You probably knew that Wellington is a hotbed of game design, and that there are a lot of interesting edtech startups here as well. Gamefroot sits at the fascinating intersection of these two worlds, and they are really taking things to the next level.
Gamefroot makes it easy for anyone to become a game designer. They’ve built a platform which lets anyone make an HTML5 game using a great library of templates and objects, a super-easy Scratch-like scripting language, drag-and-drop construction, and instant publishing to the web, or iOS, Android, or Chrome stores. They have over 110k users from all over the world, and tens of thousands of games on the platform. You can try some of the games out on gamefroot.com, or have a shot at making your own game on make.gamefroot.com. There are some excellent tutorials to get you going. Here’s a 5-minute video which takes you through the process:
The idea for Gamefroot started in 2005 when founder Dan Milward wanted to make games, but didn’t have the programming experience to do so. If you cast your mind back to the dark days of prehistory before the iPhone, you might remember the only real mobile platform was Nokia feature phones with 320x320px resolutions. At the time, there were only about 30 games available for Nokias. They published the first version of Gamefroot on Facebook, and almost instantly there were hundreds of games available. But Nokia in their wisdom pulled the underlying Flash technology from their phones, and that was that. Then in 2007, the first iPhone came out, and Gamefroot had another go at publishing games on iPhones. But Steve Jobs pulled Flash technology from the iOS platform, and that was that.
In addition to Dan Milward, the team includes David Thornycroft, Ben Richards and Stefan Le Minh. Gamefroot resources are designed in partnership with the education sector and normally involves working with teachers and other game designers from the sector. They have some high powered advisors as well, including game reserach fellow Dr Bronwyn Stuckey, Network for Learning’s Pete Hall, NZ e-learning teacher Marianne Malmstrom and the ubiquitous angel investor Trevor Dickinson.
But why should game design be so compelling for educators? The New Zealand curriculum has largely moved past teaching kids facts, and focuses on teaching kids how to learn and integrate that knowledge into their daily lives. This seems to be particularly effective for STEM subjects. In order to design a game to express what you’ve learned in class, you need to know quite a lot about the subject, and you get the bonus of having a game that makes it fun for someone else to learn that subject as well. Oh, and you learn to code as a by-product. As examples, biology teachers have commissioned students to design games to build their own fungi, and English teachers are using Gamefroot to teach kids how to develop text-based games.
There’s a real shortage of teachers capable of teaching these things to kids, which is where Gamefroot’s paradigm of designing a game on a canvas, applying pre-fabricated game mechanics, easy scripting and customisation all within a hosted UI comes into play. The scaffolding process is important in helping people learn how to write games, and mimics the Khan Academy and Hour of Code.
The NZ Council for Educational Research (NZCER) wanted to know if this approach to learning is both cognitively engaging and educationally sound, so they commissioned a study on “Game-coding workshops in New Zealand public libraries” which was published earlier this month. Senior Researcher Rachel Bolstad concludes that Gamefroot inspired kids to want to make their own games or apps to sell, and boosted their interest in a possible future career in game design, coding, or programming. She also identifies the potential for this technology to help redress gender imbalance in this field, as well as supporting more Māori and Pasifika into the field.
Gamefroot is currently pre-revenue, but they’re about to start charging schools for providing classroom-specific tools. It’s a mass-market play, as schools don’t have huge amounts of cash to invest in this area. The USA will be the main target.
They’ve already had a lot of exposure in the USA mainly thanks to teacher word-of-mouth, and have active collaborations going with teachers and education providers in that market.
They also have active collaborations with the game industry, where there’s a critical shortage of game developers. Game design companies are eager to inspire as many kids as possible into the industry, and they see Gamefroot as one vehicle for doing this. And as a kid, what could be more fun than building games using assets from your favourite game designers?
