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South Side's Schell Games a 'rock star' in educational online games

Kim Leonard
| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012
Jesse Schell (left) and Jake Witherell (right) of Schell Games, a software  developer that has created products around Disney's Toy Story and other characters. One of its latest products is a game based on a Mr. Rogers character Daniel Tiger.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Sidney Davis
Jesse Schell (left) and Jake Witherell (right) of Schell Games, a software developer that has created products around Disney's Toy Story and other characters. One of its latest products is a game based on a Mr. Rogers character Daniel Tiger. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Puzzle Clubhouse
Puzzle Clubhouse
The Fred Rogers Co. spent years fine-tuning ideas for its new “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” TV series, but executives worried about how to develop a companion website for the show's tiny viewers. Most 2- to 4-year-olds aren't ready for true computer games, they reasoned. And the show starring the cuddly “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” character is about social and emotional development, concepts not easily adapted for online play. “We wanted to find somebody in Pittsburgh to help us meet those challenges,” said Kevin Morrison, chief operating officer. “And it so happens in Pittsburgh we have a rock star of digital media, and that is Jesse Schell.”Schell's company, Schell Games LLC, worked from scripts for the first 20 or so episodes of the animated Daniel Tiger show to build a website that plays like a toy with many fun features. Press any key on a keyboard to drive the trolley. Use musical instruments to make happy, sad or mad sounds. A former creative director for the Walt Disney Co., Schell has built South Side-based Schell Games over the past decade into a widely known developer of video games and theme park attractions. It makes dozens of just-for-fun products and an increasing lineup of games that blend animation and activities to engage users in lessons about topics ranging from sea turtles to personal behavior and health. “We're at the point now where about 90 percent of what we do is something in the educational or transformational experience,” Schell said, the latter term referring to games that deliver messages that might alter players' attitudes or actions. Video game sales totaled nearly $25 billion in 2011, including $7.3 billion for digital content, the Entertainment Software Association said. The industry is going through big changes with the move to more Internet-based and mobile play, plus games that are free to start playing, then prompt players to buy add-ons, such as “powers” that give them more abilities in the game.Educational gaming is growing fast largely because of the popularity of tablet computers, Schell said.“We already see that tablets are taking over the book world,” Schell said, “and once they start to take over the textbook world and every student has one, why should they just be reading books on them? Why not have immersive experiences?”For the Daniel Tiger site, Schell urged the Oakland-based Rogers company to think in terms of activities, not games, to suit youngsters who simply play something until they're tired. Morrison said parents at one local event he attended couldn't get their children to stop playing, and the website now attracts more than a million visitors each month.After seven years with Disney in California, Schell — a New Jersey native with a Carnegie Mellon University graduate degree — returned to Pittsburgh 11 years ago and began teaching at the university's Entertainment Technology Center. He wanted to keep working with many of the talented students graduating from the CMU program. He started the company with five people and $10,000 of his own money for computers and other equipment. “Our early projects were Disney projects, because they wanted to keep working with me,” he said. He recouped the $10,000 within six months. “More projects started coming our way, so we kept at it, and now we have 70 people.”Some early creations: Disney's ToonTown Online, which Schell developed while working at that company; and Pixie Hollow Online, featuring Tinker Bell, which debuted in 2008 as the first online world designed for girls. With millions of players, it's likely Schell's most-played game to date, he said. He's built the company slowly, reinvesting profits.“I've always felt it's nice to avoid other people's money if you can manage to do so,” he said. “You're not answerable to a group of investors who are looking for a certain payoff.” Given the right business opportunity that required immediate cash, that could change, he said. Most Schell products are built with clients or partners. “In that work, there's a lot of variety,” said Jake Witherell, chief operating officer.Yale University researchers contracted with Schell for Play Forward: Elm City Stories, an iPad video game aimed at preventing HIV infection among inner-city adolescents. Researchers talked with boys and girls in New Haven, Conn., known as the Elm City, about what leads to risky behavior. Characters in the game will encounter a series of life-altering decisions. Students who play it, and a control group of those who don't, will be studied to determine whether there is an impact on behavior. Schell's “level of commitment to the integrity of this project has been impressive,” said Dr. Lynn Fiellin, an associate professor of medicine at Yale. A final version should be ready by late November.While developing an interactive experience for SeaWorld in San Diego, Schell's office was configured roughly like a theme park attraction. Then, some of the 1,000 or so play-testers the company recruited were invited in to try it. Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment asked firms for ideas for a game to enhance a new sea turtle display. “I read Jesse's book, ‘The Art of Game Design,' and whether (his team) knew it or not, I was paying special attention to their response,” said Scott Gass, director of zoological communication and interpretation. Race for the Beach opened a year ago and allows up to four players to control their own sea turtles as they migrate across the Pacific Ocean, dodging sharks, fishing hooks and other dangers. The game since has been added at SeaWorld in Orlando, Gass said, and SeaWorld has talked to Schell about other prospective projects.“It's a crowded marketplace, so you have to do things that are different,” Schell said. “We think a lot about, what are the things nobody else is doing? You're trying to go head-to-head with every Angry Birds imitator out there.” His company likely will stay in Pittsburgh. “This is a business where geography doesn't matter very much,” Schell said, adding that the region's strong talent pool and low cost of living help keep the company competitive with West Coast studios. Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or
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