Amoeboid: Science Fun for a Digital Age

As smartphones increase in popularity, so have smartphone games. This year, The Entertainment Software Association reported that smartphone games are the fastest growing game market in the industry, quickly overtaking dedicated handheld systems like the PSP or Nintendo DS. This surprised me at first, but then I remembered that just a few months ago, I was playing Plants vs Zombies on my commutes to work, easily totaling 10 hours of game time each week. With social games like Draw Something or mind benders like Flow threatening to take more of my needed subway sleep time, it dawned on me that smartphone games were an untouched canvas just waiting for games about science education.

Enter Amoeboid, which has you take control of an adorable amoeba, floating through a microscopic environment collecting food and microbial friends, and dodging deadly viruses. It’s simple, fun, and ridiculously cute. It plays like an old school arcade game, which each level ramping up the number of viruses you have to dodge, but also teaches you about various single-celled organisms such as the armored Coleps or the Volvox, a multi-cellular algae. I caught up with the game’s creators, Katie McKissick, Niilo Tippler, and Chris Tokunaga.

The trio’s origin story is one of those classic dream-team collaboration tales where creative people get together and everything clicks. Katie, who is a former high school biology teacher, and draws comics at Beatrice the Biologist, first developed the idea for Amoeboid in 2011, citing the need for “a new outlet for my Beatrice the Biologist-ness” and having some money to burn.

“When I replaced my old 3G iPhone, that was slowly becoming non-functional, with the 4S, I started playing a lot more iPhone games—and getting rather addicted to all of them. I thought designing a science-y arcade game could be a natural extension of my love of science outreach, and I was definitely encouraged by my husband who had been saying for at least a year that I should make a Beatrice app.”

With a goal in place, and montage music cued, Katie needed a team. A friend introduced her to Niilo, a veteran software engineer with more accolades than can be listed in this space, including a Daytime Emmy for his work building the website for the PBS Kids show Sci-Girls. Niilo is everything you’d want in an app coder: Fun, innovative, and inspired.

“I’ve been programming since 1981 when I got my first computer, a Sinclair ZX-81 (known in the US as the Sinclair Timex 1000), and with the first lines of code I wrote I knew that this was going to be my career. Prior to programming I was an electronics nerd, building gadgets like Tic-Tac box radios, and I combined the two interests by then building add-ons such as speech synthesis units and peripheral control systems for my computers.”

It was then Niilo who brought in Chris, an illustrator and designer from Fairfax, California. The two had worked together before on various projects, including a series of interactive Flash games for Kids Edge, “an online learning ‘universe’ with interactive characters and lessons in virtual worlds all built in flash.”  While Chris provided all the visuals for the game, the three were quick to point out that it was very much a collaborative effort, rather than distinct realms of code, art, and ideas.

Working directly from photographs, Chris put a cartoon spin on the various amoeba and protists in Amoeboid— a rogue’s gallery of microorganisms that give the game its “collector” element. Players can see what creatures they have collected and learn more about them individually. The collection could use some expansion, both for educational purposes and just to see Chris’ take on other microbes. But the size fits well with the scope of the game, and I still giggle every time I see a coleps swim onscreen. The gameplay is slick, and all the elements work well together, making it the poster child of collaborative ventures.

What now for that dream-team collaboration I was talking about earlier? Turns out, the release of Amoeboid is just the beginning.

Chris: “During the Amoeboid build, Niilo and I decided to form our own development studio, Tip-Tok. For the past several months, we’ve been working on an idea and it’s been a bit stuck in the mud. Going over why Amoeboid went so smoothly and our project seemed to be moving so slowly we realized it was because we needed that third person dynamic. We needed Katie! Thankfully she’s now a part of the Tip-Tok team and we’re moving forward with completing our stuck in the mud game (which is moving along nicely now thanks to Katie’s input) and then on to Katie’s educational game designs in a  few weeks.”



Amoeboid, by Tip-Tok is available on the iTunes App Store for 99 cents.

You can learn more about Tip-Tok as well as check out upcoming games over at their website. I highly recommend checking the “about” section for the most charming lineup on this side of science-based gaming.

There’s more: I’ll be posting a full transcript of the interview soon. Niilo, Chris, and Katie all had so much great input that I dare not leave out. Stay tuned.

It’s also no coincidence that Katie and I will be running a Science Comics workshop at the upcoming Science Online Conference. Check the schedule for details as they emerge!


Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner. He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

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