This article was originally published in the July 10, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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At first it seemed like a longshot.
Timothy Loew, Executive Director of the Mass. Digital Games Institute (MassDiGI), and Worcester Bravehearts General Manager Dave Peterson gathered the students of MassDiGI’s Summer Innovation Program to kick around ideas for a Bravehearts app.
“I had known about the program at Becker,” Peterson said, “and Tim Loew reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we have a great opportunity for you to come in with the mascot, and talk to MassDiGI about what the baseball team is and what the baseball team does in the community; and who knows where it’ll take us, but maybe it’ll spark an idea about a potential app.’
“We talked about things like promoting reading, promoting sportsmanship, promoting healthy living,” Peterson said. “Part of what this app developed into is a game that kids can play, but it also has scrolling messages that talk about the team.
“It also talks about what Jake the Lion is doing in the community during the course of the year. We kind of tied together the community aspect and the gaming aspect.”
The problem was, each of the students was already assigned to a team producing a game for the summer program.
Included in the group was Rejon Taylor-Foster, who had previously developed a baseball app, Starlot Derby, which won the MassDiGI Game Challenge, College Beta/Near Release category, and earned him a spot in the program.
Loew knew about Starlot Derby and thought it could be a good fit. There was the possibility of other ideas, too.
“It was Rejon’s small group that presented that idea of Bravehearts Derby, which was the opportunity for the players of the game to connect on a community online and play against each other while receiving messages about the team on their device,” Peterson said.
If Bravehearts Derby was to become a reality, it would have to be done as a side project.
The fastest way to produce the game was to update the graphics, or re-skin, Starlot Derby. But Taylor-Foster, who recruited Veronica Ni, Alex Ripple, Annie E and Shannon Mitchell to help out, saw an opportunity to collaborate to enhance Starlot Derby.
It meant pulling double duty, 9-5 in the lab working on his team’s other project, Hibachi Hero, and then continuing until midnight to work on Bravehearts Derby.
“It wasn’t a minor art switch, which I thought it would be when I asked for it,” said Monty Sharma, MassDiGI managing director. “Rebuilt it from scratch because they wanted to do stuff that they couldn’t do in the tool set they used [for Starlot Derby]. What they built is really slick. It’s really slick.”
“[Bravehearts Derby] shouldn’t have been possible,” Sharma said.
“A game of that quality in the timeframe they did it in? Nope. And that was the case that Rejon went beyond himself. … Those guys worked their tails off.”
“I don’t want to just change the color and hand it off,” Taylor-Foster said. “Instead, I said, ‘These are my first clients, these are good people. And I want to give them something they can be proud of.’ Then I said, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I do the programming. Alex is doing the music, Veronica is doing the animation, Annie is doing the graphics, and Shannon is helping me with business meetings, like management and everything.”
The prototype was finished in three months.
“He had a beta version of Bravehearts Derby ready to go by the first week of August,” Peterson said. “He came to the ballpark and they tested on the concourse, with kids. That’s when we knew we had something because up to that point, it had just been Rejon and me, and some other staff members here at the Bravehearts, who were looking at the app, testing the app. But we’re not the intended users of that app, so I wanted to see how kids reacted to it.
“When we were beta testing it at the ballpark, I would walk by the booths and you’d see these kids that were engrossed in the game itself. These are probably 10-year-old kids beta testing it, too engrossed in the game to notice what was happening around them.”
Aside from being a simple, yet addictive, baseball game, the app allows the Bravehearts to connect with their audience in other ways.
“We can bring up not only the games, but events that they might be having or that Jake might be showing up at,” Taylor-Foster said. “Anything the Bravehearts want their fans to know, because it’s a fan app, it’s for the fans. We’re hoping to continue development for it through the next year, so essentially the Bravehearts Derby is the Bravehearts’ app.”
“We are cognizant in the fact that we don’t want kids to play video games and apps all day long,” Peterson said. “We do think it’s a great way to connect with our fans, and talk about the other promotions we have going on.
“What we love about [mascot Jake the Lion] is when he walks through the crowd, people smile when they see him,” Peterson said. “If we could take that personality and put it into the app, which is exactly what Rejon has done …
“People get a sense for the Bravehearts’ personality. And the Bravehearts’ personality is fun, optimistic, positive. We’re the Disney World of Worcester. If you’re having a bad day at work, come to the ballpark and we will fix that, and that’s what the app aims to do and that’s what the local baseball team should do because that’s our role in the community.”
“I think it’s great,” Loew said. “I’ve played it a lot. It has good game play, and fun facts about the Bravehearts. … It’s a pretty powerful marketing tool.”
The finished product was released March 21, Foster-Taylor’s 21st birthday. But it’s not the end.
“When Rejon finished developing this game for us, he didn’t just leave it with us,” Peterson said. “I’ve met with him for updates on who’s actually using the game and who’s downloading it. In the first month of people downloading it, we were in five countries. There were people in China downloading the game; they don’t even know about the Bravehearts. But it’s available in different languages, so people in China, people in Brazil, can obviously download this game and learn a little bit about our local baseball team while having fun doing it.
“I like to take a step back and look at our app and say, ‘Yes, it is a game, but it is also a channel to deliver messaging to our potential customers.’ And I refer to it as an app, even though most consumers would refer to it as a game. But we look at it because there are other ways for people to use that app outside of the game itself.”
The product was a collaboration between the Bravehearts and MassDiGI. The Bravehearts have a deal with Foster-Taylor to update the game.
“We hired Rejon individually as the developer to continually make updates over the next, who knows, five or ten years,” Peterson said.
The end result is truly a win-win, a local team using local talent to build a way to communicate with the local community.
“We combined two things that Worcester does well, video games and baseball, to make it a win-win,” Loew said.
“We’ve got some of the smartest developers in the country right here in the city,” Peterson said. “It’s great to see them do something with the local community, but also we hope that this is the step for them in starting up their own businesses, and Rejon is.”