Texas-based Studio Mixes Class with Commerce

Variant: Limits aims to improve college students understanding of core principles of calculus.

It’s been a big year at Triseum, a relatively new game developer based in Texas. They scored one of 16 spots at this year’s Gaming Pitch Competition at SXSW and they introduced their second major game, a calculus game called Variant that is aimed at the university market.

The game and the studio grew out of the LIVE Lab at Texas A&M University and, according to Triseum CEO André Thomas, it’s that reality that has shaped the company and its early work.

Thomas joined Texas A&M after 20 years in the commercial game design business. His work helped build a research gaming lab at the university and then a commercial studio.

The studio has tackled some of the more difficult to hit topics and markets in the learning game industry. Their first effort was an art history game and now with Variant the company has gone after college-level math.

Thomas told Gamesandlearning.org that the math game was a product of a need in the market – national failure rates in Calculus I courses are reaching 38% — and the importance of the subject.

“You cannot get a single STEM degree without passing calculus. It is the foundation of so many degrees,” Thomas said.

Listen to his full interview here:

In addition to the importance of the material, Thomas said his team researched the market and found little competition.

“There are quite a few educational games in the K through middle school segment. It really starts thinning out when you get to high school and it is even less when you get to college,” he said.

Like most developers in the educational space, once they have identified the game, they started exploring the design process.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We want students to learn calculus.’ Well, what does it mean to learn calculus? We need to have learning objectives. Ok, a conceptual understanding of limits, being able to detect limits,” he said.

“Once we have learning objectives we design the assessment. How do we know a student has achieved the learning objective? All of this is done before we start the game design.”

The studio then enters what Thomas described as the traditional game design process. An iterative effort to test the different game mechanics to see what mixes the desired outcomes with the engaging game play.

It’s here where he says the connection with the university is ideal.

“We do all of our [game design prototyping] with our students at the university because I am not a 20-year-old anymore and the games I like to play may be different. So the customer for our game is there in the design process,” he said.

The decision to create Triseum as a for-profit spin-off of the Texas A&M game design lab achieved a couple of ends, said Thomas. First, it allowed games developed with a strong educational focus to come to market and ideally scale. Secondly, it created a more regular source of funding for the lab itself.

Thomas said that the researchers working in the lab can pursue grants, but he said those can be “hit-or-miss” and that have a more regular source of funding would help the project be self-sustaining.

Still, he stressed that the development process for Triseum and its partner lab is far different than the work done for his former commercial companies.

“Because it is a lab at a university you really can’t put clear deliverables in place…because remember the students in the lab are there first and foremost to study and not to work at the lab and the same is true of faculty. It is always secondary.”

Even with the unique structure of Triseum, Thomas is quick to admit they face the same challenge encountered by commercial and academic developers alike – distribution.

Variant is aimed at a university audience and Thomas said the fractured nature of that market, where each professor is often free to choose their own texts and materials, combined with a dated educational publishing market is a huge challenge.

He described going to one math conference where 48 of the 50 booths set up were there to sell physical textbooks.

“It has been a really painful learning process,” Thomas said, adding there are no templates the company could follow or even reliable market data to use to target professors or schools.

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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.