Jenna Hoffstein is the lead developer for, and founder of Little Worlds, the studio behind recently released title The Counting Kingdom. The game is a clever mix of tower defense and basic math. It's also one of this year's PAX 10, the cream of this year's indie crop.
I caught up with Jenna and we talked about her new game, her studio, her roots and where she's going.
Steve Bowling, TAY: Hi Jenna, how are you!
Jenna Hoffstein, Founder, Little Worlds: Great, how are you doing?
Steve: I'm doing pretty good, thanks. Congrats on The Counting Kingdom, it's a fun game.
Jenna: Thank you so much! It's been an immense amount of work, so it's so rewarding to release it out into the world and having people really enjoy it.
Steve: Alright. So, let's begin! How did The Counting Kingdom come to be? It's a unique product.
Jenna: When I became an indie developer I knew that I wanted to make games that had some sort of positive impact on the world, that were "meaningful" in some way. That's a pretty vague term though, so I kind of floated for a while trying to figure out what direction I wanted to take. During this time I happened to stumble on the educational category in the app store - at first I was really excited to see what the modern successors were to the amazing educational games I grew up with, but I was ultimately very disappointed with what I saw. Most modern educational games are just bad games. They're very quiz-based, and the production values are often quite low. For the younger kids we have some great brands, but these apps are typically more toy-like. I didn't see the modern-day equivalent of Carmen Sandiego, or Orgeon Trail. My background was in entertainment games so I felt that this is where I could make an impact, by making really kickass educational games for kids!
Jenna: Then add a cupful of hard work, a few teaspoons of exhibiting at conventions, a generous heap of talking to teachers, parents and kids, and we have The Counting Kingdom!
Steve: That's an interesting point. We really are missing classroom-appropriate games these days. Was this your founding principle when you started Little Worlds?
Jenna: The big goal is to make educational games that kids come home and they're really excited to play. If the game is also used in a classroom that's fantastic!
Steve: Your previous games seem to be a rather... eclectic mix of genres. Is your interest solely in educational games? Or do you want to expand on some of the previous concepts you've built?
Jenna: Working across a broad mix of genres and platforms has been great - it keeps my skills sharp and reminds me to always question my assumptions. I want to continue to focus on educational games as long as it's financially feasible to do so, but I love trying completely different things in side projects or game jams. If I have an excuse to try out some new technology in a game jam I'm going to dive right in!
Steve: The Counting Kingdom is Little Worlds' first product, right?
Jenna: It is!
Steve: What led you to form the studio? It's a pretty big risk to do your own thing in any industry, especially this one.
Jenna: It's a huge risk but it's been an amazing ride! I love being able to develop my own games, I love exhibiting and meeting gamers old and young, and I love being a part of the indie development community. I just try to keep a careful eye on the business side of things and stay realistic - I'm not expecting to make a fortune, I just want to be financially stable enough that I can continue to do this. Every time I hear about a kid loving the game and improving at math I know that this has all been worth it.
Steve: Indies are enjoying unprecedented exposure and popularity right now. Do you think that will continue?
Jenna: It's a double-edged sword. We have more and more people making indie games, which is wonderful, but that means it's becoming harder to stand out from the crowd. It's also getting more difficult to make money on marketplaces like the App Store or Steam, which will squeeze out a lot of developers. I think that we'll continue to see the growth of indies games, but this will hopefully be accompanied by a greater sense of just how hard it is to actually make a living doing this.
Steve: Speaking of the App Store, The Counting Kingdom is scheduled to release on iOS sometime this year, right?
Jenna: Yes! We're shooting for a November iOS release.
Steve: Was the game planned for an iOS release from the onset or did the idea come up later in development?
Jenna: The game was planned for both PC/Mac and iOS release from the onset, and after that we'll be looking at other platforms that might make sense.
Steve: Do you have plans to bring a title like this to a console in the future?
Jenna: That would be amazing - it's not on our radar right now, but I'd love the opportunity to do that!
Steve: Hypothetically, if you could target a console, where would you want to bring your games?
Jenna: Consoles aren't my wheelhouse so it's something I'd have to look into, but at the moment it seems like Nintendo would be the natural fit! Perhaps the 3DS or Wii U.
Steve: Because of the touch screen on both?
Jenna: Yes, but also because the brand would be a good fit. Nintendo is certainly the most family-friendly of the three. That's one of the things we've been struggling with a bit on Steam - there are so few kids games on that marketplace, it's tough to convince people we're worth checking out!
Steve: If I could, I'd like to ask a bit more about you, personally.
Steve: It's pretty obvious you love games. What's your history with games? What made you want to become a developer?
Jenna: Believe it or not, I originally wanted to work on animated movies! I used to tell my friends that they'd see my name in the Pixar credits one day. I was incredibly fortunate and got an art internship at Turbine working on Dungeons & Dragons Online, and was hooked. I realized that I could create something and people wouldn't just see it on their screen, they would hate it or covet it or coordinate with 20 people to destroy it. I could literally create entire worlds, and I consider myself very lucky to get to do that every day.
Steve: Do you enjoy playing games in your spare time? If so, what do you play?
Jenna: I've really enjoyed a lot of the more narrative-driven indie games that have been released recently, like Kentucky Route Zero or Gone Home. I also love games that let you build things, like Minecraft or Banished. It's easy to lose yourself in those games! Sometimes I just have a few minutes to kill and Threes is my go-to mobile game.
Steve: How did you meet the other members of your studio? What brought you all together?
Jenna: The team of people I'm working with are from all different areas of my life. Some I've worked with previously, some I met in the local indie scene, and some were recommend through colleagues. As the designer, developer and only full-time member of the company, I knew that I needed people who could work very independently and push my ideas for their work further than I could!
Steve: You're one of this year's PAX 10. How did that make you feel?
Jenna: It's such an amazing honor! It's also very validating - I sometimes feel like I have to constantly shout from the rooftops "I know it's an educational game but it's fun, I promise!" Being selected as one of the best indie games from a pool of applicants that includes mostly non-educational games shows that The Counting Kingdom can speak for itself. I've prioritized fun gameplay from the very beginning, and now we're standing toe-to-toe with top indie entertainment games.
Steve: Beyond this year's iOS release of The Counting Kingdom, what's next for Little Worlds?
Jenna: After the iOS launch I'll be looking at different ways to get the game into schools so that we can have an impact on even more kids. After that I'll likely start pre-production on the next title! That feels like it's a long ways away, but I'm looking forward to jumping into something new.
Steve: Lastly, what advice would you give any of our readers who aspire to create their own games?
Jenna: One of the exciting things about game technology right now is that if you want to make games - make games! You don't need a whole team, a huge budget, or even programming knowledge. There are so many tools available to people who want to dip their toes into the water. I'd recommend newcomers check out Twine, Gamemaker, or Construct 2. If you're looking to seriously get into the industry networking is extremely important. Attend local meetups, join the conversation on Twitter, and share your games as widely as you can!
I'd like to thank Jenna for taking the time to chat with us. You can follow Jenna on twitter here, or her studio's twitter here. The Counting Kingdom is available on Steam now and can be purchased here.