The untold story behind STEM Epic Heroes

Our kids are growing up in a world where entertainers, athletes, and fictitious characters are celebrated as heroes…but scientists, technologists and engineers in the real world are not.

I think this is wrong.

In early spring 2015, two-and-a-half years ago as of this writing, I sat at my kitchen table playing Pokémon with my youngest son, who was age seven at the time. As we played, I noticed a bottle of liquid medicine on the table, one of those kids’ prescription antibiotics.

I commented to my son, “Did you know that the guy who discovered the first antibiotic was Scottish? His name was Alexander Fleming and he won the Nobel Prize for discovering a thing called penicillin. His discovery led to a whole branch of medicine that has saved literally millions of people’s lives.”

He continued to stare at his Charizard EX card, but seemed to be listening. So, I continued.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. It took a team of chemists to create a purified version for use as a drug, but…yeah, it all started with Fleming’s research. He’s one of the giants…one of the epic heroes of science.

I went back to the game, feeling pretty good about my parental teachable moment. Then my son made a comment that completely ruined the warm fuzzy feeling.

“But daddy, scientists aren’t heroes.”

<<<DRAMATIC RECORD SCRATCH>>>

What! What do you mean scientists aren’t heroes? Did you not get that part about saving millions of lives???

This sparked a long conversation with my seven-year-old that opened my eyes to a sad reality: People, especially kids, are hardly even aware of the greatest contributors to humanity, let alone consider them to be heroes.

Our kids are growing up in a world where entertainers, athletes, and fictitious characters are celebrated as heroes…but scientists, technologists and engineers in the real world are not.

So, I had an idea.

What if there were a collectible card game — a legit game that was actually fun to play — with fantasy-style art themed around history’s most inspiring heroes of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)? And not some lame “educational” game that sucks, but something real…sort of like Magic the Gathering, Pokémon, or any of the awesome game titles from studios like Fantasy Flight and Blizzard.

What if the game pulled together top artists, game designers, app developers and other creatives who were both passionate about STEM and great at their craft?

What if the game drew from a broad, diverse group of STEM heroes that most people are not aware of? The “unsung heroes” of STEM, so to speak. The hidden figures.

What if the game had an augmented reality companion app that would bring these heroes to life on a mobile device?

What if my kid was as stoked about collecting Newton and Einstein cards as he was about Charizard and Pikachu?

It was that moment that I decided to create what I wished existed: An awesome, STEM-themed game I could play with my kids and grownup friends. A game that is both fun and inspiring. A game where I could nerd out and collect my favorite hero cards via expansion packs, themed around things like astronomy, dinosaurs, aerospace, and all manner of technology geekdom.

Thus, the dream for “STEM Epic Heroes” was born!

At first, I just sketched ideas, gathering inspirational art, reading books on game mechanics, and building a database of possible STEM figures to include in the game. After a few months of research, I began bouncing ideas off my kids and coworkers, anyone who was interested and would give feedback. Because I knew, though history loves the idea of the single inventor, few great things have ever been created in a vacuum.

I knew the game must have two primary criteria:

· It had to be fun
· It had to be inspiring

I also wanted at least one educational component nuanced into the game mechanic. For this I chose the steps of the scientific method.

The first attempt at actually playing STEM was on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015 with my coworker, Wes Head. Wes was someone I had played tabletop card games with and I knew was not only into gaming, but webcomics and art as well.

The very first iteration of the prototype game with hand-drawn cards was absolute craziness! I’m talking about deck-building, dice-rolling, card-orienting, number-calculating, complex insanity! It was like that hilarious scene from Parks and Recreation where Ben creates “The Cones of Dunshire”. As it turns out, making a game that’s actually fun to play — our number-one criteria and core value — was going to be much more difficult than I anticipated.

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu famously said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Our first step was not pretty, but at least it was a step.

That first playtest was very telling indeed. We would have to simplify a great deal of the game if we wanted mass appeal. Furthermore, we’d have to involve a lot more people, more specialized team members, to focus on everything from game design, to art, to fulfillment and print logistics.

It was in those early months of play testing and game development that the realities of daily life struck and we started to lose momentum. Criticisms became more numerous and felt more difficult to overcome. It was hard to get artists to even reply to messages, much less engage with the project. It may sound crazy, but we even ran into a few “haters” of the game for various reasons.

Then, just as the project seemed to be going from crawl to halt, something both surprising and inspiring happened. My kid (you know, the one who didn’t think scientists were heroes a year prior) asked me a simple question:

Kid: “Daddy, when will I be able to play STEM with my friends from school?

Me: “Well, I’ve been busy and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to finish it.

Kid: “But Daddy, if you don’t make a Barnum Brown card, people won’t know how cool he is!”

