Social Impact & Sci-Fi: How Shoot for the Moon Contest Winner Theorify Made SpaceIL Academy

[This interview originally appeared on the Schusterman Foundation’s blog.]

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Theorify’s director of new development Jasmine Bulin (right) and producer Vince Close won the Shoot for the Moon game design contest with their concept SpaceIL Academy.

As part of the 11th Annual Games for Change Festival, Schusterman Foundation teamed up with Games for Change to sponsor the Shoot for the Moon game design contest.

Contestants were charged with designing a game that would support SpaceIL’s mission to the moon. SpaceIL, a front-runner for the Google Lunar X Prize, is an Israel-based nonprofit organization aiming to land a spacecraft on the moon by 2015.

Submissions were finally pared down to three finalists who received two complimentary passes to the 2014 Games for Change Festival, where they presented their concepts in front of a live jury and top funders.

The winning game SpaceIL Academy was designed by Theorify, a professional game design team specializing in educational and social impact games.

What motivated you to enter the Shoot for the Moon game design competition and where did you find inspiration to create SpaceIL Academy?

We focus our time on making educational and social impact games, and we love science fiction.

When we heard about the challenge, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be a part of the historical SpaceIL moon mission by making a game that celebrates space exploration. We are all a bit nerdy here and were inspired by tropes from science fiction and fantasy like Star Trek and Harry Potter.

Tell us a little bit about your team. How did you get together to create SpaceIL Academy?

Theorify is an indie studio based out of Long Beach, California. Jasmine Bulin, Theorify’s director of new development, and Vince Close, producer, worked on the initial concept and then shared it with the larger team to create concept art and wireframes.

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We want to hear more about your game! How did you come up with the concept, and how does the game work?

The core of the game is about flying your custom spaceship to the moon and landing successfully with limited fuel, but there is so much more to the game than that.

Space exploration is cool but it’s also a difficult subject, so we wanted to make ideas about space and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) accessible to a wide audience. You don’t need to be an expert at math and science to play!

In fact, in the game, you play as a cadet at an academy where you level up by graduating through STEM puzzles in addition to completing spaceflight missions, which means you learn a little as you go. The controls are really simple and user-friendly, but winning is not easy.

We hope the game will ignite players’ interest in space exploration, but one of the biggest draws to the game is people knowing that the data collected from their missions will help land an actual unmanned ship on the moon.

The target audience is ages 15 to 25, but we know people of all ages and skill levels will want to play this game to crowdsource as much data for SpaceIL as possible!

What tools did you use to create your prototype and why? How long did it take to create the game from start to finish?

We are developing in Unity3D to build the prototype of our game. We are currently working with Games for Change on a timeline for the prototype and full game. Our initial design and concept for the game took about 2 weeks with an additional month to prepare the color graphics and art for the presentation.

How will the game help the SpaceIL mission to the moon?

In the game you are a SpaceIL cadet. By flying your spaceship to any of the several moons in the game, you are sending data about fuel usage and flight maneuvers to SpaceIL to help find the most fuel-efficient landing options for the SpaceIL unmanned rocket trip to the moon.

What was the most useful piece of advice or feedback offered by the judges? Do you plan on changing some of your design based on this, and if so, how?

Our proposal talked about how the game will develop beyond the prototype. The judges were really positive about the overall concept but wanted to see how we would pare down the idea for the prototype.

We’d like to build the game on mobile, so we need to focus on an alpha version of the game for the prototype and work through the core components like the flight simulations and a puzzle. We are very excited that we get to work closely with SpaceIL, Schusterman, and Games for Change to make the best possible game.

What is the biggest risk you have ever taken personally or professionally? How did it pay off?

The game industry is volatile and fickle, so it is quite risky to be making games, and when the studio was founded, we made a lot of interactive projects beyond games. So when we decided at the beginning of 2014 that we would narrow the focus of our work on making educational and social impact games, we were taking a bigger risk that we didn’t know would pay off. We just knew it was the kind of work we wanted to be doing.

The team in various forms has worked on games big and small, and worked on projects for public media producers and organizations like PBS, so it is a natural fit that we work on something that combines all of our talents. Since we made the decision, we have haven’t looked back. It has been very re-energizing for everyone, and it really affirmed our commitment when we won the Shoot for the Moon Challenge.

What achievement—past, present, or future—makes you the most proud?

Right now all we can think about is getting that unmanned rocket to the moon and how cool that will be. There are some Webbys and some film awards sitting up on our shelf but none of that compares to being even a small part of space history. Sometimes we joke that Jasmine is our Gene Krantz, and we need to get her a white vest to help us launch this game like Gene wore in mission control on all those NASA missions.

Who or what inspires you to get out of bed every day?

We get to get up everyday and make video games and our studio is a block from the beach. When you get to work on something you enjoy doing it isn’t work at all!
 


 
On June 18, Schusterman will host its #NetTalks webinar, Gaming For Good, where attendees can learn how digital games can support organization’s mission. Register here to hear from G4C President Asi Burak, Kfir Damari of SpaceIL, and Theorify’s Jasmine Bulin, who will show the latest demo of SpaceIL Academy.

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