Serious Games
Co-creation and Game Design with and for Yemeni Youth

A screenshot of the game's protagonist saying "There must be a way!"

Summary

We helped create a series of 5 educational mobile games aimed at reaching the youth in Yemen. Our main contributions were in game design, animation, branding and UI design.

The games' topics, selected by a team of authors and consultants in Sana’a, Yemen, revolved around the transformative power of dialogue, taking pride in diversity and Yemeni culture, the importance of education, and women empowerment.

The project was commissioned by Butterfly Works on the initiative of GIZ Germany.

Introduction

A brief picture of the situation in contemporary Yemen

Since 2011, Yemen has been in a state of political crisis starting with street protests against poverty, unemployment, corruption, and president Saleh's plan to amend Yemen's constitution and eliminate the presidential term limit, in effect making him president for life.

Because of the protests, President Saleh stepped down and the powers of the presidency were transferred to Vice President Hadi, formally elected in a one-man election.

In September 2014, the Houthis took over Sana'a with the help of the ousted president Saleh, later declaring themselves in control of the Country after a coup d'état; Saleh was shot dead by a sniper in Sana'a in December 2017.

This resulted in a new civil war and a Saudi Arabia-led military intervention aimed at restoring the status quo. The war has blocked food imports, leading to a famine that is affecting 17 million people.
[Wikipedia]

ربما جسدكِ عالق هنا ولكن عقلكِ حر

Perhaps your body is stuck here but your mind is free

-
The Ghost of Suhair
Arabia Felix II

A smart phone, Wi-Fi, and a bit of a wild plan

How to get in touch with the the youth in Yemen, unreachable to NGOs since the 2015-present conflict?

The project started to develop on the understanding that, today, children and teenagers worldwide largely get to own or have access to a smartphone -perhaps belonging to a parent or an older sibling.

Bomburo came into the picture once commissioned by social innovation studio Butterfly Works, on the initiative of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), to collaborate as game designers for a series of mobile games, as a way to reach through to young Yemenis.

The ongoing project, currently spanning 3 years, is being developed in close co-creation with a team in Sana'a, whom we keep daily contact with.

Each application delicately aims at funnelling different positive messages, chosen by our Yemeni partners, such as: questioning power and status in relation to weapons, highlighting the potential of education, supporting women and community organizing.

Mixed snapshots of the games we developed
MIXED SNAPSHOTS OF THE APPLICATIONS DEVELOPED DURING THIS PROJECT

Yemeni illustrators, writers, designers, and developers together handle narrative, illustration, sound design, as well as acting as a consultancy team to guarantee the relevance and cultural accuracy of the project.

Bomburo's responsibilities range from the co-creation of the game design documents and functional requirements, to animation, UI design and sound briefs.

Co-creation workshop

The focus group is product owner and final decision maker

Butterfly Works organized a co-creation workshop held simultaneously in 2 locations: Sana’a, Yemen, and Amman, Jordan, together with a group of authors, bloggers and artists from Yemen.

A sketch of one of the games' logoYemeni writers and artists working on their laptops during the co-creation workshopYemeni artist making game artwork sketchesYemeni artists working on their laptops during the workshopA sketch of one of the game charactersA sketch of the timeline of the main events in The Secrets of Arabia FelixThe agenda of one of the co-creation workshopsSticky notes on the wall after a brainstorming sessions for the game missionsYemeni participants brainstorming around the table
EVERYBODY HARD AT WORK DURING THE CO-CREATION WORKSHOP!

Main project challenges:

  • Keeping it fun and entertaining, while emphasising the underlying messages and stimulating behavioral change.
  • Gettting the point across without being too pedagogic and trite.
  • Talking about sensitive subjects during a very turbulent period in the history of Yemen, with ongoing internal conflicts, as well as military interventions from abroad.
  • Delivering quality within a very tight timeframe.
  • Appealing to all youth in a wide and very diverse Country, with different subcultural references, accents, architecture, cuisine, traditions, and religions.
  • Localisation (the game had to be developed in Arabic and English).
  • Internet reliability in a Country with a disrupted power system.

