Nearly three months had passed since I moved with my wife to Yangon, Myanmar. We’d moved here to escape the English winter with a place to stay in her family’s house in the Yangon suburbs. Hearing there was a mobile phone boom about to happen in Myanmar, I had brought a new MacBook Pro laptop to work on and, at first, I worked at home on my apps. The main challenge in Myanmar is the painfully slow and unstable Internet – try to imagine that here even emails have to L…O…A…D… My next hurdle was discovering that Google’s Android developer console was blocked in Myanmar, due to the sanctions that block payments to the country, so that meant I couldn’t directly upload any Android apps, unless I used a VPN. But on a very slow internet this was a chore.
In the first few weeks I had to walk 20 minutes down our dusty main road in the blazing heat to the Internet café to slowly upload my app files to the company I work with in the States. The two worlds of Yangon and Silicon Valley could not be more different. It was a lifesaver then, that cheap 3G Sim cards with mobile data top up began to be rolled out just at the time I arrived. I can’t tell you how happy I was to be able to get email at home on my phone, tethered to my computer. This was my essential link to the outside world.
We’d travelled over the Christmas and New Year period, and now that it was January, boredom was setting in. I badly needed a job – something local that would get me out of the house working with other people. I’d sent my CV to a couple of schools, but I had no teaching experience, and I wasn’t sure how good I’d be at teaching English anyway. There didn’t seem to be many design companies that hired freelancers either, and everything looked like a time warp. But one January day, feeling pretty hopeless, an email came into my inbox from Myanmar International School Yangon (MISY). My CV had been forwarded to the Director there, who was looking for teachers.
Back in the UK I am an associate with Excite-ed who, amongst other digital things, run app development courses in schools. So I replied asking if he’d like an App club teaching game design to the students? Coming from the first generation of gamers to play video games at home, I would have loved to do a practical game workshop like this, but IT in those days consisted of drawing a green line on a graph – hardly Super Mario Bros.. Our course aims to move kids from being consumers of games and software, to being creators of their own. Thankfully he was interested in my proposal, and there came my chance to trial the first Excite-ed app club in Burma.
Planning the course
I met with the school’s Director and we decided on a 10 week after school App class, available to pupils of years 6 to 10. The classes could only be from 3.45-5pm, which I thought was a little too short for the kind of workshop I wanted to do, but the kids had to get home, and can’t concentrate too long anyway.
I designed a flyer in English, with Burmese translation on the back and sold it as an “Excite-ed app development course for schools, taught by an experienced UK app developer and publisher.”
I’d noticed the Burmese were keen on wearing the union jack design on their clothes, so I put one on the flyer. It attracted attention and before long I had enough students to run three, hour long, afternoon clubs a week.
The kids were all Burmese, and fortunately spoke fluent English. The course aim was to get each class to actually make their own app game. I’d promised on the flyer “See your app running on an Android smartphone,” so I needed to deliver!
I’d previously worked with Julia Bateson, MD at Excite-ed to develop the app game ‘Cybersafe’ with UK teenagers. They wanted to use children’s excitement of gaming to address their concerns, gained Big Lottery funding and we produced an app with three eSafety themed mini-games for 4-14 yr olds. More recently, Excite-ed teamed up with Capita to run a digital game design competition across all the schools in Barnet and so it was agreed that I would run a similar project at MISY.
In the early sessions we looked at games kids are playing. We analysed the games and how elements make them a good game. They were all playing very complex games, such as Clash of Clans, Minecraft, and the open world pixel game Terraria was popular. They certainly knew their game genres, stating that Terraria is a “sandbox game because it’s non-linear!” As connectivity was challenging, they used the ‘Zapya’ app on Android to connect their phones together and swap games – it worked like magic! One of the first questions I asked when getting to know them was “How many of you actually pay for games?” The answer was generally never – bad news for us app developers.
The game brief
When designing games, kids naturally want to make a multiplayer Clash of Clans type game, so I had to explain that these kinds of games take a team of people many months to build and maintain. It’s important to keep it simple so the game brief was to make a Myanmar version of ‘Flappy Bird.’ It had to be funny with a storyline relating to Myanmar. The game was a good choice because all the kids knew it, it’s non-violent, and has minimal design assets. They got quite excited thinking about who would do what, and it was funny to watch.
Making the games
What were the kids capable of? I aimed high setting this goal, hoping that with my help, the kids would deliver the game assets. We spent some sessions drawing and learning to animate the main character in Flash, with some getting the hang of it more than others. I use Flash with Adobe Air to make apps, so it’s handy for taking animated assets straight into the game.
The 3 groups were all different and I learned many things from the challenges they threw at me! The recording session for the sound effects really helped to bring the class together, and it was a chance for everyone to contribute to the game if they wanted.
One game concept was about a villager in Myanmar who’s lost his Longyi, the typical skirt that men and women wear today was imaginative. The Longyi has flown off, and the Longyi avatar has to avoid it blowing into the poisoned tipped thorns in the forest. A talented 10 year old, Phyo, produced beautiful hand drawn artwork with a classic feel, depicting the thatched houses on stilts, commonly seen all over Myanmar – an old fashioned well, palm trees and a cute Longyi character with eyes. When testing the game, one class member asked him “Why are we doing hand drawn style?” Phyo’s answer was they were doing it like Doodle Jump.
The other groups’ game concepts were ‘Lantern Legends,’ about the Taunggyi hot air balloon festival held every November, which I visited, and ‘Myanmar Ascending,’ about the legendary Burmese character ‘Zawgyi.’ By the end of the 10 week course three app games were successfully produced. A celebration assembly was held in school where the students and I showcased the games and certificates were presented.
I had been through one of the steepest learning curves of my life and was proud that despite many challenges along the way we produced the games. My next project is to run Excite-ed App Camps with Julia back in the UK summer 2015.
Flappy Longyi is available as a free app download on Google Play and online. Enjoy!
Flappy Longyi on Android: bitly.com/FlappyLongyiApp
Flappy Longyi Web Game: bitly.com/FlappyLongyi
Lantern Legends Web Game: bitly.com/LanternLegends