Two years ago, we made it our mission to invent the most entertaining way for children to learn practical coding skills.
Since this is our first game, we’ve mostly worked to what we felt was right - we did what made sense to us. Over time, we developed an approach - a set of rules - for building our product.
This has served us well so far, as just through word-of-mouth, E.A.K. has over 112,000 players in 145 countries. These are the things that set E.A.K. apart.
Rule one: if you’re building something for kids, you need to become a kid.
Do your research - don’t assume that what you were into as a child is what children today enjoy. Immerse yourself in their culture and learn to love the things that your audience loves. For example, we’re really inspired by Adventure Time - a cartoon set in a post-apocalyptic universe with surreal and sophisticated humour, which never would have existed twenty years ago.
Getting into a more child-like mindset is also great for creativity and innovation. All the social rules and inhibitions you learn as you grow up - things like “don’t wear a cape to your investor meeting” and “don’t end your talk with a parable about gravy” (we did this last year) - only serve to stifle creativity and imagination.
You need to create a working environment that allows this - but I’m not talking about installing ping pong tables. It’s about people, and culture. Being playful and encouraging creativity is something that needs to happen across your company - easy for a tiny startup for us, not so much for bigger, more established teams.
Rule two: to build something fun, you must have fun whilst building.
A game built by a bunch of bored people sitting at desks for hours on end is probably going to be a pretty boring product. For us, we like to take cartoon breaks; have BBQs on the roof; or play Hungry Hungry Hippos. For bonus points, combine all three! Your mindset when building your product will be reflected in the result.
Rule 3: build at the intersection of what children love and what you love.
Following Rule 1 is vital for this to work, and it may seem a little counterintuitive - why not build just what children love? By building something you love, you can pour much more of yourself into it - your humour and passion will come through resulting in a product that is far more genuine and human. This is what turns a useful product into a lovable product.
For E.A.K., all this has resulted in a story-driven game, filled with quirky characters, surreal humour, and just a touch of darkness. This has worked out brilliantly so far - almost all of the children and adults we’ve tested E.A.K. with have loved it.
Rule 4: Make it human.
When you’re a startup, don’t try to “build a brand” - that’s just a facade, a wall between you and your customers. Make friends instead. Connect with your customers, advisors and investors on a more human level.
Our most successful “brandy” things have been the result of us having a playful and creative approach - happy accidents, not the spawn of a dreary board-room creative brainstorm. Our capes, for example, were made by Leonie because she thought it would be awesome for us all to have capes like the main character of our game, Arca. Now, they’ve become instantly recognisable symbols of E.A.K. at tech and education events.
Rule 5 is the final and most important of them all.
Rule 5: Do what feels right to you.
When you’re in a startup, you can receive so much conflicting advice it’s overwhelming. What works for one person won’t work for everyone, and trying to go against what feels right can be demoralising. I don’t know if our approach would work for you, or really anyone other than us. But our results have been incredible so far, and we’ve had a lot of fun along the way.
Alex Dytrych is the Product Guru and Code Education Advisor of Erase All Kittens.