Five days burning neurons in Amman and Sana'a

During these five days co-creation workshop all together we tried to understand what type of games were the most appealing for our target group, which aesthetic and sounds would be more captivating, and most importantly define what stories needed to be told and who were the heroes of those stories.

Why co-creation is essential

Our perspectives, limited by our own cultural background, are not enough to grasp, let alone propose solutions for, complexities we never had to experience; co-creation is essential for this kind of work and, through the years, Butterfly Works has developed a pretty solid method.

By co-creating with stakeholders, every solution aims to be based on shared values with the people who actually experience the problem in person. It may sound as an obvious concept, but it's a critical shift of perspective only recently beginning to be accepted and implemented as an indispensable design practice in the international non-profit design community.

Have you ever tried Yemeni food?

The days we spent together helped all of us bond, turning us into a strong team, with enough energy to propel us through the following next months of intense work.

Plus we got treated to Yemeni food which is beyond finger licking delicious; we still dream of Yemeni Malawah bread.

لا تذهبي إلى أية مغامرات بدوني اتفقنا؟

Don’t go on any adventures without me, OK?

-
Ghamdan
Arabia Felix II

Game Design Process

Co-creating games with a team spread over 5 countries

Flowcharts, diagrams and sheets

During the workshop, we started to create game flow charts, which guided us in writing the GDD (Game Design Documents). Everything was created by or in close contact with the consultancy group.

A chart of all the activities of game development with indications of our participation

We discussed issues in real time, through shared online documents, weekly calls and chats, polishing the content together as well as solving creative problems and always checking in on all relevant matters.

A flowchart showing one of the puzzles from The Secrets of Arabia Felix
WORKING LAYOUT OF ONE OF THE DILEMMAS FROM THE SECRETS OF ARABIA FELIX I

Flowcharts, lists and sketches were shared online to facilitate understanding from the many parties involved between Yemen, The Netherlands, Jordan, Egypt, Greece, the UK and Germany.

A flowchart showing the main game flow of Arwa's world
A GLIMPSE OF THE MAIN GAME FLOW CHART FROM ARWA'S WORLD

An almost complete list of Bomburo's responsibilities

  • Initiating the game design documents, providing a structure upon which the whole team could build.
  • Keeping the game documents updated and coherent while everyone is working on them.
  • Creating briefs and providing technical guidance.
  • Creating sketches of scenes, puzzles and characters.
  • Creating animated prototypes.
  • Designing puzzles logic.
  • Designing game levels, in collaboration with the developers.
  • Creating storyboards.
  • Integrating the overall message in co-operation with our partners.
  • Writing placeholder dialogues to be improved, translated and approved by the Consultancy team.

The five games all have very different aesthetics, relative to the age of the audience they are trying to appeal to. Art Direction was not in our hands but we worked closely with the artists to provide technical assistance and support.

A breakdown sketch of the game layers for Eduo Run
BREAKDOWN OF THE GAME LAYERS TO GUIDE THE ARTIST

A big part of our work was to create prototypes, model and blueprints for every aspect of the games. Every screen and puzzle was sketched out and tested, before being handed over to the art team and to the developers for the next steps.

In many cases we also created follow up sketches, to further elaborate on various technical aspects of the games, and to show how all of these different components would tie together in the final product.

A rough prototype is better than a thousand words

The combination of detailed flow charts, written functional requirements and sketched out screens, helped us align with the whole team in terms of what needed to be done. These documents gave the developers a clear overview of their tasks, and to the artists a starting point for their work.

We found out quickly that visualising as many aspects of the game as possible at an early stage, helped everyone better understand the mechanics and narratives we were going after, as well as pre-empting more expensive mistakes later in the production.

