Semi-finalist Q&A: Heaven's Blessings Tiny Zoo

Heaven's Blessings Tiny Zoo is a Christian company producing family friendly games with an entirely volunteer team, all of whom work from their own homes. Information from their grant application is available here. Read below for more, and if you have questions for our semi-finalists don't hesitate to ask them in the comments section.

Also, don't forget to cast your vote! YOUR vote will determine which entrepreneurs most deserve to be amongst the finalists.

How did you come up with the idea for your business?

Well, it's rather a long story but I will try to stick to the highlights. I have become a game Producer, and my business is a software company making family friendly games. But the reason I have come to this path is because of my children. I am a homeschooling Mom, and have been teaching my children essentially since they were born. As they grew older we discovered that their natural instinct to learn through play extends through all of their growing years, and even into adulthood.

We discovered that our children were memorizing numerous and intricate details about the games that they played even at a very young age, but they would not memorize their school work. My then-7 year old son memorized the entire Civilization progression tree, but would not memorize a Bible verse. We bought dozens of "educational games" for them, but the defining attribute of those products was "educational content" not fun. And if it isn't fun, the kids won't play it. I started asking myself, "Why? Why aren't educational games more fun? We have the technology! It doesn't have to be this way." But invariably, most educational games are like taking an exam with colorful pictures. Who wants to take a test instead of play? Not 99.9% of the people I know, whether kids or adults. But play can be meaningful, so why aren't the fun games more meaningful? Or why aren't the educational games more fun? After wasting more than $200 on a vast assortment of educational games that my children didn't want to play, I set out to make some fun meaningful games. Factored into this goal as well is the observation that even in the multiplayer games that my family has attempted to play together, we each have different play styles. And so we often end up divided, instead of playing together harmoniously. It is my desire to see a game that brings families and friends closer together, not splitting them apart. I want to see games that will strengthen daily relationships, and be a healing component for families and friends, rather than a divisive one. So a major goal of the games that I make is to implement game mechanics that will enhance these attributes. And finally, I want to make games that will honor God. This isn't an afterthought, this is at the core and heart of my goals and purposes, and the driving motivation which keeps me going through the late nights and the early mornings, and the long painful days. I want to make games that create a safe haven for Christians to play, where they can conquor evil, discover the power of God, and hang out with their friends, without feeling like they are compromising their values or their standards by being there. I would love to create games that also entice non-believers to come find out why we believe what we believe, but I know that primarily the people who are interested in playing Christian games are other Christians. So the focus of my games is to strengthen Christians in their faith walk. I have played some Christian games that feel like I'm being clobbered with a Bible verse around every corner, preached at about the path to salvation with every breath of the game, condmned as an evil sinner needing repentance from the moment I turn on the game, and those games are not fun. Christians don't want to play games like that, certainly non-Christians even less so. So while I do absolutely intend to include the Bible in my games, I am just as determined to keep it gentle, loving, and inspirational (like Jesus was!), not to beat people over the head with it. First and foremost my games must be fun. If they are not fun we need to fix it. Because if it's not fun, no one will play it, and if people don't play our games then none of the purposes we have set out to do will be accomplished: to bring families together, to create meaningful games, and to strengthen other Christians in their faith.

What makes your business unique? Why do you think it will be a success?

There is no other game like Visions available in the market today. There are other MMORPGs, and there are other Christian games, and there is even one other Christian MMOG being created that I am aware of, but it is nothing like Visions. We are setting out to do something that, at least in the world of online games, has never been done before.

Visions is a 3D graphics Christian MMORPG set in the 2nd century Holy Land with quest and skill based gameplay. Perhaps for the first time ever, players will be able to experience history as a Roman citizen. Play Characters enter the world as a recently freed slave, and have to learn skills and choose a profession to maintain their status in Roman society. Characters can choose a more traditional combat oriented profession like Soldier, Mercenary or Hunter; they can choose a more tradeskill oriented profession like Potter, Miner, or Blacksmith; or they can choose a more cerebral profession like Disciple, Entertainer, or Physician. We currently have 19 professions planned for players to choose from. While doing the quests that take them through the experiences of their profession they may also encounter History oriented quests or Scripture oriented quests. The History quests follow a perpetually progressing timeline which allow the players to experience Roman history. Players will see and learn about architectural landmarks, regional events, and ancient Roman leaders. The Scripture quests take the player through the stories of the Bible so they can experience Biblical history. It is from the Scripture quests that Visions draws it's name, as players will be able to experience visions and dreams to see into the past, experience the events of the Bible, and interact with the Biblical characters. And we have been working on Visions for the last 6 years with an entirely volunteer team, and no funding. The task of competing against AAA titles that have $75,000,000 budgets is daunting, but my team believes in the work we are doing. And we're confident in the promise that "with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

We believe that Visions will be a success because we have constant validation from people who tell us that the world needs a Christian MMORPG. There are an estimated 278 million Christians in the United States, and 40-60% of them play games. Many of them are searching for a game that better suits their values and interests, and we believe Visions will meet that need. I do have ideas for other games, including a Christian fantasy MMO, but the market is saturated with fantasy games right now and there is a genuine need among players for a fresh new experience like they have never seen before, and we believe we can provide that. Blizzard already has saturated the fantasy market, going up against World of Warcraft in this economy would be like trying to take a sip of water from Niagara Falls: we would drown. So we're just not even going there. We're creating a quest and skill based game as opposed to an experience and level based game, in an entirely different genre, with a very different focus than other online games currently available. We believe that the uniqueness of Visions will be our advantage and our strength.

