September 25, 2013

By J Milligan

The Story Behind Sesame Street’s Family Play App

J Milligan is the Creative Director of Sesame Workshop’s Innovation Lab.

A couple of years ago I heard a woman named Margaret Robertson give an amazing talk at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. She worked for a design studio called Hide & Seek with offices in London and New York that was chiefly interested in the concept play. They seemed really cool and I started following them, thinking that someday we might find a way to work with them on something.

This past spring, Hide & Seek launched a Kickstarter campaign for a project called Tiny Games. It was for: “An app that gets you playing the perfect game with your friends: wherever you are, whoever you’re with, whatever you’re doing.” The games took place in the real world, the iPhone just told you how to play. Get some cutlery and play a form of rock/paper/scissors with the forks, spoons and knives. That sort of thing. I loved how they used the phone to generate games that you played with friends and things wherever you were, not on the screen. I thought we could do something like that for parents to play with their kids. And when Hide & Seek posted that they were considering a “Kids” section of the app, I knew I had to act quickly.

With the support of Miles Ludwig, head of the Content Innovation Lab here at Sesame Workshop, I reached out to Hide & Seek to see if they happened to be interested in creating a completely new app with us, a “Sesame Street Tiny Games” aimed at parents and kids. I thought we could approach it as a creative “partnership,” rather than a typical work-for-hire developer or licensing relationship. The expertise and ideas of very smart outside organizations help us stretch and grow our characters and our content, something we always need to stay fresh and innovative. Turns out they wanted to make the app and were excited about forming a creative partnership to get it done. So that’s what we did. We had our first meeting in April, started working in May, and launched Sesame Street Family Play on September 16 in the app store, our target launch date from the beginning.

We knew to get this thing done we had to work within the constraints of Hide & Seek’s design. They had already started working on their Tiny Games app. Both their team and ours understood that we had to more or less stay within that same structure for the Sesame version. This constraint was actually very helpful in staying on track. The app was going to do what it was designed to do, and nothing more–we had an ironclad defense against feature-creep. We added a button to bring you to our mobile website to promote Season 44, and otherwise stayed within the boundaries Hide & Seek had already established. This let us focus on the content and making it great.

The content was unlike any we’ve made before. This app is aimed at parents, not kids, and the content is almost all text with games played off-screen. The app had to be dynamic and fun, while delivering a lot of information. It had to look and feel Sesame without any kind of narrative other than the one the player was living, and the characters had to have a presence without saying or doing anything. We were engaging parents through play, and our educational messages had to live within extemporaneous games. We were trying a lot of new ideas, and the cool thing was that the very specific “rules” of the Tiny Games format helped us make those ideas into content.

The games themselves were created and written by both Sesame and Hide & Seek. We met in person for brainstorms and worked with shared documents, sometimes simultaneously from London, uptown and downtown Manhattan, and Brooklyn. Because of the very nature of the process for getting copy into the app itself, both Mark Heggen, vice president of game design at  Hide & Seek and I had to “touch” every single word, making the content truly collaborative.

At Sesame, we formed a small but potent team from around the organization. Members of Sesame Workshop’s Innovation Lab, Creative Services department, Production Group and Education and Research Department collaborated to make this app a reality. Sesame Street Family Play became a way to try a new approach to parent tips and to engage in some really interesting and productive iterative design research. Everyone involved intuitively understood that this project was “not like the others,” that we would have to do some things differently and still deliver the quality and spirit that makes something “Sesame.” I think we more than pulled it off. And I think we learned some things that will allow us to be more nimble, efficient, creative and groundbreaking on future projects.

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