It's mostly fun and games for South Side company
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There is a reasonable explanation for the patio umbrellas.
Unfurled over desks like the wings of huge colorful birds, they dotted the 8,500-square foot office landscape of Schell Games. From the ribs of one dangled a string of party lights; another was covered with wacky hats.
So, here's the thing, said Jesse Schell, 42, founder of the eponymous South Side video game company. The old space, a few blocks down East Carson, had these enormous skylights.
The streaming daylight wreaked havoc with glare on computer monitors, and the umbrellas were a fun solution. It only made sense to bring them to the new place, even if there were no skylights.
This is a busy time for the company, and not just because Schell Games is about to move into an additional 5,000 square feet on the same floor. Last month it launched "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," a series of games, video and printables at www.pbskids.org/daniel.
The PBS animated series of the same name debuts Monday .
Company execs also spent the weekend at Seattle's PAX Prime video game convention, giving away 30,000 free memberships to "Puzzle Clubhouse," a new venture that raised more than $11,000 through the crowdfunding website, Kickstarter.
Mr. Schell, who since 2002 has taught courses, including game design, at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center, wanted to try a new business and development model with "Puzzle Clubhouse."
Each month, a new online game and accompanying 3-minute film will be produced at www.puzzleclubhouse.com. Members of the community can suggest themes and design, then vote on content.
The site launched Aug. 30. "It's not a trivial system, to figure out the right way for people to vote on content and to submit content and to stay engaged ... and for us to be on a production cycle where you can produce a finished game," he said.
In comparison, a bigger challenge in the charming "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" was to get the tone right.
"They [The Fred Rogers Company] were able to take the essence of 'Mister Rogers Neighborhood' and bring it into this animated format. That was so exciting. It gave us a lot of confidence that this was the right property [for Schell Games]."
"How do you take something that is successful in one medium, then adapt it over to another while still keeping the essence?"
Although much of what Schell Games does has educational or family overtones, it had never created content aimed at such a young base: 3- to 5-year-olds. The game promotes social and emotional learning, not the usual ABC's.
Many users cannot read; some have little experience negotiating a mouse.
"Click and drag is actually a fairly complex action," Mr. Schell said.
For many of its projects, the company's website, www.schellgames.com, invites fans to sign up to drop by the bustling offices, because, according to Mr. Schell, you can never have too many testers: "We like to test things right away, and then test frequently and test often."
Because there were only so many very young testers available, Schell Games turned to a local institution for help.
"What's great is, the Children's Museum [of Pittsburgh] has an inexhaustible supply of testers ages 3 to 5. And their parents are excited to have them try a Fred Rogers game," he said.
There is even a musical element that offers kids a chance to express themselves (happy, sad, mad) in a tuneful way.
"The association of emotion and music [was] something Fred Rogers talked about a lot," said Mr. Schell, a New Jersey native who is the former creative director of Disney's Imagineering Virtual Reality Studio, and also has experience as a street performer, mime and clown.
Computer savvy runs in the Schell family. Jesse's grandfather, Emil Schell, was a mathematician for the U.S. government. When ENIAC, the first electronic computer, was installed in the Washington, D.C., area after World War II, the elder Schell taught it to play "Nim," an ancient Egyptian puzzler.
"My grandfather, I believe, may have created the first computer game," he said.
It's unlikely Emil ever envisioned the likes of his grandson's company. The 70-odd employees -- there is a small branch office in Austin, Texas -- appear to be mostly young, more-casually-than-Casual Friday-dressed, and completely absorbed in the work.
Pop culture action figures threatened to overrun more than a few desks. An upright piano us settled against one wall, bearing a sign that urges employees to refrain from playing during working hours.
Whatever those might be: the atmosphere here is decidedly not 9-to-5. Another wall was decorated with a rack of billiard cues, although the pool tables disappeared in another life. (This building used to house "Shootz Cafe.")
On the far side of the office, there was a gaming installation from "Race for the Beach," which Schell Games developed for SeaWorld San Diego's Turtle Reef exhibit. The controllers resembled plush turtles, adding to the office-as-toy-box appeal.
Because if your business is creating fun and games, it really ought to be fun doing it.
"We've always been the company that likes to go where other people aren't going," said Mr. Schell, whose cubby of a private office won't be confused with that of the average CEO.
"How can we take the idea of computer games, and take it somewhere new?"
In this case, it's a brand-new "Neighborhood."
First Published September 2, 2012 12:00 am