2.6 Million Downloads, 33,000 video streams, 6,000 positive reviews. Has Island Saver changed the way kids learn about money?
Can videogames be used to teach kids financial concepts?
Since 1994 NatWest has helped more than nine million young people learn money skills through its free financial education programme for 5-18 year olds, MoneySense.
In 2015, MoneySense was relaunched to be a fully digitised programme, bringing it up-to-date with the enormous changes taking place within financial services and introducing additional resources for parents.
By 2018 the team was looking at innovating further. Could the rapid evolution of technology help change the way children and young people learned about money?
They initially looked at Minecraft but concluded that the game didn’t offer sufficient flexibility to create the high quality money lessons required.
Executives at the bank asked gaming entrepreneur Chris van der Kuyl CBE, the chair of 4J Studios (creator of Minecraft on consoles) if videogames could be used to teach kids about money?
“Of course,” replied Chris. “Let me introduce you to some people I know.”
Established in 2012, Stormcloud Games has developed its own original intellectual property (IP), as well as games based on well-known licenses including LEGO, and books by the former children’s laureate Julia Donaldson CBE, (The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom).
Stormcloud was asked to pitch an idea for a financial education game to NatWest to compliment the MoneySense programme.
The studio found the opportunity challenging. Stormcloud was keen to create an experience which was, first and foremost, a game. If the subject was handled poorly, then it could easily be very dry and lack the engagement to keep children playing.
The Magic Money Tree
The designers considered and discarded numerous ideas, from a resource management ‘lemonade stand’ game, through to more challenging strategy concepts. Finally, it took one frustrated lunch break to provide a breakthrough.
The lunchtime news featured the British Prime Minister, stating there was “No magic money tree”. This caused the designers to ask: “Well, what if there was? What sort of ecosystem would it be found in? What animals would it shelter?” The obvious answer, for a game about money, was – piggy banks.
From that spark, the idea of Island Saver was born.
Stormcloud pitched a very simple concept to the bank, which brought together simple, fun activities, with a strong ecological message and a solid underlying financial system.
The game is a single-player, first-person adventure, set on a bright, colourful 3D archipelago, where players clean up rubbish and debris in return for gold coins or ‘dubloons’. Their money can be saved, spent on new equipment, borrowed, used to improve the world – and even taxed. As the ecosystem is restored, wildlife returns, with a range of ‘bankimals’ (living piggy banks) emerging to reinhabit the islands.
The bank liked the idea, approved the concept and began working with Stormcloud Games to create a complete design.
The bank gave Stormcloud Games a list of the basic money concepts it would like to see in the game and they worked together to find interesting and engaging ways to implement them. The bank also introduced Young Money, a charity which works with young people to help them understand and deal with financial concepts.
The charity is the custodian of the financial capability framework for young people and accredits financial education programmes such as MoneySense, ensuring that resources are accurate and impartial
NatWest and Stormcloud worked with Young Money to explore questions such as: How do we talk to kids about tax? How do we explain what a loan shark is? Thanks to this collaboration the game deals with financial concepts in a fun and engaging, yet educationally robust way.
Making Finance Physical
The primary activity for players is gathering discarded plastic and rubbish, which can be recycled in return for coins. In order to save the coins, the player has to open a bank account, then create and remember a PIN, just as they would in the real world.
The money the player saves can then be used and changed in a wide range of ways, which will introduce them to concepts from the real world of money management, including:
- Money left lying around can be stolen
- Savings earn interest
- Shopping using different payment methods (cash, online banking, or bartering)
- Money can be borrowed (with interest applied to the repayments)
- Penalties for missed repayments
- Earnings are taxed (at 10%)
- Currency Exchange (different bankimals produce different currencies)
The Tax Bot & The Loan Shark
Several financial concepts within the game can be quite difficult to grasp – even for grown-ups. However Island Saver introduces two: taxation and ‘alternative borrowing’ in ways which physicalise the concepts for every player.
The Tax Bot demands 10% of the player’s earnings in tax. In return, the player receives ‘tax tokens’, which can be used to empty the recycling bins and undertake infrastructure projects such as building bridges between islands or digging wells in the desert, to make the islands a better place for the whole community.
The Loan Shark offers the player an alternative way to borrow money for upgrading equipment, without involving the bank. If the player succumbs to the offer, they quickly find the shark will not allow them to deposit their earnings, and his initially reasonable offer quickly escalates into demands for increasing sums of money.
