Update

Accelerated: Pixowl’s Early Work in the Co.lab Accelerator

Screenshot of Sandbox EDU

Pixowl plans on launching The Sandbox EDU, a new app based on its most successful game, in late July.

Pixowl, a three-year-old gaming startup based both in San Francisco and Argentina, didn’t plan on playing this long in The Sandbox.

The company launched The Sandbox in 2012 and co-founder and COO Sébastien Borget said, “We first thought it would be a minor product for the company, but over time The Sandbox became the lead product of the company.”

The Sandbox is a unique world-building game that was named one of Apple iTunes Best Games of 2012 and again in 2013.

“The game has a true physics simulator behind it. The physics design of the game provides almost infinite possibilities. You can combine a lot of different physical elements – we have over 150, I think – and they have many of the same elements as the physical world. These create a set of tools that you can combine in so many ways. It is different than the blocks in Minecraft or even Legos, because you add all those interactions between the elements,” Borget said of the game.

But the company wanted to reconsider its marketing strategy and turned to its users.

“We had already some teachers contacting us to say, ‘Yes, I am using your game in my classroom to demonstrate … the water cycle, the state of matter, creating electronic systems…’” Borget said of the company’s decision to enter the education market. “At some point we thought ‘Alright, if people are using our game in that way that means there might be more people interested in using it that way also.’”

That’s what brought them to Co.lab.

Over the next three months we will be checking in with Pixowl, one of the seven companies currently working on products as part of the Zynga.org and New Schools Venture Fund education game accelerator Co.lab.

The accelerator accepted Pixowl’s application in which the company had to outline its goals of what it wanted out the accelerator experience. For Borget, he said that was clear to he and his colleagues.

They wanted a new game.

“We decided that we wanted to deliver a very specific goal of having The Sandbox EDU product that would be aimed at parents, students and teachers. So our goal is by July 31st to have a specific new version of that game, that app available,” Borget said. “We want to have a product that is good enough to be launching but might not be the fullest possible product. But because the App Store is very reactive and you get to keep updating the app like we did with the original game – we had over 20 different updates to the original game – then we can work on improving it over time.”

So the company joined six others in the Co.lab, based at Zynga’s San Francisco offices.

As part of the process companies must work from the California base for at least part of the time, but that also offers the companies the chance to hear from experts, meet with Zynga designers and marketing types and connect with teachers through the New Schools Venture Fund network.

Co.Lab also connected the companies to mentors who have also developed products in the edtech industry. Pixowl, for example, was paired with GLASSLab’s Jessica Lindl, who oversaw the launch of Sim CityEDU, during the first month in the program.

Although they had only been in the Co.lab process for six weeks, Borget outlined some of the most critical effects the lab had had on the company’s efforts.

First there was the question of how realistic it was to tackle the educational market in the U.S.

As Borget put it, it was a different story to take the interest of a few teachers using a game to making a product that would work for a majority of teachers in the U.S.

“What we have progressively learned is the way the U.S. education market is built is not so easy even though there are already some strong leaders established,” he said. “To sell your product to an educational market you have market segmentation between states and districts and this got us a little bit scared about how accessible that market actually was.”

But rather than jettison the educational product, Borget said he, with the help of Co.lab, decided to revise their strategy and focus on what they know how to do.

Screenshot

The Sandbox EDU is built on top of the existing game, but with a focus on teaching, not just engaging.

“We know how to make mobile games and tablet games. And there is now this Apple Store for education and Google Play for Education available for distribution. It’s growing and the effort of selling the service and products is directly done by Apple and Google. So this is something that we don’t have to worry about,” he said.

He added that one of the key revelations of this was was, “We should not just focus on the closed education system but enlarge it to also parents and kids wanting to learn on their own,” Borget said. “We could get a much better understanding of the whole picture and the knowledge to make this kind of decision to follow or not follow an existing system of an old industry.”

But the effect of the accelerator was not just on the big picture marketing questions, but also helped with some very real and very hairy issues all developers focused on young people and education may grapple with during the development process – privacy laws and finding beta testers.

On privacy, Borget admitted to being “really clueless” about the U.S. rules like COPPA that aim to protect children’s privacy.

Co.lab connected Borget and other developers in the cohort with lawyers to consult with and possible solutions to implement to ensure their compliance.

The accelerator also answered the challenge of how to get The Sandbox into schools for testing.

At Pixowl we consider ourselves mobile innovators and so we see an industry and we want to see how we can shake things up. We thought maybe we can teach … in a better way than the traditional books or videos or websites do.

What we liked about co.lab versus other edtech accelerators was they were very interested in games and education and they were already focused on mobile.

One of the things we have learned by being in co.lab is how we take interest from a few teachers worldwide to scaling to the majority of teachers in the U.S.

Just before we chatted, Borget and his team had spent a day putting their prototype of The Sandbox Edu in front of three classes of middle schoolers in the Bay Area. The feedback will be critical, he said, to creating the first draft of the app.

“If we weren’t in co.lab, how would we do it? We would have to go knock on the door at every middle school, explain and pitch our idea and it would take a lot of time to find the one teacher willing to give it a try,” he said. “They have the network.”

In fact, Pixowl is looking for more schools and teachers to try out the game and encouraged teachers in grades 5-9 who teach STEM or arts classes to reach out to the company to participate in more trial runs they have planned.

The company was going through the feedback from its first test and will be developing the next version of the game in the coming weeks. We plan to check in again in the next month to see what’s next for Pixowl.

Editor’s Note: You can learn more about The Sandbox at Pixowl’s site and can download a version of the original game there.

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Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.