Copyright Lenja Kaufmann

I am always searching for the perfect balance between fun and educational value

Marlene Käseberg, Founder of Meander Books

She was one of the Berlin winners at DCP 2023. Marlene Käseberg won Best Family Game for her game The Magical Floating Fortress (Die Magische Bretterbudenburg). With us, she talks about her rewarding and challenging experiences as a solo-dev, what needs to be considered when developing games for children, and what lies in the future for her studio Meander Books.

Congratulations on your win at DCP. What does a win like this mean to a one-woman-indie-studio like yours?

Thank you so much! Winning at DCP means a lot to me. It gives me the opportunity to grow my business. I can use the funds for new projects and to improve the marketing efforts, which has been an area that needs more attention.
It's also incredibly validating. Since this is my first project, I've had moments of doubt about almost everything, despite being quite happy with how the end product turned out. It reassures me that my hard work has paid off and that industry professionals recognize the value. That kind of validation is as important as the price money and keeps me motivated to keep going.
However, it's also overwhelming at times. I feel a strong responsibility to make smart choices with the prize money. I don't want to just burn through it; I want to build something with lasting value. I'm faced with a lot of decisions about what the next steps should be for Meander Books.

What challenges and benefits do you experience as a solo dev?

The benefits are also the challenges. I enjoyed working alone, but it almost broke me. It’s impossible for me to know how much of it was due to the pandemic, but working alone in the past three years was incredibly draining. But also very rewarding.
Working alone is very productive at times, because there are no disturbances, no meetings, no conflicts. It is great. Also my productivity levels vary a lot. There are weeks where everything just falls into place—I don’t even have to try. And then there are weeks where nothing really happens. I tried a lot of productivity hacks trying to learn to be steadily productive. But it made me miserable. It just doesn’t work for me, and that's okay when working alone. One of the biggest learnings of the past three years was to accept these phases and lean into them. If I want to work 14 hours straight because I am in that wonderful flow state, I allow myself to do that. And if some days later I sit down and nothing happens, I stop and go outside to do something else to refuel. There is no boss watching my hours, and there are no coworkers that need to contact me at certain hours. This is the biggest upside of working alone, and as long as I have that privilege I will take advantage of it..
But as much as I enjoy being able to be flexible and make my own decisions, it is very draining to have to decide everything. Always. There is something called decision fatigue that I had to learn to manage! The hardest part is to recognize the issue. In the end, I marked the tasks that needed decisions and tried to spread them evenly over a week to avoid having to decide too much on a single day. I kind of understand the people now who always wear the same outfits to cut back on daily decisions.
Even though I worked alone, I must emphasize that I had a big group of supporters without whom I wouldn't have been able to complete the project. My family, professors, and friends had my back, providing feedback, testing, and keeping me motivated throughout the development process.

You were funded by Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg and supported by the Game Design program at HTW Berlin and the DE:HIVE incubator program. How did these institutions help you during development?

Being funded by Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg (MBB) and supported by the Game Design program at HTW Berlin and the DE:HIVE incubator program played a crucial role in the development of my project.
The funding provided by MBB allowed me to work full-time on the project for a duration of 2.5 years. Without their support, it would have been challenging to dedicate the necessary time and resources to bring my vision to life. I am extremely grateful to the people at MBB who believed in my project and made it possible.
The DE:HIVE incubator program was equally instrumental in my development journey. It provided me with a dedicated workspace and an inspiring environment. Being surrounded by other incubator teams, my professors, game design students, created a wonderful working atmosphere, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. The program offered valuable opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, and feedback that greatly contributed to my project.
Overall, the support from both MBB and the DE:HIVE incubator program was invaluable. They not only provided financial assistance but also created an ecosystem that fostered creativity, learning, and growth. I am grateful for the opportunities and resources they provided, which significantly impacted the success of my project.

Why did you choose to study at HTW Berlin? How did your studies prepare you for the design and development of The Magical Floating Fortress and for founding your own studio?