Sketches of the puzzles and cutscenes of Eduo Quest
PUZZLES AND CUTSCENES PROTOTYPE SKETCHES

Animation

The secret ingredient to a delightful experience is movement

In engine animation

We created all the characters animations, cutscenes, special effects and UI for each game.

Early in the process, we decided to make all the animations inside the game engine. This allowed us to save time, since changes and improvements in an animation or graphical asset would be instantly reflected inside the game.

In addition, not working with sprite sheets helped us increase performance and lower the weight of the final builds - an imperative, considering the currently fickle internet signal in Yemen.

A sketch explaining the artists how to prepare their artwork for animation
A QUICK "HOW TO PREPARE FILES FOR ANIMATION" SKETCH FOR  THE ARTIST ILLUSTRATION BY FADHEL DABBAGH

Briefing and guidelines

To make sure art specs were aligned with animation needs, we created detailed briefs for the artists. We included explanations, specifications and guidelines tailored to the needs of each game.

We supported the artists during the process with feedback and visualisations, when necessary.

Once the artwork was finished, we went through it, making small adjustments when needed. We imported the assets in the game engine and created test animations.

Using these animations to push our character rigs to their limits, we kept adjusting the artwork until every limb and piece of cloth could bend naturally without visible deformations.

Character animation

Each game presented its own challenges when animating. The "point and click" adventure Secrets of Arabia Felix I&II had realistic characters, and the limitations of the 2D rig had to be taken into account when trying to create realistic motion.

The more abstract characters of Eduo Run allowed us to experiment with different types of motion. We started with a character who was sliding and surfing across the landscape, only to realise, through trial and error that a running motion looked more fluid and fun.

Arwa's World and The Republic of Sheeba required more attention to the characters' personality traits. Arwa's animations were created to suggest the way the character changes through every stage of her life. From a happy toddler she turns from into a smart, competent ruler.

The Queen of Sheeba, on the other hand, has a more humble and friendly personality, in direct contrast with her title. In the game she supports and encourages the player. Our animation here was focused on accentuating and revealing these characteristics.

An animation of ArwaAn animation of ArwaAn animation of ArwaAn animation of ArwaAn animation of Arwa
An animation of the Queen of SheebaAn animation of the Queen of SheebaAn animation of the Queen of SheebaAn animation of the Queen of SheebaAn animation of the Queen of Sheeba
ARWA FROM ARWA'S WORLD AND THE QUEEN OF SHEBA | ILLUSTRATION BY ABRAR BASAHI

A lot of attention went into making sure the motion stays fluid in every moment of the game. Whether you are jumping or landing, crashing or flying, we tweaked the animations to blend into each other.

We experimented with speed, weight and traction values to make the character feel grounded, but not too heavy. We made sure that, when crashing, the impact with the ground felt dramatic and realistic.

UI animation and special effects

Aside from animating the characters, we also created UI transitions and special effects for every aspect of the games. We designed and implemented visual feedback when the player interacts with the games' interface.

This meant animating buttons, opening and closing panels, popping up gameplay elements, designing particle effects and sounds to make every tap on the screen as delightful as possible.

The more of these details we added, the more lively the games felt. Every interaction is meant to give the player rich visual and audio feedback, in line with the look and feel of each game.

A sketch animation of a getting a new badge
BADGE ANIMATION SKETCH

Cutscenes

Following the same method applied to the character animations, we created cutscenes inside the game engine, using the same visual assets as the gameplay. In some cases we created new scene compositions from scratch, re-arranging the existing artwork to better tell the story.

A sketch animation of the game's intro
INTRODUCTION CUTSCENE FOR ARABIA FELIX I

We used visual coding tools, such as Fungus to animate separate elements that interact with each other, combined with player input and character dialogue.

A sketch animation of the interaction in a game puzzle
DIGITAL PUZZLE PROTOTYPE FOR ARABIA FELIX I

UI and Branding

Making well thought, intuitive and polished interaction systems

We designed the interface of 4 of the games and we created the user flow for all 5.

