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Eco: Getting Educated

Red Thomas Posted:
Interviews Not So MMO 0

Eco is one of those games that I’d noticed because I’m interested in the genre, but I’d initially skipped over it for whatever reason.   Then, I was watching a favorite streamer play the game one day and decided that I’d like to give it a shot.  I’m really glad I did, because the game was a lot more interesting that I’d expected.  I’ve found since that I’m consistently finding more depth to the game every time I turn around.

Not only is the game itself interesting, but the story behind the Eco development process is very atypical, as well.  I was interested enough that I had to reach out to John Krajewski, the CEO of Strange Loop Games.  I’m really glad I did because the conversation yielded fascinating information about their path to release and about some of their plans for the future.

Getting Started with Help

One of the uncommon aspects to Eco is that the concept was initially funded through an SBIR grant from the Department of Education.  With the University of Illinois as their research partner, Strange Loop Games went after the Small Business Innovation Research grant to create a game targeted towards kids in middle school. 

The grant was out there and available because as Krajewski says, “[The Department of Education] gives away a percentage of their budget every year to American companies with innovative ideas.”  The team managed to get an initial grant of $250,000 to rough out the concept and then later received about $1 million to start development in earnest once they’d demonstrated the feasibility of their project.

Each profession reinforces the sense of interdependence and community because no one can do everything alone.

There’s a lot about this part of the team’s story that I really like.  For one, I’m glad to see the U.S. government taking games seriously as a vehicle for supporting education.  Kids learn a truckload when they’re having fun and tend to remember what they learned better, and there are enough scientific papers supporting games as supplemental education that I’m really surprised there hadn’t been a more serious attempt at something like this sooner.

As a business owner, I’m also glad to see a company with a good idea go after and successfully acquire funding through a nontypical source.  In the cybersecurity world, SBIRs are pretty common and you can also find them in plenty of other industries.  I’d never thought about them in education, though.  It seems like a great fit for video games and I’d like to see more companies go after similar grants.

Impact of Education

Not only is retention better when kids learn while having fun, but games can often lead to something called tangential learning.  That’s where the game casually introduces something, and you learn more about it either outside the game or as a secondary result of playing the game.  For instance, playing Sid Meier's Civilization introduces you to a myriad of historical cities, empires, and leaders.

The point of the game isn’t to teach you about those cultures and historical figures, but you learn about them as a side-effect of playing the game.   You learn that Roman legions were involved with building roads and that the Scythians were a nomadic people known for their use of mounted archers.  You might also go look up one of the natural wonders in the game in a pique of curiosity.  That’s tangential learning, and it’s a powerful tool.

Animals were programed to not like roads so that they’d be less likely to get in players’ way, but the result is actually very realistic. Animals don’t like roads for a number of reasons, but the cleared area next to a road is easy to travel on. Thus, why you often seen deer running along the edge of a road.

But John told me that while education was clearly a part of their game, it wasn’t their core pitch when going after the grant.  He said that “it was more that students where collaborating in a shared world where their understanding of science and understanding of the scenario is what matters.”  The teamwork and community-building aspects of the game are actually the core aspect around which everything else revolves.

Eco is also just a more holistic learning experience.  John noted that subjects are very siloed in traditional education, each subject in its place and isolated from the others.  Eco allows kids to learn about and practice a myriad of subjects, all connected and interdependent on each other.  The result is not only more representative of real life but it appears that demonstrating how various disciplines overlap with each other also helps students have a better understanding of the practical side of various subjects.  In short, John says, the game “provides that context and answer to the question ‘why do I need to learn this?’”

From Theory to Market

One of the things that really fascinated me was the transition from the research partnership the team had and access to grant resources to a relatively popular game on Steam.  I’m fairly familiar with the traditional funding paths games can take from concept to market and I’ve seen how SBIR grants work on the Defense side, but I wasn’t sure how it’d work for video games.