I was drawn to game design because it offered a unique blend of logic and creativity. After visiting the HTW Berlin for a portfolio consultation, I knew it was the right choice for me. The atmosphere and the emphasis on project-based learning resonated with me, especially after experiencing 12 years of boring memorizing in school. Also, Berlin is a very interesting city!
During my studies and with the guidance of my professors, I acquired a diverse range of knowledge and skills. However, the most invaluable lesson I learned was understanding how systems work. This understanding extends beyond game systems and applies to all aspects of life. I began to perceive my own life and business as intricate systems. By comprehending how these systems work, I gained the ability to manipulate, balance, and adapt them to align with my goals.
Although luck still plays a role, I discovered that I can position myself in these systems to create opportunities for success and luck to come my way. I don’t know if this makes sense. But it worked for me.
The education I received at the Game Design Bachelor at HTW Berlin not only prepared me for the design and development of The Magical Floating Fortress but also equipped me with the mindset necessary to start my own studio. Above all, it instilled the belief that I have the capacity to shape my own path towards success.

What needs to be considered when developing games for children?

I am always searching for the perfect balance between fun and educational value when developing games for children. It's not necessary for every game to be explicitly educational; my focus lies in nurturing a specific mindset that ignites curiosity and encourages joyful exploration.
Moreover, it is crucial to me that the games I create for children are enjoyable for parents as well, or at least don't drive them insane. I design my interactive books to be accessible for children to read and play independently, but they also offer great enjoyment when shared with parents, siblings, or grandparents. I strive to create beautiful family memories, reminiscent of the times when Astrid Lindgren's stories were read to me in the past.
Many parents express concern that after playing certain games, their children struggle to cope with the slower pace of the real world and become overwhelmed. I strongly believe in developing games that do not take advantage of children. Yes, children are drawn to games that bombard them with excessive feedback and overstimulation, but I believe it is very unethical to create such games.
Instead, it is essential for me to provide children with a space where they can make their own decisions. Considering that children often have limited control in many aspects of their lives, it holds great value to offer them a safe environment where they can make choices, try new things, and embrace their curiosity.

Your game could be beneficial as a supporting teaching method in primary school. Does it resonate with teachers and parents?

Absolutely! Recently, The Magical Floating Fortress was nominated for the ‘Goldener Spatz’ award.
As part of this nomination, a media partnership was formed with a school class in Merseburg. The class and teachers were highly enthusiastic about the app. The amazing people from the award also developed an educational accompanying program that can be shared with teachers who want to incorporate the app into their lessons. The interest is definitely there, but I still need to work on increasing the visibility of the app, ensuring that more schools and teachers are aware of this option.
The link to the materials can be found here.
Additionally, I can envision creating a special type of Meander Book that focuses even more on delivering educational content. Perhaps there could be a series of interactive learning resources called Meander Learn or something like that.

How can you position your product as pedagogically valuable among the multitude of free, rather simple mobile games for children?

It is a significant problem that a stark distinction is made between apps, games, and, for example, books. No one would expect children's books to be offered for free. Parents are often willing to invest more in books that have educational value. However, for some reason, it seems to be the opposite for apps. Especially when apps have an educational purpose, people tend to say, "Well, if it's for a good cause, it should be free." Many app users do not understand that apps can only be free if their data is being sold, which is completely out of the question for children's products.
But I also believe that once parents see the app, it becomes evident that a great deal of thought and passion has been poured into The Magical Floating Fortress. This is also the feedback I have received from children and parents who have already purchased my app. Many parents appreciate that the app is not excessively flashy or overstimulating. I think the challenge I face as a solo developer without marketing experience is not so much about differentiating from other simpler free apps, but rather about gaining visibility in the first place.

What’s next for Meander Books?

Currently, I have a lot on my plate, and Meander Books will likely take a bit of a backseat until the end of the year. However, all the projects I'm currently working on are crucial for the development of my small company. I'm working on the Android version of The Magical Floating Fortress and refining the Meander Books framework.
Simultaneously, I'm also developing a companion app for an animated series and pursuing my master's degree. Smaller Meander Books projects are also in the pipeline, and there may soon be a few Meander Stories.
In the long term, I can envision Meander Books creating more companion apps for existing media such as books, series, or games. These will continue to be interactive books, perhaps with more interactive content and mini-games. Additionally, I would love to collaborate with authors, illustrators, and sound designers to bring our own projects to life.
An ideal scenario for me would be a mix of commissioned work and original projects. Ultimately, I see Meander Books as a digital publisher with a diverse range of products and co-productions.