Sabi Games, Inc.
WHAT IF we plant a seed of lifelong learning in our young learners through playing computer and video games that are just as much fun as games designed to be well…just fun? This IS possible and was what we explored for multiple years while we were in Microsoft Research. This was proven through our first game – ItzaBitza (R) - which won most of the important game and childrens’ software awards. When our project was canceled at Microsoft, we had made major breakthroughs in novel game design and drawing recognition. We knew our work had the potential to make a positive impact in the lives of children. We HAD to start Sabi to pick up where we left off at Microsoft. We are thought leaders in tuning technology and video /computer games into personalized, interactive digital learning experiences. Real games? You bet. Our first title, ItzaBitza (R), has won numerous game related awards such as “Game of the Year – 2009” from Creative Child, and a nod from Business Week as a “top tech toy for kids.” Real Learning? You bet. Both ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo (R) distill 30+ years of research and hands-on knowledge into how children learn to read and best practices in creative problem solving techniques. ItzaBitza and its sequel ItzaZoo slyly integrate reading comprehension into the game in such a way early readers find the reward of reading worth the effort, in much the same way young bakers find the reward of making cupcakes worth the effort. Our award winning video/computer games are creative, whimsical, and wacky.
The company prides itself in turning really hard challenges into opportunities. The two really hard challenges that have been addressed in ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo are:
Challenge: Learning to read is really hard. Learning to understand what is being read is even harder. Opportunity: A new way for children (ages four and up) to engage in reading. Children may start out having a wonderful time playing the game and not really caring about reading anything. All of a sudden, they want to accomplish something – maybe earn a star, or help their avatar out – that requires reading. What happens? They learn to read the sentences in the game. They feel a huge sense of accomplishment as they face the really hard challenge of reading and turn it into an opportunity to help their avatar or unlock the next level within a game. If an early reader can’t read the words, help is always near and has been fine tuned through the collaboration or a children’s reading specialist (Dr. Diana Sharp) and observing early readers within a game environment.
Challenge: Investments in designs involving technology typically help adults. Opportunity: Sabi team members came up with a novel drawing recognition technology – Living Ink (R) – that surprises children as what they draw comes to life. Players use their mouse to draw the object their avatar asks for. The game recognizes what the player is drawing and transforms the drawing into the focus of whimsical and wacky interactions with their avatar. This brand new interactive drawing method has made many little eyes light up in surprise and delight.
ItzaBitza and ItzaZoo
Key Product Categories
Computer Games, Learning Games, Video Games
Margaret Johnson, Co-founder and CEO
Margaret Johnson’s biggest achievement was the birth of her two daughters. She became inspired to integrate video games with important learning skills while watching her oldest daughter play XBox games when Johnson was a member of the XBox team at Microsoft. When her older daughter was 8, she had major surgery. After the surgery, her daughter was unable to do most things 8-years-old do, but she could play XBox games. Johnson watched in amazement at the power her daughter felt as she conquered a game level. At a time when her daughter’s head was tilted dramatically to the side, had half her hair shaved off and a scar running down the middle of her neck, her self-esteem grew because she was able to conquer the activities presented within the video game. Johnson and her daughter discussed how these video games are mostly made by guys for guys and were inappropriate for 8-year-olds. Yet, there was no denying the entertainment quality or the learning benefits – including a burst in self-esteem – that quality video games possess.
Johnson faced a predicament. She had bought many edutainment games for her young children. These games didn’t capture their attention like the XBox games did. Her children saw these games as boring, telling her the games were more work than fun. Yet Johnson saw how video games have the power to engage children in a lifelong love of learning. Johnson began losing sleep at night contemplating ways to bridge the gap between the exceptional entertainment value great video games gave players and what our kids need to learn in order to grow up to be the movers and shakers of our future.
