Kickin’ it With: Dan Shapiro of Robot Turtles
I got a chance to talk to Dan Shapiro about his new tabletop board game that is designed to teach beginning programming to preschoolers. Robot Turtles is a neat concept and a great example of a game that tries to tackle the daunting task of teaching programming concepts and practices. What differentiates Robot Turtles is that it doesn’t require reading skills at all and instead teaches concepts using card-based mechanics that use a grown-up human as the processor.
4cr: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
I come from the software world, but have a degree in engineering and a love of building physical things. My first job out of college was at Microsoft working on drivers and user experience for Windows 98. Then I went to Wild Seed to work on a cell phone that ran Linux, which was unique at the time. I wrote a couple of games for that phone then went to work at Real Networks. After that I started my first company, Ontela. I bought photobucket and shortly thereafter started a new company called Sparkbuy which was purchased by Google after only six months. I now run a subsidiary of Google called Google Comparison Inc. Right now I’m on a leave from Google to focus on some projects of my own.
I came up with Robot Turtles in the shower, trying to think of something to do with my kids. I wanted to teach them about programming without them having to read anything. The game started as clip art print outs, but expanded from there.
4cr: How much did Logo inspire the aesthetics of Robot Turtles?
When I was 7 years old I started learning BASIC, but when I really fell in love with programming was at computer camp playing Logo on an Apple //e. I was always jealous of the other kids who were good at drawing. I was never good at drawing and Logo enabled me to do something that was art with a computer. It was something I was able to do that I hadn’t been able to do before and it was very empowering. While the clip art I started with wasn’t always turtles, Logo was always an inspiration. In fact you might have noticed that the turtle’s names are references to Logo commands, though I doubt everyone will remember the pangle command! Robot Turtles is a love letter to my experiences learning to program.
4cr: The campaign so far has been wildly successful and you’ve introduced some great stretch goals so far. Has the response had any impact on your desire or ability to make the game available beyond the kickstarter campaign itself.
I love shiny objects. I want to add parts to the game, and I want to do manufacturing things, but I have three priorities during the kickstarter:
- Spend time with my family
- Deliver what I’ve promised to my backers
- Be transparent and stay in communication with the kickstarter community.
For me, anything beyond that is gravy. I think people are used to miniature games with a high price point or games that have pre-planned stretch goals. I was hoping to get to my goal by the end of the campaign, and I got there in three days which was a huge surprise.
I do have a couple more things I’m thinking of, but i don’t want to commit to anything that I can’t deliver. Also, because this is a game for preschoolers, adding features isn’t necessarily a feature. For example, adding branching logic like if… then statements sounds cool, but it would be hard to test and might make the game less effective with it’s target audience. I have been working on some stretch goals to make the game more fun for adults and recently announced Galapagos Rules that are targeted at the 12 and older crowd.
4cr: Do you think that board games hit the sweet spot for very early programming skills or is there room to teach more advanced programming via non-traditional methods too?
Board games and digital each have their advantages. Digital is very good at enforcing rules, and for complex games digital tends to work better. For kids, the thing a board game gives you that a screen doesn’t is interaction. You’re getting teaching, instant play with no requirement that they understand the rules (the grown-up needs to know them), and you also get quality time between the grown-up and the kid. When I pull out the game, that last one is what I’m going for. I get to watch their faces light up and get the reward and satisfaction of watching them figure it out. For me that’s the most rewarding part of the game.
4cr: You mentioned the Galapagos Rules which make the game more fun for grownups and older kids. Could you give us a bit more information on how those rules differ from the basic rule set?
The Galapagos rules for “old turtles” like us has allowed me to think about a super premium version of the game designed for 12 and over. I’ve played it a few times with my friend Jordan Weisman (who is launching his own kickstarter) and it’s really a blast. Basically, the players all race against each other to get the robot gems. They have three choices, they can build a program in front of them (which they have to remember it because the cards are face down), they can block a player by dropping a wall in front of other players, or they can run their program and move in giant leaps or small steps. There’s a lot of offence and defence as you build programs from your hand and continue to draw new cards. While it is pretty quick to play, the game takes about thirty minutes and features a lot of competition against the other players. It’s challenging and really fun because you’re getting to constantly mess with your friends.
4cr: In your experience how does Kickstarter compare to what we might consider the more traditional models of entrepreneurship?
Kickstarter is really amazing because it’s the first legitimate way I’ve seen that creators and entrepreneurs can validate their ideas before going into production. It’s a tremendous amount of work to put on a successful kickstarter, but you can put off the worst of the costs associated with production and distribution until after you know that a majority of people back your vision. Personally, I would never funded this game based on the idea alone. I was hoping to get funding for the initial production run so I wouldn’t end up having a thousand copies in my basement. This is truly a project that would not have happened without kickstarter or something like it.
4cr: You’re using Amazon fulfillment services for shipping. How did you decide on that route and do you see it as an option that more kickstarters should investigate?
It’s shocking how much of a cost shipping is. There’s a lot of kickstarters who discover very late in the game how expensive it’s going to be. The bulk of the estimates are more than $12 each, and for a $29 product that’s unbelieveable. With Amazon I can ship for $7 per game, which is still high, but more reasonable. For other kickstarters out there I’d say that it’s worth pricing amazon, but check out other options and do not press the publish button on your kickstarter before pricing both domestic and international shipping. I have known a few kickstarters that have lost money on international shipping or where the creator has had to write checks out of their own pocket to cover shipping costs.
4cr: Some of the higher tier rewards include meetings with some pretty heavy hitters in the gaming world. How did you get those folks on the project?
Elan Lee is an old friend and basically bet him that someone would buy it. I told him that I’d be willing to fly him up here and buy him dinner and he graciously agreed to help out.
Richard Tait is an amazing entrepreneur and has been an amazing help on this project. The single person on the planet I would want to meet if I were going to try to break into the board game industry is Richard. I asked him if he’d be willing to donate his time to this reward and he agreed. Some lucky backer is going to have a great time at dinner picking the brain of one of the greatest board game creators of all time.
The higher-level reward of getting create artwork from the ground up is also really cool. We have one backer who has funded us at that level and while I can’t say what his design is, I can say that he has one lucky kid! I get to have a hand in totally redesigning the whole game and it’s been a great experience so far.
4cr: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers before we sign off?
I would say that something worth thinking about before hitting the pledge button on this or some other campaign is that kickstarter represents a thing that was really only available to the super wealthy. It allows everyone to pick what products come into the world. I’ve backed a couple of kickstarters and it never really hit home until I was in this role and had people tell me, “Yes Dan, I want this product to exist,” That’s the coolest thing in the world.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about Robot Turtles! The game looks like a fun way to teach programming skills. Good luck with the campaign!