High School Story Updated to Help Teens Cope with Test Stress [Interview]

By Brandy Shaul Comment

High School StoryPixelberry Studios has today announced a new version of its popular high school simulation game High School Story, introducing an SAT-prep feature to players. The new update will tackle the teen stress epidemic by allowing players to easily study word vocabulary within the game. This update follows other cause-specific updates Pixelberry has released, including one focused on cyberbullying and another that highlighted teen eating disorder and body issues.

This update was inspired by the company’s own desire to release an educational product on mobile, and by a 2013 survey from the American Psychological Association that showed 83 percent of surveyed teens identified school as a source of stress in their lives.

Via this update, players are introduced to a new classmate, Kallie, and can learn more about her through story-based quests. Along the way, Kallie will help players learn the meaning of challenging (or unfamiliar) SAT words through quiz-like questions and level-based mini-games.

We had a chance to chat with Pixelberry CEO and co-founder, Oliver Miao, about this update, the company’s previous cause-based gameplay, and what it alls means for the future of the game.High School Story SAT-PrepOliver Miao: One of our company’s visions from the start was to try and focus on really fun games first, and then over time, if we were able to have commercial successes, to start layering in elements of education. So, when we first designed High School Story, we actually intended to do what we’re finally releasing this December. So, it’s taken a while for us to get there; we really wanted to do things right. Along the way, what we’ve done with the partnerships with the cyberbullying side and on the eating disorder side, have been a really good training ground in preparation for what we’re planning to do now in December.

We’ve created a completely new part of the game that players can go into that teaches players vocabulary – both SAT and ACT vocabulary. And we’ve done it in such a way to try and make it really fun for players, to engage and learn. We’re being very cautious to be upfront with players about the fact that they can learn while they play the game. But at the same time, still try and keep it really engaging and fun for them. We think putting education into a successful commercial game like this is something that is pretty risky, but we’re really excited to see how our players react to this, and if – like what we’ve done with cyberbullying – if this is something that they’ll actually appreciate and hopefully over time learn from this feature.

Inside Mobile Apps: Will this be unlocked as part of a quest set, like cyberbullying and the eating issue events were, or is this going to be more like the poll building where everything will be isolated away from quests?

Oliver: It will be more like a building. We actually have a library building, and when players click on that building, there’s a whole new form of currency called Pencils, that they can use to play different mini-games. Once they tap on that building, they actually go to a stream that’s a map with a whole bunch of different nodes on the map. So, very similar to a lot of the match-three games style maps out there. There’s two main types of mini-games. The first is story-driven, and that’s very similar to what we’re doing already with the quests, but at different points in the story, you encounter multiple choice questions. The multiple choice questions [contain] different words and you’re trying to match which word matches the definition of the new word.

We did it in this way so that players can hopefully figure out what the word is by the context of the sentence it’s already in. If they get it wrong, that’s ok too – they can’t leave the question until they get the right answer. This story-making design really teaches players what the word is, in a way that isn’t just like “word and definition.” Because it’s story-driven, for these particular types of mini-games, the story will evolve over time, and players will get to learn more about a new character that we’ve introduced named Kallie.

IMA: Are players going to be rewarded for completing these, just like the poll questions?

Oliver: They will be awarded [items], but in a different way. We’re actually rewarding players with Rings, our premium currency. We think players are going to be excited about the feature both because they’re unlocking new stories and learning more about existing characters and the new character, and then also every time they finish a mini-game, if they do well enough, they earn Rings.

At the end of this first set of mini-games that we’re releasing, when players get to the end (which is 31 nodes), they’ll actually be able to unlock Kallie as a new character.High School Story SAT-prepIMA: What type of character is she? A prep, a nerd?

Oliver: She’s actually a writer. She’s a little bit different than the other characters at first. In terms of when you first encounter – we call them “game maker characters,” so whenever you encounter these new gamer maker characters, like Nishan or Julian, they aren’t enrolled at your school initially. Similarly, Kallie has been homeschooled, but she’s gotten permission to come join you just for English classes.

She is a little more socially awkward, and when she gets nervous, she talks a lot. Her vocabulary is really good, so when she talks a lot, sometimes she’ll throw out vocabulary words, and those are they words that we’re trying to teach players.

IMA: With the Cybersmile [bullying] event, you guys had a t-shirt players could unlock for their closets. Will this event have anything like that – new decorations or clothing items?