My son, now eight years old, had helped with some of the early background research on the heroes. His favorite was Barnum Brown, the famous paleontologist who discovered T-Rex (among other significant fossils). Brown, nicknamed “Mr. Bones,” was a larger-than-life character. Think fur-coat-wearing Indiana Jones, meets Charles Darwin, meets Walt Disney, in an Old West cowboy movie and circus show. He traveled the world on adventures collecting dinosaur fossils, but was also a serious and respected academic.

It was time to get serious.

The combination of my son’s zeal and the thought of Barnum Brown did it. I was reenergized and wasn’t going to quit!

I committed money and started setting goals with deadlines and budget. I created a Google Slide deck to help recruit people to the team and cast a vision. Most importantly, I reached out to friends in the local startup community, people I had worked with in the past and I knew had skills, entrepreneurial drive, and creative spirit.

Over the next two months, several key people emerged and began to take ownership of various parts of the project. Aaron Hanna took over game design and art direction, both of which are monumental tasks in a project like this. Court Simas (of Oven Bits fame) agreed to take over everything technical, from website to app development. Sarah Hanna oversaw design and the print logistics. Stephen Olmon started our social media channels and reached out to the broader community via Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Wes managed community playtest events and Zach Conrad managed the financial and accounting aspects of it all.

More and more artists from around the world joined the team. Just like a band, great talent attracts more great talent. We eventually had illustrators from various parts of North America, South America, and Europe.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget what a truly amazing time in history we occupy. We now have tools and technology available that give us the ability to assemble a creative team of people from around the world, sharing and collaborating instantly within a diverse pool of talent.

We live in the most connected time in human history, and working on this project has reminded me of just how special that connection can be.

We used Slack to communicate, Google Hangouts for virtual meetings, Real-time Board for collaborating, Google Apps for docs and spreadsheets….and the list goes on. We leveraged websites like Art Station and Instagram to find and connect with the absolute best artists with the right style to fit this project. Some were relatively unknown, while others have done illustrations for big studios and well-known game titles.

Those of us who were geographically close met as much as we could in real life for play testing. Months and months of play testing, feedback, iterations, and then more play testing and feedback. We used SurveyMonkey and MailChimp to organize feedback from the test community. We play tested, play tested, and play tested the game. Much of this was documented on our Instagram account as we went along.

One of the first team play tests, January 2017.

Over time, we made changes, added heroes, and tweaked game mechanics. The basics of the game are still very much what I envisioned from the beginning, but many aspects of the game are nothing like I envisioned. Some are far better than I could have imagined.

Fast forward to today, August 2017, and our next step is to reveal STEM Epic Heroes to a broader community, finalize artwork, and start production of the actual game beyond just prototyping. For this, we chose Kickstarter as our launchpad.

I’ve been a member of the Kickstarter community since 2012 and have backed 44 projects to date. This will be my first project as a creator, but I feel I’ve learned some things as a backer that will help me as a creator. One of my favorite aspects of backing Kickstarter projects is getting to be a part of a bigger community that is fulfilling a dream, influencing a yet-to-be built idea and helping it come to life.

What’s next?

I don’t know how this story will end. We’re approximately one month away from launching our Kickstarter campaign on September 19, 2017. Anything could happen. I’m writing and sharing this story before the campaign even starts precisely because I don’t know the ending.

Regardless of how successful the Kickstarter campaign is (or is not), I know one thing with certainty: The journey has been freaking amazing!

For all of us on the team, being able to involve our kids, friends, and talented people from literally all over the world has been remarkable. I’ve learned so much about so many heroes of the past. It has been truly inspiring. I’ve made a lot of new friends and have been encouraged by fans and supporters.

To be fair, there have been a few haters, trolls and flat-earthers heckling us on social media. But there has been a far greater outpouring of support from fans who are genuinely excited to support STEM Epic Heroes.

And speaking of involving our kids, last night I played the latest version of STEM with my son, who is nine now. At this point, the game mechanics are tight — very tight — and the art is about 80% complete. He laughed a lot and we had fun playing the game. (BTW, kids love playing “inspiration cards” that totally change the direction of the game, instantly wrecking grownups’ chances of winning.) We talked about some of the different heroes, even looking up a couple on Wikipedia.

But the highlight of the evening was this: During the game, I drew the Alexander Fleming card from the hero deck and played him in the field. At the end of the game, as we put away the cards, my son picked up the Fleming card and looked closely at it.

“You know what Daddy? I guess Alexander Fleming really is a hero.”

Yes, son. Yes, he is!

The Alexander Fleming hero card. It's been over two years since that first conversation with my son, but now this actually exists! How cool is that?! (Artwork by Maria Poliakova & Ilya Bond. Art direction by Aaron Hanna.)

Editorial Note: If you would like to get a reminder when the STEM Epic Heroes Kickstarter campaign goes live, go to STEMtheGame.com and join the early access reminder list.

Also, if you think STEM The Game sounds interesting and and want us to write more posts about these real-life superheroes, please click that little green heart below. Thanks!