Monday, September 8, 2014

Over A Thousand Virtual Hugs Given (Or A Blog Post About Nothing)

Place: Hacker Dojo, 599 Fairchild Drive, Mountain View, CA
Time: 6.30 pm

Monday evening. The team behind Mathbreakers – Morgan, Charlie, and Vivian – are half-way through their dinner. Morgan has Reddit open, and is pretending to be hard at work, when Charlie says, “Hey Morgan, Its your turn to do a blog post today.” 

“Mmmmm Mmph darumfff wamppppa,” replies Morgan, chomping down a rather large mouthful of burger. Which, Charlie and Vivian, having worked with Morgan before, rightly interpret to mean, “But I don’t wanna.”

What follows is the conversation they had..

Charlie: You should write about how we built the game from scratch.

Morgan: You mean how I met you and Vivian early last year, and how you guys had these cool prototypes for a Math game, though technically speaking not production stuff… And how I took on a role where I could advance that stuff in a maintainable way, and work towards optimizing and maintaining what we had?

Charlie: Also talk about the website.

Morgan: Remember, for a little while we had this impossible to maintain PHP version of the website that I wrestled away from you? I guess I could write about how we are using Django and jQuery.. Also, all the APIs we are using – the Mathbreakers game uses logins, assignments from the teachers which need to be tracked, the back-end purchasing system.. Yes, I could write about all that; but I don’t want to.

Vivian:  Maybe I could write the code for the site. I will only take five-times as much time than you guys.

Charlie: Remember all the time Morgan spent on doing Shaders! That was the time when he wanted to build this cool-looking bubbly shader for the numbers – giving objects in the game a ice-cuby effect? (Psssst, Ice-cuby is not a real word.)

Morgan: You can do all sorts of custom effects on object and game environment - cool things. Like the material you put on objects , light up when there is sun. See-through or reflective surfaces, for examples. We are a small team and did not have an art budget; so I tried to do most of the work using code.

Charlie: Which is why you built the hex grid system, this bunch of hexagonal tiles, that sort of pulled the game together visually.

Morgan: I think the way we built Mathbreakers was Charlie would have an idea and would start building a level for it.  He would also write much of the code for it. I would do tricky parts of the code,  make it more maintainable, for example. Then Vivian would come in, and make what we did look pretty.

Vivian: We built the game on top of Unity, which meant we did not have to do every little thing ourselves. Unity took care of the Physics for us. Like, when you go sufficiently close to a ledge, you automatically fall off.   

Charlie: I think Unity is kinda like Photoshop, but with way more interaction.

Vivian: I think you can say that about Blender. You can customize a lot of things very easily.

Morgan: Players can customize the characters in the Mathbreakers game, man. How cool is that! (Note: Vivian is not a man, but Morgan refers to everyone as ‘man’; be it man, woman, child or a pet cat.)

Vivian: I think the components-based model of Unity helped us a lot with testing. Larger game studios work in six-months sprints, they have to be able to figure out things many, many days in advance. We, on the other hand, were able to make a feature in a day or two, and test it out. If children loved a feature, we kept it. If they did not, we removed it.

Charlie: I thought having a marble in the game would be a good idea, but the kids did not like marbles all that much. The robots they loved!

Morgan: Speaking of, do you know we sent out roughly a thousand robot hugs?

Vivian, Charlie (in unison): Dude! A thousand robot hugs!

Morgan: Meh. Whatever.

(The End)

Editor’s note (Yes, this post has an editor): A thousand robot hugs! When the Mathbreakers team had this hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, they thought it would be a great idea to thank all the people who had supported them. They were at a party, and thankfully it was the kinda party that also had an unlimited supply of paper and pen, along with various cool beverages.

Having made sure they had enough pizza, Morgan, Vivian, and Charlie started drawing random robots on paper. Their friends joined in as well. Later, Morgan scanned some of the images, and wrote a quick JavaScript program that made it look like the robots were actually hugging people off their browsers. Everybody loved it!

Want to send someone a robotic hug? Fine! Here:

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mathbreakers Goes Global

Hey everyone! Hope you are all having a happy Labor Day! 

We have good news to share. We just had a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Yup. 469 backers, and we overshot our goals. How has life been after Kickstarter? We will tell you soon, and share pictures too. In the mean while, we have another exciting development we wanted to tell you about. Mathbreakers have gone global, people!

See, when we started working on the Kickstarter campaign, we were expecting responses from local schools, for the most part. We would have been happy with a couple of polite queries from a few schools in the East coast. Little did we expect Mathbreakers would get such enthusiasm from countries all over the world. We had teachers and parents write to us from UK, Canada, Spain, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, India, and Ethiopia, among other places! Not only did we have dozens of schools writing to us from faraway lands, we had a ton of queries from schools all over the US as well. We are happy to say Mathbreakers accounts are now in use all over the globe. How neat is that!

Very. Very neat. This is really exciting!

We are grateful for all the love. THANK YOU! Suddenly the mad hours, the moments of self-doubt, the pile of empty pizza boxes lining up trash cans because we were too tired to either eat healthy or take the trash out..well, all of it seems so worth it. 

