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Million dollar projects are everyday occurrences in practically every other sphere of technology application. Indeed many projects stretch into hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.

How many million dollar serious games projects have there been? How many have cost that much let alone earned that much from subsequent product sales?

Well the obvious examples that spring to mind involve at least one arm of the US Armed Forces. I discount these for the purposes of this posting as the US military spending is a major cause of market distortion. I fundamentally believe that serious games can (and will) affect practically every sphere of human endeavour and it is in the 99.9% of other applications of this medium that I derive interest.

Why do I ask the question? Well firstly this is a (albeit arbitrary) figure that if commonplace would illustrate a certain maturity of this fledgling industry. Secondly, and more the focus of my interest, is that this is a minimum financial level that I feel is necessary to craft a world class ‘best seller’ serious game.

Many a commentator – myself included – has made the point that serious games (or ‘immersive learning simulations’) need not cost the earth in order to deliver tangible benefit. Many early examples over the last few years cost a lot less than $100,000 and quite a few less than $10,000. Whilst several applications such as UN Food Force, Virtual Leader and Global Conflicts Palestine have attracted significant media interest and industry acclaim, they haven’t been ‘consumed’ by many millions of people nor generated vast fortunes for their creators. Where is the serious games industry equivalent of Harry Potter, American Idol, GTA4 or You Tube?

If this industry is to truly come of age then it needs to start creating global best sellers in the same way that the TV, movie, literature, software and computer game industries routinely deliver. For that to happen someone has to fund a “seriously serious game” and that, to my mind, will involve at least a million dollar capital investment plus a equally not insignificant investment in marketing activity.

The last time I saw an annual market value for global learning it topped $2.1 trillion. This was a few years ago (2001 I believe) and is certainly larger now what with population and workforce growth and the increasing importance of intellectual assets and the knowledge society.  There are very few larger industries (certainly not computer games, music or movies) so the customers and budgets do (or at least will) exist. A $100m revenue generating serious game would represent a miniscule fraction of the global learning market but be undisputable proof that serious games are a medium worth attention. But what would it take to make that happen?

Technology: the entertainment games industry has tools and techniques aplenty. They have limited shelf lives in the entertainment space which is very much driven by technology USPs and cutting edge innovation. An admittedly made up but nonetheless not inaccurate illustration is that a 10% improvement (over the previous benchmark) probably costs 100% more to attain. This is not so in the learning & development world where hardware is very much more mundane than your average ‘gaming rig’. Technology is not the problem. It exists, is proven, well understood and supported.

Talent: Creating any serious game/immersive simulation requires a cross-disciplinary team of software engineers, game and learning designers, digital artists, simulation modellers and subject/domain expertise. Creating a world-class serious game would require a world class team. Expensive? Yes, but if the budget is forthcoming the talent can be assembled.

Customer perception: The current customer base for serious game content and services comprises of innovators, early-adopters, risk takers and ‘in the know’ evangelists. To attain revenues of a $100m it would be absolutely essential to move beyond this ‘friendly’ audience (the converted) to a much larger body of customers (the unconverted). This wouldn’t be easy by any stretch of the imagination but bringing innovative new products and services to market (or even inventing new markets) is demonstrably achievable if well executed at the right time. Who would have thought that they would spend $100 a month of a mobile telephone, internet connection or satellite TV a decade ago? Get the product offering and business model right, market it well, price it right, exploit those converted customers (e.g. with case studies) and develop a well-oiled distribution network and in time the orders will flow in.

Market stability: Global financial meltdown aside the learning and development market is pretty stable. Technology capital investments tend to get sweated for much longer in the corporate and educational sectors and occur much later in the technology adoption cycle than in an entertainment context. This means that serious games service and product providers have lower customer technology expectations and a more predictable (and exploitable) competitive environment that can be leveraged for longer.

Proving it works: Admittedly this is an issue now in the summer of 2008 (especially in the eyes of those unconverted customers) but with every successful project and (small scale) product comes better evidence of effectiveness. As that body of evidence grows and permeates into the wider learning and development consciousness then so does this particular challenge diminish. Plenty of organisations routinely ‘invest’ six and seven figure dollar sums in 1st generation eLearning on the basis that they know it is a proven way of disseminating information quickly, easily and cost-effectively. Those same organisations will willingly invest the same or even greater amounts on 2nd generation learning applications that foster subject mastery, deliver effective skills and knowledge transfer and help to breed expertise (as opposed to good fact recollection).

So where does the problem lie? What does need to happen in order to create a $100 million serious game best seller?

Well the clue is in the blog title. It will require sizeable, up-front investment of at least $1million and a lot of well-directed hard work. Drop me a line if you need my bank account number!

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My postings on this blog (and most of the talks I do) have a core theme of commercial pragmatism running through them. As the CEO and founder of such a company, one very practical issue that I and my colleagues frequently need to grapple with is project resourcing which is, in the main, about finding appropriately skilled people when you need them.

Most serious games (and I use that phrase loosely to include virtual world and immersive simulation developers as well) companies will be mostly or, indeed, totally based upon a work for hire model right now. Whilst many that I know are looking to develop internal IP (e.g. content, tools or technology) the reality is that most companies in this space are under capitalized and the market (customers) are still very much in a commissioning mode still.