Oliver: There won’t be anything like that [here]. We tried to segregate the education feature into its own part of the game. We’re hoping that the majority of our players are going to get really excited about this and enjoy it, but if there are some players who just get turned off by the idea of having education as part of the game, and they just want to focus only on the fun, they can do that. They can keep playing High School Story without being involved with the education part at all. We tried hard to make it so that players get really excited about the education aspects.

IMA: So if players were to decide not to play, aside from the Rings that they wouldn’t receive from playing the mini-games, what else would they be locked out of? Would it just be Kallie, or…?

Oliver: Yeah, it would be Kallie and her whole storyline. The storyline runs in parallel [to the main game], so you don’t need to know what’s going on with Kallie and her whole storyline to continue playing the main story.

IMA: Going back to the Cybersmile and eating issue content, you said that this education area is where you guys wanted to go with the game in the first place. Does that mean that you’re going to stop branching out into things like bullying, or are you still going to address these issues that are important to teenagers?

Oliver: We still definitely plan to address those causes. I guess you could look at it as – after we did eating disorders, we moved onto education. It’s been a while since something like this has come out for us, so we’ve actually been working on this feature for about eight months. It’s definitely the largest feature we’ve put into our game. We spent a lot of time on it, and we actually had to hire more writers, because we have more story going along with it. We are definitely thinking about “next topics” to hit; I’m hoping by the springtime, but we’re not sure what topic would be the most helpful to work on next. But we’re actively looking for ideas that are really relevant to teens, and can help them the way we have done with the others.High School Story SAT-PrepIMA: That actually goes into my next question. I was wondering if there were any topics that you guys would refuse to cover. Say, something like a rape issue or a suicide issue. I know that the game is supposed to be entertaining, so I don’t know if you’d want to go to a place that’s that dark.

Oliver: I think there’s a point of debate even among our own team: “How dark do we want to go, and how real do we want to be?” When we first tackled cyberbullying, our initial storyline was not as “real” as what we ended up with. It became more real because of the feedback Cybersmile gave us. They wanted there to be more tension and also more risk, because the cases that they’ve seen and they hear from players can be really dark.

One of the things we are considering would be potentially addressing suicide. The reason why we’re debating it internally, is because our game is definitely targeted at teens, but we’re also cognizant that there’s a wide range of players playing our game. So, we want to continue to make it pretty age appropriate for a wide range of players.

IMA: Would it ever be possible then – to not age block, because someone could lie about their age – but in the same way you did previously, put a warning in there that “this content is going to have mature themes” and give players the option as to whether or not they want to experience it?

Oliver: If we did hit that topic, that’s absolutely what we’d need to do. With the eating disorders update, it really surprised both us and the National Eating Disorder Association – the feedback they had given us on the quest was asking us to remove some specifics that we had in there about weight and crash-diets, because they said those could act as trigger points. So what they didn’t realize, and what we didn’t realize and what really surprised us was that the quest as a whole could actually act as a trigger for teens who’ve experienced eating disorders already. So that’s why we rushed, and within 24 hours, we put up a warning screen, based on direct feedback from our players – players who have had eating disorders. As they were playing, they realized that this brought back so many real emotions, and they suggested that we have a warning.

So, definitely, if we tried to address something like suicide, I think we’d want to do that as well. Suicide is actually one that we’ve had players write in and suggest that as one of our next topics. But I think that topic, even more so than eating disorders and cyberbullying, is something that we’d have to be really sensitive about how we address.

In the end, what our team usually does is, a bunch of us get together, we talk about the different ideas, we’ll look at what our players have been suggesting and then we’ll start brainstorming ideas. If we can hit on the right storyline and topic, and we think we can get the messaging across the right way, then that’s the one that we’d pursue.High School Story SAT-PrepIMA: Going back to cyberbullying and the eating disorder campaigns, did those companies, like the National Eating Disorder Association, reach out to you? Or did you reach out to them?

Oliver: We actually reached out to them. For the cyberbullying one in particular – that one was a lot tougher. We actually started getting involved with that one because I had read two articles about girls in high school who had committed suicide because they’d been bullied. This was about a month after we had launched High School Story. Normally, when I read articles like that, it just makes me sad, but also frustrated that there’s nothing I can do. But this time around, I realized we actually had a platform where we could address the issue. I think this one resonated a lot with me because I was bullied in middle school myself.

So I talked to people on our team; I told them how I was bullied, and some other people in the studio talked about how they were bullied, and we started talking about different story ideas and we agreed that this is a topic that we could actually address and hopefully help our players through.