Gamefroot has raised $150k to date from private investors, has had some support from Callaghan Innovation for R&D, and attracted service revenue from companies that want specific games developed. They’re planning on raising a seed round in the near future, specifically targeting investors with experience in the edtech sector that will help them break into the US Market. Their end game is strategic acquisition by a major edtech company or a platform player.
Here’s a great opportunity for you, dear readers: if you design a compelling game on the Gamefroot platform about the NZ startup scene, I’ll offer to feature it on this blog. Have fun!
Kitset.io allows anyone to build cross platform apps without the need to code. They use some pretty cool AI techniques to fill in the gaps between people and machines.
Graduates of the recent Lightning Lab Auckland programme, they’ve built kitsets for the hospitality vertical (restaurants and cafes) as well as Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG – retail consumer products like groceries), and are in the process of expanding out into a wide variety of classes of apps.
Building your app is super easy, and if you get stuck, there’s always an AI chatbot to help you out. Deploying the app is even easier – one click, and you get an Android app, an iOS app, a mobile web site, a landing page, and a dashboard. If you’ve ever commissioned mobile app development, you’ll know that it usually takes months to complete if you can find a dev that’s willing to take you on, and it’s rare to walk away with change from $10K. Kitset lets you design your own app and deploy it in hours, and it costs only $69/month – that’s disruptive.
The idea for Kitset was born when CEO and founder Nick Mitchell was working at Accenture in London as a senior IT architect in the telecommunications industry. He would regularly tell his customers about the power of analytics, the future of social, and how machine learning and AI would change the way people do business – AI would be as revolutionary as the Internet itself.
At the same time, Nick was irritated by how long it took and how expensive it was to build apps – he felt that a lot of innovation was being curbed by unnecessary complexity and skills requirements. So he left Accenture and started creating a platform that would let anyone build an app. He spent the next 18 months proving out the technology he wanted to unleash on this task.
Nick’s general concept for bootstrapping this idea involved three steps:
Build a tool to build apps that’s so easy to use that anyone could do it.
Teach a machine to use the tool.
Teach the machine to understand natural language (English) instructions from a human, so that the machine acts like a software developer.
The system can now do simple tasks like “please change that to a blue background” or “send a txt message when this button is pressed”. The next phase of AI implementation will be to ask questions like “are there any apps or sites that you like the look of”, and then provide a template that draws from the design of the specified apps or sites.
Lead Developer Dominic Trang has a background in Android game development. His previous gig was with pharma company Sagitto where he worked on image processing software to detect counterfeit pills. They’ve spent two years together now building the tool, which is learning from the real world 24 hours a day.
Kitset’s market entry plan has four pillars. The most important one which they’re working on right now is strategic partnerships. They’ve recently closed a deal with ASB Bank focusing on restaurants and cafes as a beta test. Why? ASB knows that apps are a big pain point for their customers, and see Kitset as a massive value add at a low cost.
The second pillar of market entry is channel partnerships. They’re working with well known and some not so well known digital agencies to reduce their cost of providing great apps and web sites to their customers. Using Kitset, agencies can do a lot of heavy lifting quickly. There are a huge number of APIs you can clip together in an app, but it’s a right pain in the proverbial to wrap a sexy UI around them. Kitset makes this easy.
The third pillar is direct sales. These are high touch at the moment, but the platform is nearly ready for use by the general business public.
And the fourth pillar is bigger ecosystem players, especially large hosting and service providers, like Microsoft Azure, AWS, or Digital Ocean. One could imagine the likes of Dropbox, 99 Designs, or Basecamp being interested in a product like this as well. Kitset drives traffic, usage, and brand leverage through these partners, who could also become potential acquirers.
In the short term however, they’re looking for additional strategic partnerships with banks and telcos, especially outside of New Zealand. All the while, they’re building up their secret-sauce protectable IP, their AI stack.
Post Lightning Lab, Kitset are putting together a small bridging round with people close to the company to last them through the rest of 2016. Early next year, once they’ve proven their technology and start getting some real traction, they’ll be doing a seed round with typical NZ seed round parameters to start scaling overseas. Keep an eye out at your local angel network for these guys.
