October 7 2011

Background and motivation

One of my colleagues teaches a course in game design. It’s the final year project for our multimedia students (best described as techno-artists). My involvement with the course is limited to students that come to consult me on their own time. I’d like to become more involved in it, since I believe I have a lot to teach them about game design and believe Star Control is the best series of all time.

As to my involvement: a guest lecture in, for instance, evaluating the usability of games, would be a great start — but that doesn’t give me much influence over the final projects.

Here is my proposal.

I want to mentor one of the student groups – on both my and their own time –  and:

  1. Teach them what made the Star Control series so amazing
  2. Help them apply those lessons by
    1. Encouraging them to make a spiritual successor to the game, or
    2. Getting them involved in one of the many fan projects
Motivation

A few days ago, I again installed the open source version of Star Control 2 (which I’d replayed dozens of times). The developers wanted to capture the original game experience, so very little about the game itself has changed.

I got bored with it very quickly, which surprised me. Added extras – such as voice packs and networking capabilities – are great, but I believe I got frustrated with aspects of the original game design that can be attributed to :

  1. Trends in gaming having had changed over the years [e.g. see 2011 gaming trends].
  2. An initial lack of focus on trends evident in games that were developed at that time.
  3. Technical limitations when the originals were developed that were included in the design of the open-source version such (for both good and bad reasons!).

For instance, there’s no in-game reference such as those found in many modern games, even though there are several references on the web developed by community members [for instance, all game quotes].

These issues don’t detract from the awesomeness of the original game, but does limit the potential fan base – and, hence, the possibility of getting more people to play it.

Star Control’s legacy – why I want to do this

There are three games in the Star Control Series – which were some of the most enthralling experiences of my childhood (especially number 2).  Fifteen years later, I still haven’t found a game that’s quite like it – and a lot of people agree.

Star Control 2 “combines intense arcade-style space shooting action with a memorable storyline and inspired role-playing elements” [Gamespot], and is “a milestone for non-linear gaming and an undeniable influence on modern space travel games such as Homeworld” [The Ultronomicon].

The Gamespy museum’s entry on SC2 is a pretty well-written overview of the game, too.

Each game in the series basically comprises the following elements (my best-guess equivalent genre):

  1. Interaction with various alien civilizations (adventure / RPG)
  2. Exploration of the universe (adventure / RPG)
  3. Ship-on-ship space combat (RTS / combat)
  4. Resource management (RTS / simulation)
  5. Ship and fleet upgrades (RPG / RTS)

The star control narrative universe is also great. I’m a big fan of David Brin, especially his Uplift Saga. For one thing, I think it’s silly to presume that any intelligent life would mostly be humanoid.

There are many races in the Star Control universe – some whimsical, some quite serious.

Since I’d like to keep this proposal short, I’ll assume the reader is interested by this point. If not, I’ll expand in another post.

Practical issues

Fairness

This proposal isn’t necessarily fair to other students. A mentored project implies more time spent with the group. So, I’d attach a disclaimer to this offer: I’ll be pushing that group a lot. There will be more meetings, more deadlines, stricter evaluation (I’d advise one group, not 20; I’ll have the time) and a very good chance of failing, should I demonstrate to the course coordinator that the group isn’t performing.

If no-one signs up for this, that’s fine too. The only time and effort I lose is drafting this proposal.

Licensing, copyright and other legal issues

We generally allow our students to use copyrighted material under the fair dealing clause of the copyright act. Projects that don’t contain copyrighted material can be released to the public, of course.

Luckily, the code and materials for existing SC project are generally licensed for reuse, attribution and non-commercial use: three things that are perfect for a project such as this one.  For instance, Timewarp and The Ur-Quan Masters code are licensed under the GNU GPL, and UQM content is CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 licensed.

Educational value

Our students don’t only learn about game design in this course. They also apply their knowledge of digital media creation, software development and visual design – not to mention the fundamentals of information science and project management.

For this proposal to be truly useful to students, they must:

  • Work in a development environment with which they are already familiar, or
  • Work in a development environment which is easy to learn how to use
The TimeWarp project, for instance, implies the need to become familiar with Allegro and Lua. If this game is developed from the ground up, that’s not an issue. Still, the more development environments students are exposed to, the better.

Community involvement

The best project is one which doesn’t live in isolation. Students will benefit from involvement with a dedicated community comprising developers, artists, writers and eager fans – for instance:

  1. The Ur-Quan Masters, an open-source port of the original SC2
  2. Timewarp, an expansion of the hyperspace melee aspect of the series
  3. Precursors, a collection of remixed in-game music (SC2 specifically)
  4. A lot of fan art [Google image search]

So, that’s my idea. While publishers such as Activision refuse to develop successors to great games, which is a big issue in the game development community, fans will continue keeping these games alive – and our students can learn a lot by helping them out.

Update #1

The course coordinator is keen to try out this idea. He wants me to speak the same language that he speaks with his students, so I’m reading Rules of Play now.