Startup of the Week: Kuato Studios

You're probably an avid reader of our Startup of the Week series these days. If you're not, then you're late to the party. This is the third instalment of the weekly feature, having featured the startups Mendeley and 10to8 previously.

This week - Kuato Studios, a young games development studio that hopes to revolutionise the gaming and education space. Founded two years ago and backed by Horizon Ventures and SRI International (creators of Apple's intelligent personal assistant Siri), Kuato Studios has the ambitious goal of evolving the way in which children, adults, and professionals learn. Using the philosophy of "learnification", Kuato hopes to change the way society views computer games. The studio invited ITProPortal to its Shoreditch-based studio to speak to Mark Horneff, managing director, and David Miller, director of learning.

The team

One of the more interesting aspects of Kuato is that the team includes a "director of learning". The so-titled David Miller began his educational career as an English teacher in 1985, and for nearly three decades has lived and breathed education. In his extensive tenure as an educator David has judged "The Teaching Awards" and Channel 4's "Jamie's Dream Teacher," been on the English advisory panel for the Times, and is a visiting lecturer at the University of Glasgow. He knows exactly what needs to be done to provide learners with the most effective environment, and more importantly, exactly what isn't being done currently.

Whilst David was educating, Mark was gaming. Mark Horneff joined Sega in 1998 for five years, and subsequently joined Sony where he took the PlayStation Home from a PowerPoint slide to release. Mark put it simply: "We brought educators, proper teachers to create a 'director of learning' and married them with hardcore game developers," then sheepishly added that there was "friction" between the gamers and educators.

Mark and David recalled heated debates revolving around whether defeated enemies should drop blue mana orbs. The suggestion that blue mana orbs would drop from defeated enemies horrified the educators as that was simply inaccurate; did these gamers not know that it was impossible for blue orbs to drop out of a exhausted enemy? When pushed, David explained that "It was a huge process with the friction between learning and gaming. We wanted to get that right before we applied that to the process of making games."

Identifying a need

"It's about creating learning environments" Mark told us, "the founder was 100 per cent focused on bringing games and learning together." He went on to explain how games are already learning platforms teaching the player mechanics, systems, and skills. Mark bragged how in Skyrim he was a "health potions expert", learning all the attributes of flora in a fantasy world, and applying that knowledge to combine the flora to create potions. If a game could teach him about fictional botany in a way that made him both interested in invested, why couldn't a game help others learn about real world skills?

Mark highlighted society's derisive attitude toward gaming, likely due to children's tendency to spend time gaming instead of studying: "When children moan 'I want to play games and not be in the classroom,' at no point did they say that they didn't want to learn."

In our discussion we talked about real-life lessons we'd learned from playing games. Mark told us about a business he started with his friend at university that taught kids about business strategy using the game Theme Park. Each week the children would play Theme Park, and build their dream theme park for half the session, and the other half would be spent on Excel detailing changes they'd make next week to increase revenue.

Educational games have existed for a long time, mostly catering to the pre-school market. However when Mark, with his gaming background, went looking for games to teach his children, he "became acutely aware of the software available for them and I wasn't impressed." Similarly David saw that the current wave of educational games didn't follow modern education guidelines or "21st century skills", which include things like "Creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration."

Technology has reached a point where it is ubiquitous in our lives, and the explosion of devices with intuitive control schemes has the potential to revolutionise the classroom; Kuato wants to spearhead that revolution. Despite games being an immersive learning environment, they're still considered to be a waste of time and a frivolous way to spend our precious time.

The evolution of learning

David battered home that learning is changing. Status quos, such as curriculum, teaching styles, and technology's place in the classroom, are being rocked, examined, and evolved. Mark explained that one of the first things Kuato did is have a discussion about the distinctions between learning, teaching and education.

Kuato's rigid separations of the different words were highlighted at several points in the interview when I incorrectly referred to Kuato's games as "teaching tools," David would jump in and say "learning tools." Although both terms refer to a transfer of information, Kuato highlights the difference in environments required to "learn" and to "teach." Teaching is about pushing knowledge onto someone, but learning is about exploration, learning the rules (and breaking them), and discovery.