For the action driven Eduo Run and Eduo Quest, the consultancy team guided us towards a more glistening and young branding.

A compilation of the UI of Eduo Run
MAIN UI FOR EDUO RUN | BACKGROUND ILLUSTRATION BY MAHAD AL-SHIEK

In contraposition to the darker Secrets of Arabia Felix, which has a more handcrafted and refined iconography inspired by the decoration on the traditional Yemeni jambiya belts.

A compilation of the UI of The Secrets of Arabia Felix
MAIN UI FOR THE SECRET OF ARABIA FELIX | BACKGROUND ILLUSTRATION BY FADHEL DABBAGH AND SALAH RAHAL

Excluding Arwa's World, we designed the game icons for the playstore and phone screen creating new compositions, adapting and slightly editing the original assets created by the illustrators.

SFX assets list and soundtrack

Translating words and charts into soundscapes

We wrote briefs for the foley artist, listing and describing each sound we needed, sharing with them loop animations of the game, sketches and early builts of the applications.

Most time we ended up having odd calls with each other to clarify if it really was a “bip” or more of a “biiiip” what was needed.

We followed a similar process with the composer. It was essential for the soundtrack to have a distinctive Yemeni feeling, and the artist managed to incorporate regional elements to create layered, evocative and energizing pieces.

A timeline showing where each music track goes inside the game
BLUEPRINT TO SHOW TO THE DEVELOPERS WHERE TO INSERT THE SOUNDTRACKS DIFFERENT THEMES

الكلمة الطيبة تكسر العود اليابس

Good words break the strong stick

-
Yemeni proverb

Quality Assurance

Hunting bugs season

We worked within an extremely tight deadline, developing four games in what was less than a year. Some of the quality assurance is still in progress, however we spent  as much time as possible taking care of the following tasks between others:

  • Reporting bugs and, in many cases, implementing fixes.
  • Checking UI and artwork implementation and correcting it when possible.
  • Refining and adding feedback animations to improve game experience.
  • Creating missing assets.
  • Improving character animations.
حاولوا دفننا لم يعلموا أننا بذور
They tried to bury us
but they didn't know we were seeds
-
Arwa
Arwa's World

The games

A brief description of each family member

It is hard to calculate the impact a project like this can potentially have on young adults and their way to see the world; for this reason an initial indicative goal of 10.000 downloads for each application was set by GIZ, which we are happy to say was reached by all of them.

Our client is currently collaborating with behavioural scientists on ways to capture significative data to help improve the project, which will be implemented in the upcoming applications.

Arwa's World

The game icon of Arwa's World
  • Game type: Puzzle
  • Theme: Centering women in the narrative; inspiring women to imagine possibilities beyond the status quo
  • Age Target: 9+
  • Installs: 10.000+

A beautiful story of success that tells the life conquests of Arwa, a little girl that dreams to become Hakima of Yemen.

With the narrative ingrained in the mechanics of the puzzle itself, even the most impatient young players can intuitively follow Arwa's story.

Featuring: friendship, volunteering, keeping your emails under control, becoming the leader of a political party, lots of inspiring Yemeni proverbs to share online and, of course, a fierce little girl.  

The Secrets of Arabia Felix I

The game icon of The Secrets of Arabia Felix 1
  • Game type: Point and Click Adventure

    Theme: Overcoming conflict through dialogue

    Age Target: 15-25 years old

    Installs: 10.000+

A strange, ominous black snow starts covering the city after a terrible explosion in which you find a precious artefact.

Explore your surroundings and use your persuasive skills to convince the neighbourhood to let go of old grudges between one another and collaborate with you to solve the mystery.

Careful: major cliffhanger at the end of this first part- make sure to do the right choice.

