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!