Subverses Covert: The spy game that teaches foreign languages

Following its successful crowdfunding campaign, we speak to the developers behind this unqiue educational mobile game
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Subverses is both the name of a Boston-based tech start-up, and its first mobile game. With plenty of studios making educational games for mobile platforms that appeal to younger audiences, Subverses is trying something a little different: a game that teaches older players how to speak foreign languages.

The trio that make up the studio is already fluent is multiple languages. Creative director Leo Creatini speaks Spanish and English, and is learning Japanese. English-speaking operations director Blaine Stillerman has an intermediate grasp of Spanish and is learning Hebrew and Arabic. Meanwhile, technical director Michael Buciuman is fluent in English and Romanian, and is currently learning French.

With a variety of tongues under their belt, the team has been brainstorming for a while how best to teach such languages to people through a video game, and have since devised Subverses Covert: a spy-themed title that tasks players with stealing trade secrets from foreign competitors.

As with many start-ups, Subverses had to seek its initial funding from crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. If there were any doubts that demand for such an education-focused title was low, they were unfounded: Subverses Covert managed to raise more than $20,000 during its appeal.

With development now in full swing, we spoke to Stillerman to find out more: 

Where did the idea for this come from? Did you draw inspiration  from any other projects, within games or beyond?

One of our co-founders and creative director, Leo Creatini was studying Japanese in college while watching the showtime CIA television show, Homeland. He got inspired to use intel-gathering in a foreign world to learn languages. He then began drafting interactions, missions, and the game world to hold everything together.

After graduating in May of the next year from UMass Amherst, Leo met up with me, one of his college friends from UMass Amherst, at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Boston. We caught up on life and before calling for the check, on a whim, Leo shared with me this idea that he had for a language-learning spy video game, which would become known as Subverses.

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In Subverses Covert, you cannot advance without understanding the story. Therefore, you learn to continue, and continue to learn.

How does Subverses teach languages to players? How do you get the information across in a way that can be retained?

We teach players new languages by throwing them into a foreign world to explore and complete missions. The goal-orientated lesson plans are fused into the narrative to make you, the player, care about the choices and information presented. 

Humans are hardwired for stories; a great story will keep you wanting to know what happens next. In Subverses Covert, you cannot advance without understanding the story. Therefore, you learn to continue, and continue to learn.

How have you balanced building an educational game, and a game that is fun to play?

One of our design philosophies for Covert is making it 51 per cent video game and 49 per cent language learning. This is because if you are not entertained and care about what happens next, then the whole curriculum will be ditched for another more engaging game, show, or book.

One of the major design hurdles was how to present new information and then test you on the vocabulary, without resembling anything like a classroom or survey. We believe we solved this problem elegantly in our core game mechanics. You get new information from eavesdropping conversations and stealing documents, then afterwards test your knowledge through interactive dialogues and mini-games, like hacking drones.

How have you selected which languages the game will focus on? Do you plan to add others?

We chose the initial languages based on what are the most sought after languages in the world. In America, that is Spanish and French. However, globally it is English. The last of the four was German because of it’s similarity to English, cool factor, and because it was also a popular choice. 

Beyond this first set, we want to move onward to Asian languages including Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Thereafter, we plan to expand into more European (Russian, Italian, Portuguese) and Middle Eastern languages (Arabic and Hebrew).

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Beyond this first set, we want to move onward to Asian languages including Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. We also plan to expand into more European and Middle Eastern languages.

Why go for a spy setting? How did this fit with what you're trying to do, and how does it appeal to the audience you're after?

We decided to build the game around a spy theme because we needed a genre centered around collecting and applying information, that could also provide a world full of normal day-to-day vocabulary. We can imagine how a fantasy medieval game would fall short in teaching you how to say and interact with emails, mobile phones, and cameras.

Moreover, by making the main tool in the game a smartphone instead of a silenced pistol – which is usually tradition with the spy genre – Covert becomes more accessible and focuses on intel-gathering and communicating instead of shooting your way through problems. 

We can see how including weapons cripples the language-learning process. Players' thought process would be: “I could have a conversation with that guard, provide some false information, and get through…. or I can shoot him in the face and drag his body out of sight.”

The early adopters we’re targeting are between 16 to 27 years old. These are the people who are tech-savvy, are already learning or would like to learn a foreign language, and play games ranging from casual to hardcore. We believe this core audience will find enjoyment in spying on a futuristic, dystopian megacorp while acquiring a new language. 

Why do you think the game received so much support on Kickstarter? Why does it appeal to backers?

Learning a language is a difficult task and many of the existing programs and products often leave users bored and frustrated. As language learners ourselves, we have felt this frustration firsthand! We searched for products that would keep us engaged and found the digital equivalence of lint.

And so we set off to make our own product that would address and solve these core issues of user-engagement for language-learning. We believe our backers share our same aspiration and enthusiasm for a program that you can play your way through the lesson plan; that it does not feel like a classroom yet you would put your phone down knowing as much. 

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We needed a genre centered around collecting and applying information that could also provide a world full of normal day-to-day vocabulary. A fantasy medieval game would fall short in teaching you how to say and interact with emails, mobile phones, and cameras.

Now that the Kickstarter campaign has been successful, what's the next step?

We are now finishing up the development for phase one of our closed beta. This will have three full levels ready to playtest in Spanish, French and German. Phase one plays a critical role in our product development cycle where we will be conducting extensive user experience testing to ensure that our product is intuitive in its design, effective in its ability to teach and engage our users in Covert’s immersive language-learning world.

When do you plan to launch?

We are planning to soft launch Subverses Covert Beta with our backers and mail subscribers by June of 2015, with more than 12 full levels in Spanish, French, English and German.

To obtain early access to our closed beta testing and beta soft launch as well as following our development you can sign up on our site at www.playsubverses.com and you can follow us on Twitter: @subVerses.

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