The Secrets of Arabia Felix II

The game icon of The Secrets of Arabia Felix 2
  • Game type: Point and Click adventure

    Theme: Overcoming conflict through dialogue

    Age Target: 15-25 years old

    Installs: 10.000+

The story continues where part I has ended. Solve challenges posed by ghosts, ancient creatures and even Djinns.

Enter a new adventure in the forgotten Ancient City and with your wits and compassion you might solve the mystery and decide whether to forget the hand of war.

The discussion continues on the related Facebook page.

Eduo Run

The game icon of Eduo Run
  • Game type: Endless runner

    Theme: Diversity and pride of Yemeni culture and rich history

    Age Target: 10-18 years old

    Installs: 11.000+

Run, jump and slide to avoid stubborn donkeys and spikey wire to gather items and achieve your quests -but be fast!, a stinky monster of war is coming after you.

The quests for each level are given to you by Dudi, a berry-loving bird symbolically representing Yemen. After a bad crash, Dudi needs your help to get back in shape.

Each area and quest hints to the beauty, richness, cultural and geographical diversity of Yemen.

Eduo Quest

The game icon of Eduo Quest
  • Game type: Puzzles
  • Theme: Importance of sticking with school and getting an education

    Age Target: 10-18 years old
  • Installs: 10.000+

Help! The school needs fixing, the students are missing, a dodgy lizard and its rhino associate want to push you in a world of vice while two neurotic porcupines try to convince you to abandon school to go to war -and as if that wasn’t enough, the sheep just ate your homework!

Solve a hilarious fast paced series of puzzles until you finally manage to get your diploma, conquers your dreams and have an overdue little celebratory dance!

Credits

Keep calm and Slack on

We'd like to thank everyone in the team for the lessons that we learned together and in particular the team in Yemen, who never lost their patience, enthusiasm or dedication while facing day by day far bigger challenges in their Country.

  • Content Creation
    Marwan Al-Ragehi
    Lujain Al-Eryani
    Hamed Al-Fakih
    Maha Salah
    Wajdi Al-Ahdal
    Yousef Al-Hadhrami
    Abdullah Al-Salahi
    Nada Al-Wazir
    Firjh Kalaz
    Ahmed Al-Khazan
    Abrar Basahi
    Sedra Ameri
    Bomburo
    Butterfly Works

    Writers
    Wajdi Al-Ahdal  
    Sawsan Al-Ariqi  
    Nesma Mansour  
    Jamal Taha  
    Maha Salah
    Hamed Al-Fakih
  • Development
    Radical Graphics Studios

    Additional Development
    Arkadia Studio

    Soundtrack Design
    Dia Sharaf

    Foley and Sound Design
    Lou Brown

    Voice over director
    Mohammed Khaled

    Localization
    Adam Al-Selw
    Marwan Al-Ragehi
    Lujain Al-Eryani
    Yousef Al-Hadhrami
    Abdullah Al-Salahi
    Nada Al-Wazir
    Butterfly Works
  • Game Design
    Bomburo

    Animation
    Bomburo

    Narrative Design
    Bomburo

    UI Design
    Bomburo
    Rahman Jaber

    GIZ Germany
    Naseef Naeem
    Philipp Busch

    GIZ Yemen
    Mohammed Al Azzani

    Social Media Marketing
    DRIIVN

ان كنت تعتقد انك صغير جدا
لإحداث تأثير فيمن حولك,
فجرب النوم وفي حجرتك
بعوضة واحد

 If you think you are too small to make an impact on those around you,
try sleeping in your room with one mosquito

-
Arwa
Arwa's World

An animated loop of Eduo running
Leni Kinzli
Office Manager,
UNU Office at the United Nations in New York

"Working with Bomburo was an absolute pleasure.
They were incredibly professional and efficient and were able to take our ideas and translate them into concrete design outputs.

Moreover, they were very flexible in incorporating our feedback on an earlier version of the design and were able to turn around a product incredibly quickly. Their expertise in design greatly contributed to the excellent work they did.

We would highly recommend working with them."

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