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WordsBy2 game puts ‘fun’ in NGO funding

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Dan Donaldson meets with Chhon Srors, executive director of Buddhism for Social Development Action. SUPPLIED

WordsBy2 game puts ‘fun’ in NGO funding

Wordsby2 – an iOS mobile game app by the education and technology company Apptessence – gives you a chance to enjoy yourself while helping others by supporting NGOs doing important work while vying for cash prizes.

Apptessence was started in 2018, but it is really an extension of a previous company founded in 2013 to do tech education work.

The founder, Dan Donaldson, a Canadian who now lives in Cambodia, has completed the first of what will be an ongoing series of fundraising events through digital games for Cambodian NGOs. He’s self-taught but has been working with computers since the 1980’s.

“As the name might indicate we’ve been involved both in technology and education and one of the main areas we’ve been involved in has been in delivering educational experiences to disadvantaged people,” Donaldson says.

The innovative approach to fundraising charges people $10 to play in a mobile game tournament. Players around the world can join the event and participants are then able to play as many times as they like, the founder says.

“So that gives people who are new to the game a chance to get better and better without having to spend more and more money. It works really well and many people do exactly that. The game is free outside of tournaments, there are no ads, and anyone can play it as much as they like.

“I think in the future, though not right away, we’ll set it up so that for $10 you can play let’s say 10 times. And then, you’d have to go back to the site to buy credits for 10 more plays. That way, we can increase the revenue from those who really get competitive. But for now, this model works fine,” he says.

Donaldson says they’ve had players from four continents logged in on their iPhones to play and the app is currently available in the Apple App Store.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
WordsBy2 on an iPad. Players around the world can join in by paying a fee to play in a tournament with a cash prize for the winner and the rest going to NGOs. SUPPLIED

They are only on iPhone for now, he says, because the company has limited resources and they don’t have the manpower to build for multiple platforms at this stage and because they also use the Apple created language Swift on their servers it made sense to focus on iOS.

“We think that really the solution will be a web version, looking at how popular Wordle became. It’s partly because it requires no downloads, but if any Android programmers out there want to talk to us about a partnership, we’d be interested!” he says.

The game is a simple word tile game that is something like a blend of Scrabble and Wordle, but with unique features of its own. It’s designed to attract those who have been part of the recent upsurge of interest in board games and their digital equivalents.

Donaldson says their game WordsBy2 is based on a game that he made in physical form almost 20 years ago. He knew it was a pretty good game idea because he tested it with a lot of players back then, but it was too complex for this project so he stripped it down.

The ultimate test for Donaldson, who is a big fan of word and puzzle games, is whether he enjoys playing the games he’s developed himself and WordsBy2 definitely makes the grade.

“I do crosswords and I like the harder ones. I get caught up in Sudoku every now and again. Years ago, I wrote a digital version of a French game called Morpion and I liked that, so we might try to do a new version of that but with a word-spelling twist too,” he tells The Post.

The first WordsBy2 tournament ran for 36 hours starting at 11pm on May 7, 2022 or noon in New York and Toronto. He says they knew people from different time zones would be jumping in to play, so they had to think about how to make it as accessible as it could be to people in different parts of the world.

“It kept us very busy! But it worked out well, and we learned a lot. We think that our future tournaments will be similar: 36 to 48 hours long with people popping in to play three minute games whenever they feel like it during that period,” he says.

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Donaldson opposite screens showing the app’s code and the actual game. SUPPLIED

They started building the game software in late 2020 and then the tournament service in mid-2021 while testing new features continuously as they’ve been added.

This first public tournament was run to meet their goal of raising funds for NGOs, but previously they held a test tournament with the public in the third quarter of 2021 to see how players interacted with the game at that point.

“We are in the middle of a software update right now. We’re taking everything we learned from the tournament and making changes so that version three will be even better and we won’t run any tournaments until that’s done, but it’s going well so we expect to be ready in about two weeks, maybe less.

“The goal is to always have a tournament running. We’ll start with a fixed prize, like $200, and just run it until the revenue is met. Then, start another one. If they fill up fast, we’ll raise the amount of revenue needed, and the goal is to have tournaments always running that have about a two-day cycle. Once that is working well, we’ll open up tournaments to allow other people to run them,” says the founder.

The event on May 7 was intended to simply test the technology developed by Apptessence, but the response and the donations earned greatly exceeded expectations. Aiming to raise $100 CAD as a token amount, they ended up raising over $550 to donate to NGOs in just one 36-hour period. The high-scorer at the end won a prize of $200, which was paid out by the company rather than coming out of the money raised by player entry fees.

“We’re giving the entire sum raised to NGOs and then we’re funding the $200 prize to the winner out of our own pocket. In the future, we will retain a certain amount, probably 10 per cent but dropping as we scale, to fund our own project, which is a centre to teach game development tech to low-opportunity youth in Cambodia and then throughout ASEAN, but we are focusing on getting this tournament model up and running first,” he says.

Donaldson says he has always been interested in tech education and has organised and run several boot-camps focused on getting people who wouldn’t typically become computer programmers into coding.

“That’s why we focus on NGOs. They are doing similar things to what we eventually will be doing ourselves,” he says.

Donaldson says they are dividing all proceeds between four NGOs based in both Cambodia and Thailand currently that are focused on educating kids and aiding women in crisis.

Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA) based in Kampong Cham province here in Cambodia is one of the first recipients. They help young people find employment and careers through programmes that provide job skills to those who may have struggled to complete their formal education.

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The Buddhism for Social Development Action team in Kampong Cham. SUPPLIED

Donaldson says they’re also working with the Thai orphanage Baan Jing Jia and The Bangkok Post, who run their own NGO that funds school fees for kids. The fourth recipient is KAPE in Kampong Cham.

“At the same time, we also want to solve a problem in education: How do you deliver good quality programmes in things like computer programming or game development that can lead to great careers and opportunities for young people who don’t have the means to pay for that sort of education?

“I have experience with both government funded and private enterprise approaches, and both have big problems. So we’d like this to be a way to create ongoing funding for such a programme. Of course, if you’re going to teach young people to do something like create games then it doesn’t hurt to use games as a way to stimulate funding.

“Helping NGOs will always be a part of what we do. But we have bigger plans. We want to help create the conditions for a growing game-creation industry in ASEAN,” says Donaldson.

Apptessence also plans to make it possible for anyone to organise their own tournaments and support other charitable causes. The process of setting up a tournament will take about 30 seconds: Just set a few parameters like how big the prize is and how much you want to earn and how much the NGO you’re helping will get, Donaldson says.

“I don’t think that this project would ever have happened if I hadn’t been lucky enough to find myself ‘stranded’ in Cambodia during the pandemic. I have to say that my time here really gave me the feeling that paying something back to this country was something I should try to do and I’m delighted that Cambodia was the place that gave birth to the WordsBy2 app,” says Donaldson.

For more information check out their Twitter: @apptessence | Facebook page: @Wordsby2 | or website: http://www.apptessence.com

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