It does not matter whether you go to school in Bangladesh or Brazil, Math fundamentals form an integral part of the curriculum. The Mathbreakers game is easy to set up, and can be played individually by two siblings at home or 1,500 children as part of a school district. If you're a teacher, you can request an early access trial at

The world is clearly ready for Mathbreakers. Lets get smarter the fun way!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mathbreakers is coming to your iPad, Android, and Windows devices (VIDEO)

We're reaching another big milestone soon, thanks to Raj and Helen at Microsoft -- they provided us a surface to develop on, and Morgan (our CTO and generalist wizard) has been hard at work to make the mobile build a reality.

We expect to be on iPad and Android by the end of the year as well. Which is good, because about half of schools use tablets instead of PCs now, and the trend is favoring tablets.

Here's a quick video demo of what we have working so far:

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Negatives are a No - No?

I just had a great meeting with a 4th grade math teacher and the lab specialist at a local Catholic school in Mountain View, and I got some very interesting feedback: Negatives were NOT welcome in the fractions levels that we had created!

This was not a total surprise to me, as I have gathered that Common Core pushed the learning of negatives back several grades, and as a result negatives are taught fairly late in elementary math education. However, in Mathbreakers, students are exposed to negative numbers right away; indeed it is one of the core tenants of our game, because in order to reach zero you must match positive and negative numbers together.

In practice, students don't have any trouble understanding that the light numbers and dark numbers with a "-" sign behave differently; they are able to work their way through all of the challenges of the game just by experimentation. This, to our credit, was exactly our goal -- to expose the concept of negatives in an environment where they "just worked", so that by playing around in this environment you could master the use of these positive and negative integers.

But there's a huge problem: Students have a difficult time translating this ability into solving a worksheet or chalkboard problem.

Although they had been using 1 + -1 = 0 literally hundreds of times, they did not make the connection that they could solve exactly the same problem on the whiteboard, because it looks different and they didn't realize it was the same problem.

This is a difficult, but not insurmountable challenge for us. The obvious solution to me is to (ugh) add a pop-up quiz at various points, probably at the end of the level, which clearly shows a visual relationship between 1 + -1 = 0 and the game.

This is, perhaps surprisingly, a common problem in mathematics: Context. Many math learners will totally understand a concept on paper, but be unable to perform the exact same math in the real world. The reverse also happens; Keith Devlin has an excellent book that covers this with third world marketplaces where children bargain and sell goods in the streets. The children perform with 97%+ accuracy in the market, but when presented with exactly the same problems on paper, they could not get a passing grade!

Overcoming this disconnect is going to be a cornerstone of how we add value to the classroom. When the students can make a clear relationship between the game and a worksheet, then students who play Mathbreakers will be able to translate those skills to paper, to make the test-makers happy.

Stay tuned for an update -- we will be testing again at the same school in June, and I'll post the results to this blog.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lesson Guides for Mathbreakers @ Schools

When we set out to disrupt math video games, we were mainly thinking of the players. We expected parents to buy this game for their kids to enjoy and learn math. And they do!

But what about using it in the classroom? Millions of kids every day are stuck in front of some animated worksheet in their computer lab or classroom for math practice, and the vast majority of it is terribly boring. We wanted to get Mathbreakers in the classroom. So what were we missing?

Lesson plans!

OK, it's not really a plan, because once students start playing the game, they pretty much take off. But the teacher still needs to get them started, understand what's going on, and track their progress.

We created a Teacher Class & Dashboard for exactly this purpose. Any teacher who wants to supplement their kids' practice through Mathbreakers can get started in a matter of minutes. The lesson guides we created let them follow along with students as they progress through Integers, Negatives, Operations, and Fractions at their own pace.

Now, the Mathbreakers' team is working with schools across San Francisco Bay Area to make Mathbreakers a part of the math curriculum in the computer lab. Our sales pitch is really fun, because we have an awesome product and our entry price is many times lower than the competition.

Warning -- kids may have a higher expectation for math apps and/or get unreasonably excited about mathematics after playing Mathbreakers!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Shrinking the scope - how to go to market

OK .. breathe.

We've come a long way since we decided to make a 3-D video game about Mathematics. In some ways we bit off more than we could chew -- math is an enormous subject, and to explore it with a video game means we could only ever hope to cover a tiny slice of it. But which slice?

The short answer: Integers, Simple Operations, Negatives, and Fractions.

How did this happen?

We started by literally throwing things together in a world and seeing what stuck. What was fun to play with? Well, one of the core building blocks of math is numbers, so we started with 3-D numbers you could pick up and play with. That turned out to be pretty fun -- the default mechanic ended up being very simple. Just touch two numbers together, no matter which numbers, and they add together.

One of the major breakthroughs of our game was the Fraction Sword. I don't actually remember who came up with it -- the three of us were just brainstorming about cool things we could do, and we hit on the idea of literally cutting numbers in half to produce fractions. We implemented it and it was immediately fun! Boys and girls alike (and all three cofounders) love to cut integers and see fractions pop out. There's something deeply satisfying about this level of number manipulation.

Negatives came out of necessity. Since the only way to destroy something (like a wall or enemy) is to add until the result is zero, one of the two numbers must be a negative. We've heard that teaching negative numbers has been moved to Seventh grade -- outrageous! We've seen six year olds grasp the concept of negatives after just a few minutes with Mathbreakers.

Finally, we have operations. This was the logical next step after addition. Here's a gif of the number hoop in action -- it's a door you walk through that either multiplies or divides whatever numbers you have.

So there you have it. Through thousands of trial-and-error experiments, we boiled it down to a few simple mechanics that work together to strengthen your number sense, all in a vivid 3-D adventure that will have you leaving your math worksheets in the dust!