Here’s their pitch from Lightning Lab Auckland Demo Day:
Change business behaviour through conscious spending.
Do you care about the planet and want to make the world a better place? Do you only want to buy from businesses that are sustainable and ethical? Do you want to earn tangible rewards for it?
Let’s face it – businesses do their business with varying degrees of care around how they treat the environment, their community, and their employees. As a consumer, what can you do to support businesses that that behave well? Simple answer: Download the Conscious Consumers app (iPhone or Android), find a business near you that aligns with your ethics, buy from them, collect loyalty rewards, and sleep better at night knowing that you’re helping make the world a better place.
In order to participate, businesses must be accredited – they can apply for badges such as Recycling, Composting, Fair trade, Generosity, and others, which all have specific, measurable accreditation standards. Businesses are audited on induction and every year to ensure that they’re complying with standards.
The benefits to consumers are clear: you can have confidence that the restaurants and cafes you frequent are ethical businesses, and earn loyalty rewards. Hospitality businesses use the Conscious Consumers data to attract new customers whose values are aligned to theirs, and find out more about their customers – what they care about, how much they spend, and how frequently they visit.
They have more than 300 businesses and 10,000 consumer users across New Zealand.
The previous version of the app required users to ‘check in’ at the businesses. The new version takes a feed directly from Paymark, and automagically credits your spending from those businesses as it sees your transactions come through. Their secret sauce is tokenising technology, which enables this to take place without your EFTPOS or credit card details being stored.
Melissa Keys and Ben Gleisner
Conscious Consumers started as a paper directory back in 2008, when cofounders Ben Gleisner and Melissa Keys got together with a few of their friends from uni and started the 42collective. The book showcased Wellington businesses that were achieving sustainability metrics, and they received a grant of a $5,000 from Wellington City Council to promote it. They also ran local events to promote sustainability and local businesses that supported sustainability. Over the next few years they attracted funding from the Ministry for the Environment, the Ākina Foundation, and several other councils, and in 2012 they released their first app to help conscious consumers find restaurants and cafes, and collect loyalty points for trading with them.
… business will change if consumers demand it …
They’re making measurable change in the way hospitality business operates. According to Ben, they’ve supported over 50 businesses to start recycling and composting – that’s the equivalent of more than 1,000 households. Their theory of change is that businesses will change if consumers demand it. Up until now, there hasn’t been a way for customers to easily recognise and reward specific business behaviours that matter to them, but now businesses can tie increased revenue back to specific behaviours on their part. It closes an important feedback loop that creates a virtual cycle improving the way we interact with the environment as businesses and consumers.
In May this year, they closed a $600K equity round from high-net-worth impact investors. The round was only open for a few weeks, and was quickly filled. With this investment, they plan to grow to 25,000 users by May 2017, multiply revenue by 4x, expand into other verticals such as food retail, clothing, homeware and hotels. They’re continuing to validate their product in New Zealand, but the next capital raise will be to enter one to three overseas markets, which will likely be done on a city-by-city basis. Post-raise, they’re just as agile and lean as they’ve always been. “It’s easy to burn money when you’ve got it, but we’re used to being incredibly frugal and we want to continue that” says Ben.
I was impressed with how quickly they were able to raise $600K as a social enterprise, but as they say, a professional is someone who makes a hard job look easy, and it only took them seven years to become an overnight success.
This week, they’re launching a major campaign including social media, engagement with their existing user base, working with their business customers as a channel, and large non-profits that are aligned to their values. You too can help make the world a better place by being conscious about your consumption.
Get your kids off the couch and physically active outside with augmented reality (AR) games.
If your kids are anything like mine, they love to play games on their handheld devices. So much so, that it can be difficult to get them outside, even on a fine day. Geo AR Games lets them do both at the same time, augmenting public open spaces into exciting “mixed reality” play areas with a combination of real-world, virtual, and social features.
