Games Designer Specializes in Outside-the-Box Play

By Leonard, Kim | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 9, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Games Designer Specializes in Outside-the-Box Play

Leonard, Kim, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The Fred Rogers Co. spent years fine-tuning ideas for its new "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" TV series, but executives worried about how to develop a companion website for the show's tiny viewers.

Most 2- to 4-year-olds aren't ready for true computer games, they reasoned. And the show starring the cuddly "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" character is about social and emotional development, concepts not easily adapted for online play.

"We wanted to find somebody in Pittsburgh to help us meet those challenges," said Kevin Morrison, chief operating officer. "And it so happens in Pittsburgh we have a rock star of digital media, and that is Jesse Schell."

Schell's company, Schell Games LLC, worked from scripts for the first 20 or so episodes of the animated Daniel Tiger show to build a website that plays like a toy with many fun features. Press any key on a keyboard to drive the trolley. Use musical instruments to make happy, sad or mad sounds.

A former creative director for the Walt Disney Co., Schell has built South Side-based Schell Games over the past decade into a widely known developer of video games and theme park attractions. It makes dozens of just-for-fun products and an increasing lineup of games that blend animation and activities to engage users in lessons about topics ranging from sea turtles to personal behavior and health.

"We're at the point now where about 90 percent of what we do is something in the educational or transformational experience," Schell said, the latter term referring to games that deliver messages that might alter players' attitudes or actions.

Video game sales totaled nearly $25 billion in 2011, including $7.3 billion for digital content, the Entertainment Software Association said. The industry is going through big changes with the move to more Internet-based and mobile play, plus games that are free to start playing, then prompt players to buy add-ons, such as "powers" that give them more abilities in the game.

Educational gaming is growing fast largely because of the popularity of tablet computers, Schell said.

"We already see that tablets are taking over the book world," Schell said, "and once they start to take over the textbook world and every student has one, why should they just be reading books on them? Why not have immersive experiences?"

For the Daniel Tiger site, Schell urged the Oakland-based Rogers company to think in terms of activities, not games, to suit youngsters who simply play something until they're tired. Morrison said parents at one local event he attended couldn't get their children to stop playing, and the website now attracts more than a million visitors each month.

After seven years with Disney in California, Schell -- a New Jersey native with a Carnegie Mellon University graduate degree -- returned to Pittsburgh 11 years ago and began teaching at the university's Entertainment Technology Center.

He wanted to keep working with many of the talented students graduating from the CMU program.

He started the company with five people and $10,000 of his own money for computers and other equipment.

"Our early projects were Disney projects, because they wanted to keep working with me," he said.

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