A Numbers Game
Twelve a Dozen by Bossa Studios
Published: November 13. 2014
Bossa Studios makes learning fun with Twelve a Dozen, and helps change the face of “edutainment” software in the process.
“We approached Twelve a Dozen from the point of view of teaching math in a very intuitive, relatable way,” says Bossa Studios producer Herb Liu. “We thought, ‘If math is really important in the real world, why can’t we get that across in a simplified way?’” Imre Jele, the studio’s co-founder, credits Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions as an initial source of inspiration: The novella is an 1884 satirical work by the English schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott, who wrote it pseudonymously as "A Square". The book used the fictional two-dimensional world of Flatland to comment both on the hierarchy of Victorian culture, but also as a thorough examination of dimensions and space. “Flatland is a book that, at its core, is about teaching something complex to people effortlessly through approachable characters and an engaging story, which is ultimately what we wanted Twelve a Dozen to be,” says Liu.
Once the idea was in place, all the puns and jokes with numbers and math in the world just started to roll in from members of the team. The narrator and main companion is a decimal point called Dot, for one. There are zombies in the game, in the form of zeros—when they multiply with you, you become one of them—and so on and so forth. “The ideas just tumbled out,” says Liu.
At its heart, the game is a puzzle-platformer—you guide a character named Twelve on her adventures to save the world of Dozenpolis. Mike Bithell’s Thomas Was Alone, developed in Unity by the studio’s good friend Mike Bithell, was definitely a reference; another one was Blizzard classic Lost Vikings, where each Viking had a different ability. “We liked the idea that in the same gamespace, different characters had different abilities,” says Liu. “Eventually, we evolved the idea towards one single character who could collect different abilities.” In this vein, the game became more Metroid-like, except for the fact that you can’t switch your powers at will, but rather need to change yourself through doing the right math operations.
The team at Bossa Studios was fluid in terms of size throughout development, varying from the early prototypes of just a few people to almost the entire studio (more than 20) during busy periods. On average, it hovered around ten people on at a time: three developers, a tech artist, two designers, two 3D artist/animators, a concept artist who also did our UI, and a producer. Actress Lucy Montgomery was enlisted to record Dot’s voice, while external studio Cassini Sound was brought in to create the music and sound effects.
In Bossa’s early years it was a Flash-based studio, developing games for the web and Facebook. Just before development on Twelve a Dozen began, however, they chose to make the jump to Unity. “We knew we wanted to develop for multiple platforms efficiently and effectively, and we wanted something powerful but intuitive,” says Liu. “Our internal prototypes had been made on Unity for a while by that point due to its speed and robustness, and we couldn't see why we couldn't do our full games this way.” They had a rough prototype up and running very quickly, within a week of starting.
The original development cycle of the game was for Amplify's educational platform, available to school districts in the United States. Twelve a Dozen is one of around 30 games bundled together with other educational apps and e-books on students' tablets. Because of that, Bossa needed to stay within Unity 4.3.2 to make integration possible with the rest of the bundle. “Basically, we wish we could have used Unity’s built-in 2D tools, but when we started the project in early 2013, it wasn't available yet,” says Liu. The developer has only just this year released the game publicly on the iOS App Store, the first of the Amplify games to do so.
Most of the animated objects in the game—the player character, the beasts, the math machines, the NPCs—are 3D animated flat objects, while the terrain and the environments are 3D models. “We wanted to keep the look of the stylized 2D character designs, while getting the benefit of the depth and dimensionality of a 3D environment,” says Liu. “Unity let us do this.” For the 2D/3D mix, particularly with the math machines, they took inspiration from Ubisoft's Ubi Art Framework. “While we didn't create anything anywhere near as complicated, we devised a pipeline from Maya to Unity which took 3D animation with keyable 2D sprite sheets, which we then imported into Unity. When combined with an in-house sprite sheet player, this allowed artists to animate both geometry and sprite sheets in one package, and move it to another.”
On the code side, Liu says PlayerPrefs made things easier by saving the team the trouble of having to serialize files and worry about proper locations to save. Unity's multiplatform capabilities also made things easier, since the game was initially developed for Android, but made the seamless switch to iOS. Due to the bespoke nature of a lot of the assets on Twelve, the vast majority was made for purpose rather than purchased on the Unity Asset Store. NGUI, however, was employed for interface duties, and it came in key for ideation. “When we do Game Jams here at Bossa, we make liberal use of the Asset Store,” says Liu. “48 hours isn't a lot of time to make art libraries, and we really like the idea of being able to prove a game quickly.”
Twelve a Dozen successfully launched on iPad in mid-September, and Bossa released the next ten levels in October while pushing the game worldwide. Now they’re bringing the game to iPhone—November 13th is the official launch date—while simultaneously releasing the last ten levels to conclude Twelve’s story. “I'm incredibly proud of everybody on our development team and our marketing team, and very thankful to our partners at Amplify—as well as the folks at Unity for making this game even possible,” says Liu.
Spreading the Love
“Because Unity was so easy to pick up, we had many different people prototyping levels for Twelve a Dozen,” says Bossa Studios’ producer Herb Liu. “You could totally tell the difference between the fun and forgiving puzzles our level designers created, and the brutal mind-benders our coders devised. We had to tone those levels back—a few times.” Indeed, some of the game’s finest moments were happy accidents: “The first time we got the gruffletrump's expressions working was fun,” recalls Liu. “Just how unimpressed it looks, especially when you push it off a ledge into spikes—it wasn't intentional that it would work quite like that, but it stayed, and we designed the puzzles around that.”
A Learning Experience
“We initially scoped out the project for a massive amount of content, and then scaled it back to 50 levels,” says Bossa Studios’ producer Herb Liu. Even so, 50 levels—with a strong storyline that demanded custom art, cutscenes, puzzles, and voice acting for every level—makes Twelve a Dozen a relatively hefty game for the App Store. Because their target audience was public schools, the team had to accommodate districts that would buy budget devices in bulk, which ruled out some of the more fanciful ideas that would require plenty of video memory to execute. “In the end, we worked out a really nice look while running smoothly on all devices going back to the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S,” says Liu.