What are some of your top business-related accomplishments, or business lessons learned?

Our top accomplishment probably was the release of Chariots in 2008, a racing game set in ancient Rome on the island of Cyprus. We experienced a full development cycle from concept to post-mortem, and all the trials, struggles and tribulations associated with it. And we did it with an entirely volunteer team. Our volunteers donated their time and resources to the sucess of the project from start to finish. The website, 3D art, code modifications, even the online store software was all donated by volunteers. The only funding we obtained was through the Intel Software Partner Program and specifically earmarked for the CGDC 2008 conference attendance. We then followed up with 8 months of product updates, bug fixes and improvements to polish Chariots to a more acceptable gameplay experience. There is still more we would like to do to improve Chariots further but it is a fun playable experience now, and we are happy to announce that it is available for sale on the website when people ask us about it.

The design for Chariots was born as a team building exercise for the Visions team. What was meant to be a 2-3 month assignment, turned into a 19 month full scale game development project. But we all decided that if we were going to put our name on this product, we wanted it to be wortwhile so we voted to put in the extra effort. We found this experience to be excellent training for our much larger MMORPG project and validated all the things we have read about in other team's game development experiences. We learned that nothing ever goes as planned, it is always harder than it looks, takes longer than we hoped, and costs more than we expected. We have validated countless times that the closer we get to completing a work that will glorify God, the more trials and tribulations we will face; and likewise that God is faithful and He will never leave us or forsake us and it is in Him that we find our strength. We learned that players really like tutorials, and expect the game to teach them how to play in less than 5 minutes, and they expect to win a prize in about that same amount of time. We're still working on getting the tutorial aspect of Chariots polished but we did get the rest. We have also learned that it is very hard to make an RPG with an FPS engine, but there aren't very many next generation 3D game engines designed for making MMOGs and there are none in our price range (they start at about $1 million and go up from there). We've got the best engine available to Indie developers on a tight budget, and we're making Visions with that. One of the major challenges that we have overcome is changing game engines when we realised that the engine we were using would not accomplish our goals. We've done this painful exercise three times and survived. We have finally setteled on TGEA 1.8.1 by Garage Games. TGEA is a fine engine, and will meet our most important needs, although it's going to have very high system requirements to play the game when it is done. We have some very powerful graphics in our command, and will be able to make a beautiful game world that should be an exciting and fun experience for all who play. Here are a couple of screenshots to show what I'm working on:

Why should the Idea Cafe regulars vote for you?

Just for a moment, close your eyes and let me take you back in time. Imagine that you have just woken up in a small one room house with white plastered walls, and you have a clay amphora from your master that has to be delivered to the palace before sunrise. When you arrive at the palace, you're greeted by the Roman soldiers dressed in high court bronze breastplates and studded leather cingulums. The Proconsul is expecting you, and you're excited to have this opportunity to walk on the floors of the House of Theseus, the palatial home of the Proconsul. You know that artisans have been restoring the mosaics on the floors for the last decade, and this is a rare opportunity to experience this historic building in person. The soldiers give you clearance and you step inside.

Visions is the unprecedented opportunity to experience history. To not just imagine, but to see and explore ancient places as they might have looked during the days of their glory. To be a participant in the society that shaped our culture. And to live life from the perspective of our Mediterranean forebearers, the very people who wove the fabric of Western civilization as we know it today.

Historical accuracy is a priority for our project, and as such we are constantly on the alert for new archological discoveries, as well as long established finds. Recently a coin from Egypt was discovered with Joseph's name and the imprint of the cows and grain of Pharoah's dream. We've also read articles about the elaborate colorful frescoes found on the walls of houses excavated from the 90 A.D. volcanic eruption at Pompei. We use this information to enhance the visual and immersive experience of Visions at every level.

An estimated 60% of the American population plays games, with a comparable comparison in developed countries world wide. This means that approximately 6 of every 10 people you meet every day plays games. 56% of players who play online games are male, 44% are female. Games are an integral and profound element of our society. There is frequent controversy over the content of games, particularly highly violent games, or games with immoral content, but few dispute the validity of games as valid recreation. Therefore the focus is on what kind of games are available to the gaming audience. Our purpose is to provide clean, wholesome and meaningful content for players in a fun and engaging experience. Visions will allow parents and individuals to have a morally sound alternative to the morally corrupt options available on store shelves today.

Visions is currently being developed by an entirely volunteer team with no funding and no budget. Many of our developers are from the prestigous computer industry and have recently found themselves without jobs due to the weak economy. The award of this Business Grant would allow us to purchase some needed techology, such as a specific 3D animation program, and a voice communication network that will advance our project to the next level and bring us closer to completion. A vote for Heaven's Blessings Tiny Zoo is a vote for Visions. And a vote for Visions is a vote for a stronger society.


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