Even forgery makes an appearance, when the player is offered magic beans. These do actually grow a ‘magic money tree’. But upon trying to bank the coins it produces, the player will find them worthless.
The bank was initially keen to have mobile as the lead platform. However Stormcloud, proposed an alternative, which would publish the game as a free digital release on games consoles and PC, before it reached the mobile app stores.
The studio reasoned that the number of free games on console was far lower, which would help Island Saver find a much larger audience more easily.
Secondly, by creating content for the higher end devices first, they could be scaled down for mobile, far more quickly, easily, and cost-effectively, than trying to ‘upscale’ mobile resources to the greater resolutions and capabilities of consoles.
Island Saver was published in May 2020 on PC and games consoles.
While response from the games media was mixed, reviews from players are overwhelmingly positive. As of writing, the game has had several thousand reviews, achieving four or five star ratings in each store:
- Xbox Live: 4.5 / 5 stars (1000+ reviews)
- PlayStation Network: 4 / 5 stars (4000+ reviews)
- Steam: 10 / 10 (‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ 1000+ reviews)
- Apple App Store 5 / 5 (20+ reviews)
- Google Play Store 4.4 / 5 (20+ reviews)
The bank had initially set 100,000 downloads of Island Saver as a benchmark for success. The game quickly exceeded these expectations, hitting one million downloads by June 2020 and then two million downloads by October, with no signs of slowing down.
The game was embraced by the streaming and influencer community on channels such as YouTube and Twitch. As of October 2020, there are over 33,000 videos of the game being played or reviewed on YouTube alone.
While the game has been localised into French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Brazilian Portugese, players around many other countries around the world have embraced the game and are sharing their love for it in their own native languages.
In addition to many reviews from parents, there is also a significant audience of adults having fun with the game.
Island Saver has two ‘downloadable content’ packs: Dinosaur Island and Fantasy Island, which add news levels and new features to the game. While NatWest committed to make the main game freely available, both the content packs can be bought for a small ‘pocket money’ price point. This also brings real-world financial decision making into the game experience.
The content packs also add a new emotional dimension to financial education. In Dinosaur Island, the player meets a character who is deeply in debt and very upset. The player helps them regain control of the financial situation and see his emotional state improve. Fantasy Island introduces enterprise concepts, where the player helps a character to improve a failing smoothie stand by creating a better supply chain, finding lower cost ingredients, setting prices and helping to build a successful business.
All net proceeds from the packs are split between Stormcloud and two UK charities – Young Money and SpecialEffect.
Remarkably, despite being premium (paid-for) content, both DLC packs have been reviewed and rated as highly as the original game.
A New Way To Learn About Money
The reaction to and the success of the game has surprised NatWest and Stormcloud. During development, both organisations admit to feeling uncertain about the reception the game would receive.
While Island Saver’s success may not lead to NatWest publishing more console games in the near future, it has demonstrated to the bank how incredibly well games can build engagement, deliver valuable information and education at the same time.
The game also demonstrates the value that each party brought to the table. Stormcloud’s experience in creating compelling gameplay, combined with the bank’s focus on helping children become money confident, and Young Money’s experience working with children and young people, combined to create something with a far greater impact on its audience than any one of them anticipated.
The last word must go to the reviewer jlaz, on Steam, who left the review which has been voted the ‘most helpful’ from the 2000+ user reviews of the game:
“I’m 5 years old (typing this with my daddy’s help) and I LOVE this game! My favourite part is riding the rhino and gorilla. My least favourite part are the Litterbugs but it’s a fun game and teaches us about helping the earth.”
Island Saver: Data Points
- Six platforms
- 2,600,000 downloads across all platforms
- 33,000 video streams
- 6,000 positive reviews
- 67% of players open a bank account, earn interest and use tax tokens to benefit the island
- 44% of players use their Tax Tokens to build a bridge
- 42% of players use bartering to “buy” goods
- 32% of players manage to save 1000 doubloons (which is a lot of coins!)
- 28% of players exchange foreign currency at its best rate
- 22% of players take out and repay a bank loan
- 12% of players complete the charity mission and help the Litterbugs
Play Island Saver
You can find Island Saver using the links below
- Island Saver (Steam)
- Island Saver (Xbox One)
- Island Saver (PlayStation 4)
- Island Saver (Switch)
- Island Saver (iOS)
- Island Saver (Android)