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Q&A: Ubisoft's Yang Boards The Learning Train
Q&A: Ubisoft's Yang Boards The Learning Train
May 23, 2007 | By Brandon Sheffield




Ubisoft has just announced more of a move into casual console games with the My Coach series. Overall, the new My Coach franchise will, says Ubisoft, "allow players to improve themselves and learn in an interactive and stimulating way."

The first title, My Word Coach, will see release on the Wii and DS in fall of 2007, and is meant to help players with their verbal communication and vocabulary. Gamasutra caught up with Ubisoft Montreal staffer and project lead designer Peter Yang to discuss why DS/Wii title My Word Coach is intended to entertain and educate in equal parts.

What made Ubisoft decide to move into the casual space?

Peter Yang: We thought that there was a need to produce something that was more than just a casual time-spending game, and we felt that there was a need in the area of vocabulary, for a chance for people to improve themselves. We felt that most adults most likely have a more limited vocabulary than they should have, or they don't maximize their ability to express themselves.

It's so easy to fall into a rut of using the same words over and over, because it's common day communication. What we wanted to bring to the everyday person was an environment where they can feel comfortable learning new words at their own pace, without having to feel like they're actually learning.

Was the decision to do a casual game less about getting into the casual space and more about having that idea and deciding to do it?

PY: We had that idea and decided to do it. It's the first in-house casual game that Ubisoft is doing, and it's being done by the Montreal studios.

Why did you decide to go with consoles rather than the PC?

PY: We felt that it was an opportunity because it fit the attitude that we wanted to portray with the game: laid-back, simple, done at your own pace, and in a family environment. We felt that the Wii was a perfect vehicle for this, and the DS was also perfect for being able to learn at your own pace. A lot of people don't necessarily have all the time to spend at their PC. Often what we want to see people do is to be able to use the DS on the bus fifteen to twenty minutes a day.

You're riding on the bus, and all you have to do is play fifteen to twenty minutes to learn three or four new words a day, or at least be exposed to three or four new words a day. Through that exposure, you'll gradually become more familiar with them, and be able to use them in context eventually where you're walking down the street and you'll hear someone talking, or you'll see some word on a billboard and go, "Hey, wow, I saw that word yesterday in the game! Now I know what it means!"

And you said there were over sixteen thousand words?

PY: There are over sixteen thousand words, each one with definitions. These definitions are from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. We really wanted to try and create an environment which was academic and legitimate, so that's why we also went to linguistic professors as our consultants on the game.

Did you consult them in terms of learning pattern as well?

PY: Absolutely. We consult them on learning patterns, to see how we can adapt them into the mechanics of the game, so that it's not just a separate game mechanic with some pedagogical elements to it. We wanted to make sure that the elements and mechanics of the game reflected the ways that people learn words. We want to make it adaptive as well. One of the things that's very key for us is to have a game that suits your vocabulary.

Can you give an example of a learning methodology that you actually put into the game, if there's something specific?

PY: In academic circles, they have what they call a corpus, which is a body of words seen in a specific context of one thousand texts of a thousand words. A linguist was able to break down these words into how often each one is seen. What that does is it creates a way of benchmarking how hard a word is.

That allows us to say which words are easier because you're likely to see them more often, and are likely more able to know what they mean more readily. Based on that, we're able to create our database so that we can offer players progressive difficulty, so that the harder words are the words you're likely to see less often.

How do you feel that people are actually going to learn them? A lot of it is recognition, right?

PY: One of the aspects we want to do with that is to constantly show the word over and over again through repetition. When you go through repetition, eventually you'll be able to appreciate what the word means by rote, almost. It's not like in school where you have to constantly repeat, but through more interesting, relaxing contexts. That way, the user can learn in a much more friendly environment.

These words are largely taken out of the context of a sentence, as far as what I've seen. Have you considered putting words into the context of a sentence, so that they make sense in that way?

PY: What we have in one of our recreational games is a competition mode, which is essentially a spelling bee. It allows us to put words in the context of an actual spelling bee, so players can call for a sentence or an example of use. They can learn some of the words that way, but for the most part, what we try to do is to make sure that they understand the meaning first, and then how to spell it.

Part of the work will also be done by hearing it, by being able to absorb it from the environment around them, and by being able to apply it at that point. For example, if they're looking for a specific word to put into a written text, or talking to someone, they'll realize, "Oh hey, I can use this other word because it means the same thing." So they can use it through synonym use.

If the games wind up being successful, do you foresee a casual division within Ubisoft?

PY: I'm not sure about a casual division, but we're definitely making more casual games. It's not really my call or my decision; it's more of a management issue. But our interest in making casual games is definitely present, and I don't see it stopping.

This almost verges into serious game territory in a way. Have you talked to any universities or schools yet about how they might be able to use these in educational programs?

PY: There's still a way to go before more academic aspects can be included to make it a bit more official. Right now there are no plans of that nature, so I'm not really sure. Again, it's a question of where management wants to direct its game at.

It seems like it might be nice, because kids could learn stuff and not hate their lives.

PY: Exactly! Well, we had a comment from one of our testers -- a ten-year-old-boy -- who said that if homework was this fun all the time, then he would do homework all the time. The very fact that he was able to equate the very tedious task of homework with our game and come out of it going, "Hey, this was a lot of fun," indicates that there is definitely something there for people as an alternative means to expand their own intellectual horizons.

The DS and Wii games have some significant differences, right?

PY: The touch screen on the DS is more precise, and the Wii is a bit more multiplayer-friendly. We try to play on the strengths of both devices by offering games that would fit that mold. There would be more multiplayer-based games that would be interactive at the same time [on the Wii].

One of our games -- Missing Letter -- allows four players to play simultaneously and use one screen. Obviously, games that require a high level of precision would be better suited for the DS, but we're trying to develop gameplay that allows for games which require precision to be played [on the Wii] as well, and still be as much fun.


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