“When there’s a lot going on, it’s a bit like conducting an orchestra,” shares Peter Stidwill, FableVision’s new Senior Producer. Originally from across the pond, the celebrated learning games producer honed his skills working for the UK Parliament and the BBC, before he came state-side and worked with the team at Learning Games Network and then joined FableVision Studios.
Peter oversees and manages the production of multiple projects at FableVision. As with all production roles, the saying is true – the devil is in the details. Peter has to balance keeping the big picture (or vision) in mind while looking at every minute detail. “When you work at a place like FableVision, you’re working with so many people who are amazing at what they do,” Peter says. “So part of my job is allowing and empowering them to do that.”
As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we also celebrate the addition of Peter to our team. His industry expertise and knack for creative problem solving are sure to play an important role in helping us advance FableVision’s 200-year mission. We sat down with Peter to talk shop, Wallace and Gromit, hiking, and his passion for quality educational media.
What’s your journey to FableVision story?
As a kid, I loved making things. Whether that was writing adventure stories, re-creating miniature versions of theme park rides in papier mache, filming and editing an X-Files spoof with friends, or programming simple games. I knew I wanted to spend my life combining art and technology in a way that helped people. This led to me studying Engineering at Cambridge University (UK). I specialized in e-learning, and this, along with experience as part of the production team for the university TV channel, helped me land a job at the BBC in London on a huge and exciting digital learning initiative. I’ve been lucky enough ever since to be doing exactly what I’d always hoped to do: create entertaining and informative interactive experiences.
Give us an overview of your role here. What does a typical day in your shoes look like?
I start my mornings reviewing schedules and deliverables for my projects, prepping for ‘stand-ups’ – quick meetings with project teams to check on current progress that ensure everyone is clear on what they’re working on and resolve any potential blockers. The rest of the day varies, but it will usually include reviewing new character, background or interface art, prioritizing development tasks, liaising with clients to ask for and address their feedback, and testing new builds… all punctuated by excessive amounts of tea! There might also be a kick-off meeting with clients to start a new project, record audio, or brainstorm new development ideas. And at 4:30 p.m. every Friday, it’s time for cheese (and maybe a cheeky drink) courtesy of my favorite FableVision club: Curd Herd!
What's the most important step in your design process?
For educational media, a key design step is deciding how much detail to include in the experience we’re creating. Where do we set the boundaries for the depth and breadth of the experience? A good game, for instance, will work on various levels which players can move through to face more complex challenges. But when does it make most sense to introduce new content? What should we leave out for a separate module? How much support should we provide to the learner? Figuring out all of this is key to a great experience – and it’s a fascinating mix of art and science.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to producing? How does this motivate you?
Even with all the experience and planning in the world, user testing always reveals opportunities to modify and enhance. Maybe the interface would benefit from a quick art tweak, or the developer could introduce tools in a different sequence. Sometimes the challenge is larger, and I love it when different team members with unique skills bounce ideas off each other to together form a solution that one person couldn’t have thought of alone. And that’s what makes this job, and FableVision, special: we love tackling and solving these challenges!
What's the key to capturing a sense of fun and excitement in educational media?
I learnt so much from working alongside legendary designer Scot Osterweil at MIT, so I’ll share one of his key principles for creating learning games. Start by asking where is the game in the content area we’re tackling? This is not, “How do we take something boring and make it fun?” but rather, “What is it about this topic that is already fun, playful and interesting?” One of the best ways to do that is to talk to subject matter experts to find out what really gets them excited about their work. Then build on that by talking to students and educators to understand their pain points for the topic. It’s vital that the game mechanics match the learning objectives.
You grew up across the big pond! What was it like growing up in Kings Bromley in Staffordshire, England?
Kings Bromley is a small village in the middle of England. While there is a lot of space, scenery, and cricket that comes with its rural setting, it’s also close to everything offered by the UK’s second city, Birmingham, and only a couple of hours away from London. During long summers, my brother and I used to spend our time in various game tournaments we set up, playing everything from Mahjong to table tennis. And of course computer games too. After we were done playing Paddington’s Garden Game and Tapper, we taught ourselves the ‘BASIC’ programming language – a great example of a tool that allowed us to move from being consumers to producers of media.