Prior to starting Sabi, Inc., Johnson had worked at Microsoft for 18 years. As a General Manager at Microsoft, she led a research group that included Sabi, Inc.’s founders Thomas Steinke and Duncan. During their time at Microsoft, they collaborated with a renowned learning science team led by Dr. John Bransford (UW) and included a young children’s reading specialist (Dr. Diana Sharp). This collaboration led to breakthroughs in crossing the chasm between great game design and the integration of important learning such as creative thinking and reading. The collaboration resulted in seven patents and over 30 game designs.. In January 2008, Microsoft decided to pull the plug on the project. Understanding the potential that the project had for providing our children with ways to learn that were motivating, Johnson knew she couldn’t walk away. Taking a huge leap of faith, she decided to leave Microsoft and form Sabi Games with her two teammates – Thomas Steinke and Duncan – and continue to develop ways to raise the bar on children’s software.
In November 2008 Johnson and the Sabi team shipped their first game, ItzaBitza. The game was met with glowing reviews and won some of the most prestigious honors for children’s technology in its first year. It was recommended by Business Week as a Top Tech Toy for Kids The game has also won the Creative Child Game of the Year Award; a Parents’ Choice Gold Medal Award; an Editor’s Choice Award from The Children’s Technology Review; a five-star review from USA Today; The Toy Man Award of Excellence; Dr. Toy’s 2009 Best 100; and an Editor’s Choice Game Award from the Computer Times.
Everyday Johnson wakes up and asks– what if every child felt the power of the love of reading? It is that question that motivates her to focus herself and the team to change the way parents and children view children’s software into something that is a legitimate form of creative expression and literature.
Johnson is married to a very kind and funny man and has two daughters, three dogs, two cats, and one goldfish. A very long time ago she attended Pomona College and Stanford University where she majored in geology. While she no longer works in geology, she is concerned about the environment and our health. She is much more comfortable riding a bike than a car and she is amazed at the size of the vegetables she is able to grow because of the family’s compost pile. The family is committed to lowering the carbon footprint and looks forward to the day when all families will download software instead of buying boxed CDs – which have a much higher carbon footprint.
Thomas Steinke, Chief Technical Officer
Steinke began developing games at the age of 5, and by the time he was 10 he had already released a number of games to the shareware community. His love for technology only grew as he got older. In 1994, he got his first professional job in the games industry for a small startup game company. After graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1998 with a BS in Computer Science, Steinke began working for FASA Interactive in Chicago, which was acquired by Microsoft shortly after he began. Steinke spent the following years developing AAA titles on various platforms as a freelancer for Microsoft and other game companies.
In 2006, Steinke returned to Microsoft as a part of a product incubation group working with cognitive scientists on building new learning technologies. In February 2008, he left Microsoft to start Sabi Games along with Johnson and Duncan.
Steinke thrives when people tell him “it can’t be done.” His creativity and insights were instrumental in delivering Sabi’s integral Living Ink™ digital drawing recognition technology used in the company’s first game, ItzaBitza.
Duncan (No last name), Creative Director
No, it isn’t a typo. This person has only one name. Duncan has 13 years of professional experience in the games industry and has shipped 14 titles across many platforms. His first job was at Valve Software, where he worked on the original Half-life game. He has since worked in key roles at other game companies including Surreal (acquired by Midway), Sprout (acquired by Popcap) and Amaze (acquired by Foundation 9). In 2005, Duncan joined Microsoft and was part of the original Surface Team as the lead game designer. In that position he was responsible for developing a portfolio of games and concepts to represent the next milestone of human computer interaction (HCI) with Microsoft Surface ™, a revolutionary computer platform that responds to hand gestures and real-world objects. Duncan also developed several patents that contribute to and enable various abilities of Microsoft Surface ™.
In 2006 he joined Microsoft Research as the lead game designer for a new learning technology initiative lead by Margaret Johnson. Duncan worked closely with learning scientists, educators and select members of the international game design community to bring children’s learning games to the next level. It was during this time that he also developed a patent for children’s speech recognition and invented a new approach to children’s drawing recognition that, together with Thomas Steinke would eventually become Sabi’s Living Ink™.
In early 2008, Duncan left Microsoft to join up with co-founders Margaret Johnson and Thomas Steinke. As the creative director of Sabi, Duncan is responsible for the ideation and execution of game design and content. His interests are diverse and he is motivated by the fun and the challenging.