One of the approaches that has risen to prominence is known as the "flipped classroom." David explained: "The old-fashioned style of learning with the sage on the stage, telling kids what they should know was flipped on its head. The kids did the creative stuff at home and the only reason to come into the classroom was so the teacher could engage in a conversation about what the child had learned." Combined with the metrics that Kuato's KAGE learning engine provides, teachers can tailor and personalise learning for children, specifically targeting frustration points or furthering areas where the child excels.

Similarly Mark highlighted that "our access to information has changed and our relationship with information has changed," and children have a growing distance to fact-based learning due to the constant access to the internet. The ease in which questions such as "when was the battle of Trafalgar?" can be answered has furthered the "When-am-I-going-to-need-this?" outbursts in classrooms.

Challenges of running an educational games company

Like the majority of businesses, one the most prolific issues Kuato had/has is finding staff, "having a clearly defined philosophy in the studio has meant that it's quite hard to find people that... fit" said Mark. "We have to teach people how we actually approach problems, because usually you get people who've been in that market space before who've made standard education games or they haven't got the gaming chops."

The gap between pre-school educational game developers and those who produce AAA titles (such as Call of Duty and Battlefield 4) is ginormous in terms of the ability of creating graphics, sound design, and gameplay mechanics. One of the unique aspects of Kuato is that they want to make games that are both educational and can compete with other "hardcore" gaming titles. "It would be so easy if we just decided to go down the curriculum route and just create a series of mini-games around chemistry, biology or history. But that's not the kind of games we're interested in," David told us.

Another hurdle that Kuato has to jump over is the societal responsibilities of the startup. "We've got a social agenda to everything we do in the studio, not just with our product. David's been running 100 hours of code, where we've given over 100 hours to schools to teach coding," Mark shared. Similarly the market that they're selling to is untested and unproven. "We have got a bigger agenda in helping to reform educational products which has made it a bit harder... we're trying to make an educational product that is commercially viable and that's why it was vital to get the correct team in place," said Mark.

How to hold on to the right staff

Because having the correct team is so vital to Kuato's success, both Mark and David shared the sentiment that retaining staff "really is a company culture thing."

Kuato's "learnification" philosophy runs deeper than just being a part of their games, David laughed and said "it's almost like we create a paradigm of the game itself because [games development] is all about creative problem solving, and collaboration."

He continued, "We also take designers, artists, and programmers in when we're testing the games... we've spent a lot of time with kids taking the designers and programmers watching how the kids play early prototypes and listening to their questions and taking that on board."

Mark echoed David's statement: "Often we'll have meetings about the direction of our games and pull people in who are completely unrelated just so they get exposure to how that goes. It's not just the same four people going into a room and designing a product." By creating a community in the workplace the team at Kuato all feel a responsibility to the product and want to make it as effective at educating as it is at entertaining.

Advice for other startups

I asked Mark and David for the one piece of advice they'd give themselves if they went back in time; Mark replied "keep your deadlines," David adding, "you have to find the balance between ambition and reality."

Mark explained that "one of the risks of a startup, particularly in today's self-publishing world, is that release dates can slip... You can sit there and polish something over and over again and lose sight of your overall goal." No product will ever be perfect basically, and this echoes Pixar director Pete Doctor's comment, "Pixar films don't get finished, they just get released," it is vital that startups set strict deadlines for releasing a product.

Following on from David's point, Mark said that if you don't focus on exactly what your product needs to do, "you feature creep on a weekly basis, so you read an article that tells you that puzzle games are the next big thing so you add a puzzle bit to your game... I often equate it to Homer's car from The Simpsons." Homer's car had so many bells and whistles that the development cost so much, the product was unviable, and bankrupted the manufacturer.

Ultimately Kuato Studios has dived into an untested market, with a product that is trying to upset the status quo, which has earned it the title of ITProPortal's Startup of the Week.