What skills gained from your time with the BBC and Parliament do you still use when designing and producing games and educational media?
As with all great media organizations, the BBC was very focused on immersion in the world of the target audience. What do they watch, read, and listen to? Where do they hang out? What are their aspirations? I learnt about creating mood boards and personas for all our products, and a whole range of ways of testing with audiences as well as involving them in the production process. At the UK Parliament, I extended my experience in being the vision holder for projects that bring together multiple diverse stakeholders who often have competing demands. I loved that in both of these jobs, my colleagues approached their work with both the professionalism and playfulness that together foster quality and creativity.
You hold a Masters in Engineering from Cambridge University! Do you feel that your education informs the work that you’re currently doing?
Absolutely! My Masters project was on ‘virtual learning applications’ at Cambridge University Engineering Department’s Multimedia Group. I created a technical architecture for flexibly delivering learning modules in a game setting. But I also needed to create the content, test it with kids and teachers, create support materials, train educators, create marketing materials, and conduct outreach. As part of the project, I did an extensive review of the market, which introduced me to many of the players in this space – BrainPOP, the BBC, various museums – who I would later work with in my career!
We’re proud partners of Learning Games Network. Can you tell us about your time there?
I’m so lucky to have worked at the Learning Games Network (LGN) with some of the top names in educational game design, all of whom are super bright and passionate about their work. LGN, a spin-off from the MIT Education Arcade, was established as a non-profit organization with the aim of bridging the gap between research and practice in the field of game-based learning. My first project was Quandary, a game designed to develop ethical thinking skills such as perspective taking, critical thinking and decision making. Produced in partnership with FableVision, Quandary won 2013 Game of the Year at the Games for Change Awards. Other LGN highlights included meeting hundreds of teachers at ‘Playful Learning’ professional development workshops that we ran at edtech conferences nationwide. I also spent two semesters working with amazing kids building their own digital games at Boston Public School’s Jeremiah E. Burke school in Dorchester.
Zoombinis is back! What was it like playing a role in recreating this classic, award winning game?
The idea of relaunching this classic game had been floating around ever since I started at LGN, so it was a dream come true when the project got the green light with a partnership between TERC, FableVision, and LGN. One of my roles was to write the game design document, which was a fantastic logic puzzle in its own right! It involved reverse engineering the game logic through a combination of playing the original game, scouring the original source code, looking at the original design documents (where they existed), and talking to the original game designers: Scot Osterweil and Chris Hancock. Another crucial and daunting task (given the amazing and passionate fans of the original, many of whom were Kickstarter backers for the new game) was to make slight alterations in the logic either where feedback over the years on the original game warranted it, or where Scot and Chris felt their original vision wasn’t quite implemented originally. Getting it right was crucial, and I’m so pleased (and relieved) with the great reviews of the game. In fact, I still check almost every day to see what Zoombinis experiences people are posting on Twitter!
When you’re not managing a team of FableVisionaries to create awesome educational media, what can we find you doing in your spare time?
What advice would you offer to an aspiring educational game developer/producer?
Start making stuff! It doesn’t matter whether it’s drawing a level map for a game, creating a storyline, or testing a game mechanic (on paper or using one of the many free tools out there), just start getting your ideas down. Then share your ideas and see what others think. Change them, iterate them, share them again, repeat!
More about Peter:
Favorite game ever made: Zoombinis (of course)
Best concert attended: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis (Dance Off!)
Favorite cheese: Wensleydale ("I'm just crackers about cheese, Gromit!")
Incredible travel destination: Hong Kong from London via train (it took four weeks)
Your current musical jam: Justice
Winning tennis player: Andy Murray
Finest city to live in: I only live in cities called Cambridge
Who inspires you: John Hunter (amazing educator, top TED talker, inventor of the World Peace Game)
Coolest new thing you learned: This isn’t new, but I recently rediscovered the most amazing resource that exists in all our communities: libraries!
List five of your favorite spots in Boston, go! I’m not sure I’d call myself a foodie, but I have my favorites!