We started looking for a partner for a while, but we had no success. We would call different non-profits up and send them emails, but we didn’t get anyone interested. We actually had given up on finding a non-profit partner, when we had a player message us and tell us that she was planning to commit suicide. And that really shocked us – that a player would tell us that – and we were super scared, and didn’t know what to do. We actually ended up calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline, to get advice on what to do and they really urged us to push her to get professional help as quickly as possible, but we felt like if all we did was push her, we might turn her away. Since she had reached out to us, we decided that we would tell her to get professional help, but also just let her know that we were there to listen to her. We spent about a week messaging back and forth with her, and at the end of the week, she told us she was getting professional help, and that it was because of our game, that she was still there.

So that particular moment was overwhelming for us. It really showed us how powerful our game could be in helping people. To that point, I had been doing mobile games for over 10 years, and I had never imagined that one of my games would actually be involved in helping to save a life.

Because we saw the power our game had, we redoubled our efforts to find a partner, and it was a blessing. At almost the same time – right when we decided “let’s go look for a partner again” – within that week, one of my friends who had been in the industry actually reached out to me, and he had just joined a company called PlayMob, that connects game developers with non-profits. Just a week before, they had just signed their newest non-profit, which was Cybersmile, that focuses on cyberbullying. So we started talking to them and everything just worked out perfectly.High School Story SAT-PrepIMA: Going back to the topic of the SAT event, how did you craft the questions? Did you work with a company that helped you decide what sorts of questions to ask players?

Oliver: When we started doing this, we had thought about partnering with different companies, and we had actually talked to some educational companies in this space, but what we quickly realized – even from the start, when we were starting to think about High School Story and doing education, when we were first  designing our game, we realized when we researched this space that educational games do really well with pre-schoolers and early elementary aged students, but once kids get older, and especially once they become teens, most educational games are just a big turn off to them.

Our theory is simply that by the time they’re in middle school and they’re in high school, they’re playing games for fun, and they’ve played a lot of games for fun already, and so once they see an educational game, because they tend to be education focused first, and they add in some fun, they really aren’t that fun, so teens just avoid them. So, we really wanted to approach it from a different standpoint of creating a really fun game first – one that we can draw a lot of players to, and then layer in the elements of education, and hopefully do it in such a way that it’s interesting and intriguing to them and it’s not a turn off. Our hope also is that by having them already be really familiar with the game and the characters and having built up a level of trust with them, they’re willing to try something a little bit different, and do something different.

To get back to answering your question, we had looked into partnering with different companies, but we realized that if we did that, we probably wouldn’t be able to tune the questions in just the right way and make the game as fun as we could still. We decided to go ahead and do it ourselves first. What we’re trying to do first is see how well players take to this, and we think they’re going to really enjoy it. If they do, and they can learn effectively from this, we’ll also branch into other topics and then also at that point, potentially start talking to people who have more experience with educational games or teaching students and getting advice on the best way to do things.

IMA: So, you’re saying there’s the potential that this could be a feature that runs indefinitely, with new content updates going forward, and not something that’s just “one-and-done?”

Oliver: Exactly. In fact, it’s kind of like with polling. [Since] we released polling, we’ve continued to update it with more content. For this one, we have plans to keep Kallie’s storyline going long-term, and to continue to release new content over time. What I really hope happens is that players love it, and it’s doing really well, and players are engaged with it, and it’s actually helping us to monetize more at the same time. And then we can grow our team to start tackling other subjects. We started with SAT and ACT vocabulary because test prep is something that’s important to both teens [and their] parents, so we thought it’d be an easy one to start with. If that works well, then we’re thinking [about adding] history or science, or maybe literature as other fields to get into over time.

My personal long-term hope is that if we’re really successful with this, then other companies will see what we’re doing and I’m hoping that we can be at the tip of the spear for changing how companies create educational games, and that we can make them not just successful for younger children, but that our game can be a model for how people are looking at creating educational games for teenagers as well.High School Story SAT-PrepIMA: Looking forward to the future of High School Story, do you think there’s a chance that some of the characters – perhaps not even the main characters – could actually grow up and legitimately graduate from the game? Or, will the characters never grow old?

Oliver: I would say they will graduate at some point. I think we need to, to keep the storyline fresh and interesting and new, and also just to make it match a little bit more with high school. They may not graduate on the “yearly track,” and some characters may start graduating faster than others, but that will be a way for us to bring in new characters, while having older characters graduate out and go to college, while we can still bring them back for storylines too.

This new version of High School Story is available to download for free on the iTunes App Store and Google Play. The SAT-prep update will launch on Kindle in the coming days.