Babylon Recap: An Interview with Ege Kumlali of The Alchemist

On 24–25 February 2018, the Bahcesehir University (BAU), VRFirst, and the BUG Lab hosted the Babylon Hackathon, which was sponsored by the Goethe Institute. The invite-only hackathon hosted about 15 game development teams who were tasked with designing a prototype for a language learning application. At the end, the jurors, a few of them visiting professors from Germany, selected a VR experience entitled The Alchemist as the winner. The team behind the Alchemist was given an all-expenses-paid trip to Berlin where they would represent BAU in the next stage of the hackathon. After returning from Berlin, I sat down with Ege Kumlali, the character designer for Alchemist, to ask her about her development experiences at home (in Istanbul) and Berlin.

(Left to Right) Alchemist Team: Oznur Ozdal, Ege Kumlali, Batuhan Kucuk, Ekin Kucuk

I said it before, but congratulations again on winning. Before we get into it, could you talk about your role in the game development program at BAU? Maybe it would help to mention how the two of us know each other.

In the game development department, I’ve done a bit of work as a graphic designer and last year the department heads started commissioning work from me. The BUG Lab has regular game jams, workshops, and other events, and they’ve asked me to do posters for some of them, five or so, which we hang up on the campuses. One of the posters was for your workshop, which was how we first met and worked together.

A few weeks later, we were on the same development team at this year’s Global Game Jam for a PC game called Asteroid Outbreak. I did character design for the 3D game, which included the officers and crew on a space station. It was a great team because we had working professionals with us and in just two days we had something that looked polished.

Artwork and Design by Ege Kumlali

For the Babylon Hackathon, you and Batuhan joined a new team and created a VR experience called The Alchemist. What motivated the move into VR?

We wanted to move into VR because we believed its immersive nature makes it appropriate for education. When you’re using a VR app, your entire field of vision is occupied and you are forced to give the VR experience your complete attention. When people discuss language learning especially, they often talk about the need for immersion. I know that when they say immersion, they’re talking about immersion in your daily life. But we thought that by making the experience immersive, it would have the same powerful effect on language learners and they would remember the material we present them.

About 25% of the teams in the hackathon also did VR, so I guess a lot of developers had the same belief about immersion. And three out of the four winning teams did their projects in VR, which means that the language professionals thought it was a success.

Before we talk about your VR app, could you tell me about your prize trip to Berlin for winning first place in the hackathon? And what was your experience there?

Yeah, the prize was a paid trip to Berlin for a three-day hackathon with Goethe Institute. While we were there, we had the chance to develop Alchemist further. The first moments after winning were crazy because there were so many good projects and we didn’t expect to win. But when they announced our project as the best, we were in a rush to organize ourselves because the second hackathon would come about two weeks later.

The difference between the two hackathons was like night and day. In Istanbul, we were basically locked into the university building and the VRFirst lab nonstop for 36 hours to finish our project. We ate all our meals there and, when we got too tired, we would find some cushions and an empty spot on the floor to take a nap. The Berlin hackathon was much more formal. All the teams spent an 8-hour day at the Institute to work on their project and at night everyone would go back home or to their hotels. For us, this was great because it was a chance to have a real holiday also, but it was very different from the intense environment we’re used to. The dynamic between language specialists and game developers was also flipped in Berlin. In Istanbul, we had about 90% game developers and 10% language specialists. The opposite was true for Berlin so, at the end, more people presented their program ideas than a finished prototype.

Initially, it was difficult to find the proper setup for VR and we lost a couple of hours on the first day for it. We did eventually get started and, I think, we did a good job. They responded positively to our project and I think they’ll have more VR equipment on hand in the future based on our project and their experience in Istanbul.

We were unique in both hackathons since our application was done in Spanish. In Istanbul, all the apps were in English or Turkish while they were either English or German in Berlin. Our team member Oznur Ozdal is a language professional, a Spanish teacher, and we were happy to do something unique anyway.

So tell me about The Alchemist. What had you done in the Babylon Hackathon and how did your three days in Berlin allow you to continue its development?

We wanted to take advantage of the environmental immersion of VR and create scenes that will be exciting to the users. If you a make an ordinary scene in VR, like a classroom, we think it’s a missed opportunity. Alchemist has a magical theme and there are three different levels with different modes of interaction. Batuhan Kucuk did much of the 3D design while I worked on the character design. In the first level, players read the vocabulary from a spell book that tells them the ingredients to mix into a potion. When the potion is finished, the player succeeds and moves on. In the second level, the player visits an herbalist where they’re able to practice everyday speech that would be used in shopping. The last of these levels has a voice recognition system that we use to summon a fairy who helps them get rid of an angry spirit. The players say the magic words and the spirit is sent away.

The first two levels were done in the first hackathon and we won the competitions based on them. The third level was done in Berlin and the implementation of voice recognition required some technical work by Ekin Kucuk.

What are your plans for The Alchemist? And what are your plans for the future?

Our experience with the hackathons has encouraged us, so we’re continuing to develop Alchemist and reach out to any publishers. And before I do anything else, I’ll finish my degree in the game development department at BAU while also doing design there and in my position at Urart.

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