Launchball: we did it differently, and got it right..

Posted on March 11, 2008


Yesterday there was a flurry of excitement on Twitter (a “flutter of tweets”?) as the Science Museum’s Launchball was named SXSW “Best of Show“. This is an awesome achievement. SXSW is a hugely well regarded conference and for a museum to win not only the Games section but the coveted BOS as well is just enormous news.

I was still at the Science Museum as Head of Web for the first two thirds of the Launchball project, a fact of which I’m incredibly proud. As it happens, I got to do the fun bit without any of the hard work which always takes up the final push for the summit of any digital project…

Launchball is by pretty much any standards an enormous success. It has received over 1.5 million page views in the first six months of life. After I posted it to Digg it took on its own virality, taking the Science Museum web server down because of the immense levels of traffic. It has a following which you can see in the fact that users feel enthusiatic enough about it to create entire sites dedicated to possible solutions. You can see by the comments on this site, for example, how communities started to evolve around the game.

The success of Launchball is, in retrospect, fairly easy to ascribe. I thought it might be interesting to focus on the elements that I feel made up this success, given my (two-thirds) complete knowledge of the way that the project was driven. Fundamentally, these elements centred around freedom in the way the project was allowed to run, flexibility and adaptability of content and testing teams, creativity of the people involved and a certain element of luck that all the elements came together in the right order and at the right time.

We (the web team) pushed for – and were given – a huge amount of scope in helping to define the creative concept behind the game. This is relatively unusual in my experience – often the web team is seen as a service mechanism to deliver content by curators, education staff or other content teams. In this instance, I pushed very hard for recognition that – given the people involved – the web team creative input was absolutely key to delivering a successful experience for Launchpad Online.

Way back at the beginning of the project – looong before any creative agencies were involved – we sat down in a small group knowing only the budget and timescale, and braindumped what we thought we should aim to do. I’d had a tiny fledgling idea about a physics engine environment which encouraged users to play and “learn by stealth”. I’m a Heath Robinson fan (who isn’t?) and an inventor at heart, and the idea of having an environment in which you could play around with a bunch of gadgets, solve some fun problems and maybe learn something too was hugely compelling.

We started by running a brainstorm with the content team, and then honed this down with just the web team. We chose to have a defined output of 3 or 4 concepts. My brainstorms always begin with this: “We have infinite budget, infinite time. Now what do we want to do?”. I see little point in being constraining when what you’re trying to do is capture everything…

Out of this we came out with 4 key concepts – “Build it and share it”, “Ask an Explainer”, “Simulation”, “Real Experiments”. Each had social elements, interactivity, and were designed to be built around a central Flash-based interactive.

We then presented these concepts to the various stakeholders – the content teams, sponsors and education experts and used their feedback to focus and distill the final vision for the interactive and site. In the end we took the first concept but took popular elements from the others. The end result was the vision of a physics engine environment. We used mindmap software and Powerpoint to develop wireframes so we could convey our ideas to the stakeholders. Here’s a segment of one of the key documents:

You’ll notice that the whole concept of a “stage” upon which various gadgets are moved is already pretty well established – we still hadn’t taken on a creative or technical agency, wanting instead to be very sure we had a strong vision and brief to take to them at the right time.

One of the key things that we wanted to get right all the way through the process was to avoid a very obvious temptation: to try and re-create the Launchpad exhibits in a virtual medium. This would have been terribly easy, and completely wrong: Launchpad itself is a very physical experience, deliberately avoiding virtuality on-gallery. Instead, we wanted an environment which spoke to the essence of Launchpad: experimentation, fun, a strong element of self-guided learning, but without aping the physicality of the exhibits.

Once we had sign-off of the concept, we then went through the briefing and pitching process, choosing the wonderful Preloaded as the design agency. Behind the scenes, we used Eduserv (more specifically, Stephen Pope, one of the best web developers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with…) to hook in the Sitecore CMS to store levels and user preferences. Outside, of course, was a framework of project management, run by “I’m just good at nagging” Jane Audas

Preloaded did an astonishing job with the concept, taking it from paper-based design and really running with it to make it something with enormous class and style. The addition of ambient washes of music came from nowhere, for example, and really add hugely to the experience.

Round about this time I left the museum, so missed out on – as I say – the inevitable last minute tweaks, irritations, budget issues and timescales that always lurk around any project. From a distance, it all looked smooth, and maybe that’s all that counts 🙂

Either which way, I’d just like to say a massive well done to everyone involved. I think Launchball really sets the bar (really, really high…) for not just museum interactive exhibits but for online gameplay as a whole. It’s just absolutely great that the world seems to have recognised this as well.