K-5 STEM PTA
Why pediatricians love their jobs, and children make the best focus testers for games
You wouldn't guess Kenny Younts is focus testing when you see him visit a K-5 STEM school in West Seattle, but that's exactly what's happening. He's gathering feedback and input from children on his studio's latest release, an iOS puzzle/strategy game called Linear.
The premise behind Linear is simple: place pieces on a hexagonal board to form straight lines while also trying to block your opponent from drawing straight lines. Each turn, you can place a certain number of pieces in a line, trying to build off your previously placed pieces or trying to cut off an opponent. You get multipliers and bonuses for things like parallel lines. At the end of seven turns, whoever has the most points wins. A single-player game is broken up into a series of challenges which get increasingly difficult.
The game has already been released once before, but is getting an update and re-launch today, with several features inspired by Younts' conversations with the STEM school kids. Features like pass and play matchmaking, a revamped story mode, and ability to represent yourself in competitive matches with a custom name.
Wait, what? Kids came up with these features? I asked Younts to explain. He told me a story about pediatricians.
The best medicine
“I had a long road to video games, but one of the stops on that road was pre-med,” Younts told me. “In pre-med, I spent a lot of time talking to other medical professionals, and some of the people that I've met – and this has always stuck with me – was that pediatricians love their jobs.” Younts said that he assumed the reason why pediatricians loved their jobs was because they also loved kids, but the truth is that pediatricians also love their jobs because it's an easier job compared to working with adults.
“Kids don't make stuff up. If you talk to a kid, you ask where does it hurt, and they point to where it hurts. They don't tell you how six months ago they fell down a flight of stairs and that may or may not have something to do with the injury,” Younts said. “Or you tell an adult they seem sick and ask why they think they're sick, you're gonna get a bunch of reasons. You ask a kid, you're gonna get one or two reasons.”
I asked Younts how this related to games development, and his game in particular. “In software,” he said, “you look for user feedback. You look for honest feedback, you look for unfiltered user feedback. We got that from the children.”
“I've been writing software for a long time. Whenever we talk to users, generally it's kind of a question and answer thing. Or not even a question and answer thing, it's more I slide a piece of paper across the table with all these pre-formulated questions in there. I think there's a lot to say about having dialogue, and a conversation.”
Younts said the kids were great at telling him what they felt, which is important in any game's creative process. “You don't hear that a lot, but let's be honest, games are about how to make you feel more than anything else”
Kids design the darndest things
I asked Younts why he wanted to speak to children in the first place. His meeting with the STEM kids had obviously gone well, but what inspired him to try? “Whenever you make a game, there's always that side that… Have I made this too complicated? Have I made this too simple? Have I made this too un-fun? Could I make it more fun?”
Younts thought that children, with their honest nature, might be able to give good insight. He was right, and the ideas that came from the class benefit everyone, not just children. Younts pointed to pass and play matchmaking as such an example. “This isn't just feedback like preferring the AI to be toned down. The kids weren't interested in that, they were interested in, 'How can I share this with other people? How can I play against my little brother?'”
Younts said he was surprised at just how seriously the children took the task of giving feedback, and how interested they were in the game. “The feedback that we got was very much pro-game mechanics, it wasn't pro-domination,” Younts told me. “It wasn't, 'Kenny, I need a win button, what's the easiest way to win and how do I defeat everybody?' They were really interested in playing with each other. They were interested in the depth.”
“I remember there was this one kid, very intelligent, but also extremely… you could tell his mind worked extremely quickly, because his mind flowed from idea to idea even in the middle of a sentence. He was the first kid with his hand raised when I took time for questions.”
“He met up with this other kid, and they had this mini-jam session. It was like sitting in my office, watching a developer talk to the artist. One of them goes, 'What do you think about like, what if you had a power that could switch from somebody else's lane to your lane?' And the other kid goes, 'Well, how would you implement that?'” Younts began to laugh. “These are the kinds of conversations I have with my developers, or my creative designers, or my level designers. This is what I do for a living, and these kids are 9 or 10 years old!”
Paying it forward
Before we concluded our interview, I realized I had spent all our time talking about Younts' game, and how the children had helped him make a better version. What about them? What were the children getting out of all this?
“That empowering feeling, and the feeling that they were part of the process,” Younts said. “I hope to bring a sense of validation and empowerment to their ideas, and very honestly, their creativity.” Younts said that he always admired people who retained the child-like ability to live in the moment, honestly, and free of the cynicism that settles in with growing up. He said it was something he wished he saw more of.
“To be un-cynical, to be un-sarcastic, and just be present. I was really overwhelmed by that feeling with the kids. They're all just present. They're all focusing on this thing, and I seemed to have made them happy, but I made them especially interested when I said, 'I'm interested in what you think,'“Younts said.
I asked Younts what he plans to say on his return visit, and the message he'll leave with the children. “'You guys have great ideas, and you're really special kids,'” he said. The STEM class had made his game better, but by encouraging them, Younts was going to make their lives special.