Krajewski pointed out that the process was about the same as traditional development funding.  Their partnership with the University of Illinois just gave them access to information and resources during the conceptual design stage of development, but the grant was intended to just be a jump start for a viable business product.  The grant functioned much like similar grants are used by cybersecurity companies to develop new capabilities, which they then market to the public and the Department of Defense at the same time.

Heavy equipment makes mining easier, but no one can build a tractor by themselves. Advanced equipment requires support of the whole community. (Picture courtesy of MstrGecko)

Early versions of the game were used by the team’s research partner to study the impact of games on learning.  In that sense, the development of the game directly contributed to scientific knowledge and understanding on a level that very few games could.   It sounds that like that was a fairly transparent component to the actual development cycle, though.  Eventually, a viable product was developed and Strange Loop Games was ready for the next step.

The Kickstarter campaign for Eco was as much about jumpstarting the marketing campaign as it was about actually raising money.  I’ve found that this is the case for virtually all games that have successfully kickstarted over the past several years.  In nearly every case, the funding was really a secondary benefit of the campaign.  The real goal was to advertise the game in a way that would promote organic marketing.  Fans of the given genre sharing links and talking among themselves about the game is the best advertising you can get.

Early in 2018, the game rolled out using Steam’s Early Access program. Eco maintained respectable numbers through the first half of the year before hitting the normal drop in concurrent users.  While the numbers have slowed a bit, they have leveled off.  Average and peak player counts have actually taken a solid jump since January, according to Steam data.  That shows a fairly stable player-base and even larger group of players that jump in to play after major updates.

Next Steps for Eco

That established fanbase could have some very interesting experiences ahead of them.  John shared a few of the team’s strategic goals over the next several years, and it’s exciting.   Strange Loop Games hopes to build on the success of Eco, perhaps even moving players into space, and even then, space is just the first step.

Bugs are coming to Eco, and that’ll add an interesting ecological layer to the game.

John says the team would like to expand the ideas used in Eco to possibly allow players to settle and develop their operations on other planets, all tied together through a unified system.  John’s quick to point out that they don’t want to create a situation where customers don’t need to purchase everything to play.  Each new major component will be a standalone experience, but they’ll all have the ability to tie back to the same meta-verse.

In the more immediate future, the team is looking to expand the economic and political options for the game.  For instance, they’re working on allowing players to develop and ratify a constitution for limiting the government’s authority and capabilities.  Once ratified, players who care more to participate in the political side of the game will have to work from within the framework established by the players on the server to accomplish their goals for the digital community.

It’s another opportunity to teach important lessons that aren’t easily learned elsewhere.  Understanding constitutional authority and protections is a core part of civic responsibility.  It’s a lesson that applies in many cultures and communities and may even be nearly universal.  If understanding how to interact with the digital government in Eco helps kids to learn how to better have an impact in their local governments, then this may be one of the most important games available.

Understanding the rules that govern bodies of government and knowing how to interact with that government is one of the most important lessons that can be taught.  Maybe by playing a game, those players can learn some of the reasons certain constitutional protections exist.  The making of better and more active citizens is a worthy goal in any society.

Traffic enforcement should probably be considered as a possible future enhancement for Eco. (Picture courtesy of Enki3l)

Some Appreciation

Eco is a game that I’ve really been impressed with and I’m very glad Strange Loop Games took a step into unknown territory and gave it a shot.  They’ve produced something that I’m certain will positively impact a number of lives, and that’s a pretty awesome thing that deserves some praise.

I’d like to thank TheReadPanda for reminding me about Eco and getting me interested again.  If you’re looking for a good family-friendly streamer, he’s one I’d recommend.   And of course, I have to thank John Krajewski for his time.   It took a couple false starts before we could sync our coffee schedules and make this conversation happen, but I really felt it was worth it all.  I really appreciate his time and the work that he and the team have put in on Eco.

Eco is easily one or the best games I’ve played in a while and I’m really exited to see what the team does next.  Whatever it is, you can be sure I’ll be buying my copy and an article will ensue close behind.  Until then, I’m standing up a new Eco server for the kids in my family and a new round of Steam gifts just went out.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.