Serious games/immersive sims (as opposed to simplistic edutainment or small mini games) are an order of magnitude more complex than your average eLearning project. They are very much software applications rather than online/multimedia content with a huge array of art assets (3D models, characters, audio, music etc), contain complex logic to cater for providing a variety of user choices/actions and meaningful effects (the interactivity) and will most probably be processing large quantities of data (think how much data an advanced business simulation deals with).

Working in this environment requires game, simulation, technical, instructional, narrative, graphic and multimedia skills and at an advanced level. It also requires strong subject matter/domain expertise, in-depth project management and a high level of client/partner liaison.

Projects tend to have long lead times (6 months is very typical) but when they fall into place my experience is that the developer is expected to be able to gear up in as little as two weeks and invariably all but the largest projects are expected to be completed in 3 to 4 months. That includes in-depth needs analysis, materials gathering, detailed game design, simulation modelling, technical design, UI design, content creation, art/asset generation, external systems integration, client approval/compliance reviews, QA, testing and deployment.

With all of this in mind, consider how easy (hint: or not!) it is for a small developer to rapidly hire/engage a team of, say, 15 people with the right skills, experience, team fit and crucially…availability.

In the Western world we have huge skills shortages particularly in IT. You can hire people quickly but at a price (e.g. £40,000 plus for a reasonably experienced Flash Programmer), use freelance talent (£300 plus per day for an Instructional Designer) or use agency staff (£500/day for programmers). These rates are unsustainable for a projects-based company as they kill the profit margins and hammer cashflow.

Our approach to date has been thus:

  1. Maintain a core internal team at our main office in Coventry that has a blend of all of the key high level skills (essentially the instructional, game, technical and creative conceptual design roles).
  2. Supplement this with niche skills with UK freelancers (e.g. 3D character artists)
  3. Utilise freelance Project Managers and Instructional Designers on a project by project basis
  4. Utilize offshore resources for the ‘nuts & bolts’ creative and development work

This ‘burstable’ model requires a high degree of internal discipline, multi-channel communication and rigorous project management as well as an anal level of internal systems and processes but if set up well is, in my opinion, the best way of tackling serious game resourcing at this stage of the market’s development.

I intend to look in more depth at the challenges around offshoring/outsourcing in another post shortly but I’d be intrigued to learn how others approach this challenge.

Jude Ower of Digital 2.0 ( www.digital2point0.com) sent me a link to a good article on the BBC site about the UK game industries skills needs. One issue it covers is around the apparent overabundance of game degree courses and the disparity between the course programmes (and focus areas) and the actual day to day needs of employers in the game industry.

I found this particularly interesting as we are involved with several universities in the UK, EU and US such as Coventry University, Warwick University, Huddersfield University and The University Of Michigan and, as CEO of PIXELearning, I am frequently asked to validate proposed courses, find placements for students or to partake in skills surveys.

There are very many games degrees courses in the UK but my perception is that most are simply nebulous amalgamations of existing course modules which are hastly thrown togther under the banner of ‘Computer Games Degree’ in a cynical attempt to attract students to the university in question.

Article link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7460870.stm

I have uploaded the presentation that I delivered in EDT08 (European Training & Development Summit) in Prague last week to SlideShare – widget below. A few transistions and alpha transparencies have suffered in the conversion process, but the core of the slides are OK – email me if you want an original.

VNU’s ‘Tech Talk’ (www.trainingmagevents.com) is one of the few email newsletters that I am subscribed to that I actually get around to reading these days. Today I broke my Tech Talk ‘virginity’ with an email response to the following post….

GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME

A reader is wondering what kind of games others are incorporating into their e-learning programs. “I’m looking for activities that break up the training a little bit, perhaps adding some levity where appropriate. But at the same time, these games should serve to reinforce the curriculum’s learning objectives. I’m looking for options that we could apply specifically to online delivery scenarios.”

Whilst this is a perfectly reasonable question to ask – especially if the poster is unfamiliar with what is happening in our cosily (still) niche serious virtual immersive games-based simulation worldsindustry (note: irony), I think this is the perfect example of where those of us that preach about the potential of serious games et al should be piping up to help move our learning and development colleagues forward.

Here is my response….

“The statement (e.g. “looking for activities that break up the training a little bit”) suggests that the assumption is that “the training” is, perhaps, somewhat tiresome to work through and that, therefore, a (fun) game element will serve as a refreshing interlude. Whilst this is by no means a bad thing, how about thinking about using ‘serious games’ (or immersive simulations) in a more central role within your learning strategy? “

“If your subject domain includes a describable environment, process, or system that can be simulated, and in which goal-orientated scenarios can be embedded, then games/sim are the missing bit of the training jigsaw for fostering true learner mastery. By all means use discreet, high-energy ‘frame games’ (e.g. the typical game show format) as motivational jolts, but don’t expect these alone to deliver a significant tangible impact.”

We can hold Serious Games and Virtual Worlds conferences and techfests for eternity, but it is genuine everyday needs like this that offer the best potential for establishing a sustainable beachhead in what is, lets face it, a skeptical and risk-averse mass audience still.

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