How we built an award-winning educational app with over 50,000 downloads

Jason Suriano
Nov 10, 2014 · 9 min read

In the fall of 2012 we had just finished an 8 month project on an award-winning game that was really well received called Solar Energy Defenders — a tower defence game to teach kids about solar energy in the spirit of Plants vs Zombies.

At this point, burnout was starting to set in and I was getting a bit tired of the grind. We had a few educational game contracts on the go, but I wanted to try something different.

With that in mind I set out a few high-level goals for our next project:

  1. Create a project from scratch — no client involvment at the discovery/ game creation stage.
  2. Use an existing game engine or code base — something that we already had worked on before (and owned the code outright)
  3. Create a game with immediate appeal — a feeling through visuals and sound that this wasn’t your typical eLearning object
  4. Get on with it — let people navigate quickly and “get it” right away
  5. Find a funding partner — a group that would take a calculated risk on something different

When I tell people that we made an accounting game, their first response is always “isn’t that an oxymoron?” It is, and it was a long and sometimes difficult process.

While the end results of the game were overwhelmingly positive, the development, just like any digital project wasn’t without its hiccups.

What Went Right

The Vision

One night I sat down and fired up my Xbox 360 to play L.A. Noire. A few minutes in, the lead character walks into a shop to check his inventory.

At this point, I should mention that I was already engaged in the whole art style, music and approach — it seemed familiar but different.

Anyway, the scene cuts to an old school journal or evidence booklet which made me think of accounting.

L.A. Noire — Evidence Booklet

Once I saw the booklet, I grabbed my notebook and started working on the pitch deck. I used the game booklet and the box art as the inspiration to sell the game idea.

On one of the pages in my notebook I wrote:

“A 1940's or 1950's murder mystery with an accounting twist”

L.A. Noire — Cover Art (via Rockstar Games)

Comparables

My next step was to find a couple of iOS and Android mobile apps that were pushing the boundaries a bit in terms of content, style and delivery.

Vocabador, a vocabulary training game, was one app that really stood out.

Vocabulary Training App for iOS (via Vocabador)

The Curriculum

Because eLearning objects are always questioned for their legitimacy and academic rigour, it gets substantially more difficult when you start talking about a learning game.

Our team always works extremely hard to either write or find the appropriate subject matter experts for each game in order to ensure the curricular validity.

Luckily a friend of mine, Randy Troppmann, connected me with someone who literally wrote the book on accounting — a professor at Athabasca University named Tilly Jensen.

Ten years earlier, Tilly and Randy had worked on a concept for an accounting “app” on a Palm Pilot (yes, a Palm pilot) that looked like this:

Accounting for Palm OS — Randy Troppmann

Budget

Once we had the inspiration and the curriculum connection, I created a pitch deck with the hopes of landing a project partner and sponsor.

We were fortunate, through our partnership with Tilly, to land a presentation to CMA Alberta, who was enthusiastic about the project.

Here’s what one of the slides looked like:

Slide from our game concept/ pitch document

The Name

To say this was tough was an understatement.

We batted around so many ideas but in the end the name had to have a refernece to both “accounting” and the idea of a “murder mystery.”

In the end, we settled on the name The Accounted which a lot of people assume is a play on Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (it’s not, but it’s a cool movie).

http://youtu.be/auYbpnEwBBg

Art

As usual, our team did a great job on the visuals for The Accounted.

The game attempted to trump the typical style that you see in every other eLearning object.

Because our team had created a lot of kids educational eLearning objects in the past, we knew The Accounted had to be different.

The Accounted needed to be fun but it had a different target audience in mind — young adults.

First scetches and character color

The Interface

After the characters and initial style were established, we followed our extensive wireframes to create the design for the game interface.

Title Screen
Chapter Select
In game dialogue
Puzzle Complete
Ledger view

Sound

We spent a lot of time on audio in The Accounted. Normally we would source basic sound effects and ambient music but we decided to do something different (and custom).

We started looking at some specific music as inspiration, but this particular clip from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut was the inspiration for the The Accounted.

Simple but creepy piano from Eyes Wide Shut

Technology

This is where it got interesting . . . we developed the entire game in Flash. Yes, that’s right, a game that we were deploying on iOS and Android was built completely in Flash. Crazy? Yup, but we did it anyway.

I can’t go into all of the details here, but the deployment through Adobe Air worked a lot better than we thought (it’s pretty seamless).

Not only were we taking a chance with the game style and game format in the education space, we decided to take a chance on the development.

Challenges

Like every project, The Accounted had a few unique challenges for our team.