Let 12 year old Chris show you how it works:
Geo AR Games have two games out now: Sharks in the Park, and Magical Park. Sharks in the Park can be played in any open space in the world that’s at least 60m x 60m. They’re going to release a “world builder” next year which will enable kids to build their own games using a library of 3D models and animations. Think “Minecraft outdoors”.
Magical Park works only in specific locations selected by a local council, and has a specific set of council-selected experiences.
The games have built-in safety features, for example content disappears as the player approaches the edge of the play area, and the player will see a big stop sign on the screen when they get within 15m of a road or other hazard.
The games deliver on the promise to get kids running around outside. Initial data show that the average game session is 30 minutes, and kids run an average of 500m to 2km during a session. Kids don’t notice how much running they’ve done, as they’re too immersed in the game. And the games are social – even though each kid has their own device, they are playing in real life with each other, talking to and yelling at each other.
Both games are attracting a high level of interest from local governments, who want to see increased use of public spaces, and provide healthy, fun activities on them. Councils have been trying to find a way to use technology as a hook to get families out-of-doors for years, and this is potentially the solution they’ve been looking for. Auckland and Wellington Councils have launched trials, and other councils are queued up. Initial feedback is very positive.
Councils also see value in the game for marketing their other services, so for example winning a game of Magical Park could potentially get you free entry into the nearby public swimming pool.
Mel Langlotz and Amie Wolken
CEO Mel Langlotz has a career in visual effects and post production. She met CTO Amie Wolken when they were working together at Augview, a company that specialises in Geospatial Augmented Reality visualisation of infrastructure asset data. Amie has a unique combination of degrees in Law, Animal Biology/Psychology, and Computer Science. Amie quickly rose through the ranks at Augview from programmer to manager and ultimately director. The two had a vision of commercialising AR technology so that users could be fully immersed in an outdoor interactive experience, and be part of the storytelling. While infrastructure payed the bills, Mel and Amie knew that a far more exciting world lay ahead.
During this period, Mel was having huge difficulty in convincing her stepdaughter to get off the couch and play outside. And so the idea for Geo AR games was born.
In late 2015, Mel and Amie formed their new company, and immediately applied, and were accepted into Chile’s women-only S-Factory pre-accelerator incubator, which gave them a USD 20,000 grant. During S-Factory, they applied for and were accepted into the women founder led Lightning Lab XX accelerator programme. Mel arrived back from Chile literally the same day that the XX programme began. And they’ve just heard that they’ve been accepted into Te Papa’s Mahuki incubator programme, which begins in August. The team will be delivering outdoor AR exhibitions for Te Papa, which marks the beginning of developing a platform for AR cultural gaming experiences.
They’re a top team in a new, fast-moving field. They’ve been working together in the geospatial AR environment for three years now, which is more experience than most others can claim – they’re early adopters and first movers. They have complementary skills and really enjoy working with each other.
The game is based on the Unity platform, which provides the ability to deploy on both Android and iOS using a single code base. The game is fully contained in the download, so it doesn’t need to use mobile data during play. There are a number of difficulties in making a good geospatial AR game. The really hard part is understanding and dealing with the nuances of GPS – there are lots of environmental and device variables that affect accuracy and smoothness. On the AR side, it’s really hard to create content that looks realistic in the real world. It’s challenging to integrate data from the device’s sensors to keep the objects stable and look like they are part of that world rather than just overlaid. There’s a constant tradeoff between stability and accuracy.
They’re currently raising $300K to further develop the games and world builder, to sell to more local governments in New Zealand, and to begin exploring the overseas opportunities. They’ve already raised a successful NZD 10K Kickstarter, so you could say they’re out of the starting blocks.
They’re also looking to hire devs, with any combination of the following skills: C#, Unity, modular programming, game development, mobile app development (iOS, Android native plugins), AR or VR, computer vision and image processing, GNSS.