Script

The script was insanely challenging.

It went through 4 rewrites, mostly because the flow of information from story, to game, to accounting material. It just wasn’t working. Here was what we were dealing with:

1. Accounting — incorporating seven summary chapters of an accounting text book into a mobile format that would be fun but challenging for students prepping for an exam. Tilly did a phenomenal job helping us ensure all the curricular guidelines were met.

2. Flow — deciding on the sequence of story/ narrative, game/ puzzle and accounting interactive was difficult.

3) Blending — How would we tell the story? How are we going to layer an accounting item into each chapter of the story? There were no easy answers — this hadn’t been done before.

In-Game Dialogue

Deciding how to have the characters change dialogue in-scene posed some major challenges because of the way each person on the team visualized the character exchange.

Initially, we thought that Ace’s internal monolgues should be represented differently from the rest of the in-game character dialogue.

We looked at Capcom’s Ace Attorney and Telltale Games The Walking Dead as examples for inspiration.

Ace Attorney: Dialogue Scene (via Capcom)
The Walking Dead: Dialogue Scene (via Telltale Games)

In The Accounted we went with:

  1. The color of the dialogue bar would change depending on if Ace was thinking (blue) or talking (tan)
  2. We modified the pose of her bust from thinking (hand on face — pensive) to talking (arms to the side) as follows:
Ace: Thinking
Ace: Talking

The number and types of accounting interactives

In the beginning our deveopers called for seven different accounting interactives to accommodate the subject matter.

The problem?

We didn’t have the time or budget to create seven separate accounting objects and the original Palm Pilot designs just didn’t work the way that I wanted them to.

This was by far the biggest challenge — how do you reflect various sections of accounting without changing the mechanics of the object?

I was headed to my parents place over a long weekend and, as usual, my mom was bugging me to clean out some of my stuff in the basement — sometimes the answers just fall out of the sky or in my case, show up in a junk filled basement . . .

As I was digging through a box labelled High School, I came across one of my Grade 10 accounting textbooks. One of the pages looked like this:

Sample from my Accounting 10 textbook

I started thinking . .. what if we could use a more traditional, textbook-like accounting format combined with the 40's art style? That way, we could move the ledger lines and titles around, essentially modifying only the interface, without having to creating several different accounting interactives/ build objects.

After some discussions with the team, we came up with the following:

The Accounted — Ledger Version 1
The Accounted — Ledger Version 2

Once we had the design, we focused on a folder visual and a “reveal” concept (black horizontal bars) to ensure that it would fit the dimensions of a smartphone.

If the player got the question right, the ledger would show the answer, but if they got it wrong, the game wouldn’t disclose the answer and would move them to the next question in the sequence.

The final design looked like this:

The final design also forced the player to try again if they didn’t hit the minimum standard for success in the accounting interactive.

Working with Tilly, we made the level score the same passing grade or percentage you need to get into an accounting degree program at a Canadian University.

The number of games

Like most projects, it would have been a bit easier with a little bit more budget and time.

The initial project scope called for the creation of 3 game types as opposed to two — block slider and scene investigation.

The concept for the third game type had Ace trying to get back to the Police Station in a race to analyze crime scene information. Here’s the wireframe for the third game type that didn’t make the cut:

Omitted Car Chase game

In conclusion

We’re proud of how The Accounted turned out in the end.

In any project, challenges will present themselves but the final deliverable has been extremely well received by educators and early College/ University students.

The Accounted was a finalist for an eLearning award at both the 2014 GSummit Awards in San Francisco and the 2014 Digital Alberta Awards.

We wrapped up this project in 2017 with over 50,000 downloads and an average of 4.5 stars out of 5 on both the Google Play and Apple iTunes stores.

Jason Suriano is the Founder and CEO of Trajectory IQ and author of the book Office Arcade.

Like this story? Someone on our team spent a lot of time stressing over whether you’d like it or not. If you like it, please give us a 👏 , we’d really appreciate it.

Visit Trajectory IQ to see how we can help you and your team transform learning at your workplace.

TIQ Software

Stories about gamification, productivity and technology from the team at TIQ Software. Transform your corporate learning by visiting https://trajectoryiq.com

Jason Suriano

Written by

Founder at Rocketfuel Productions. Building trajectoryiq.com and theroad.io. Author of Office Arcade available at Amazon: http://a.co/8U73JsK

TIQ Software

Stories about gamification, productivity and technology from the team at TIQ Software. Transform your corporate learning by visiting https://trajectoryiq.com

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