By Kevin Corti, CEO PIXELearning, November 2006 

Serious Games – to use the rapidly emerging term for the application of computer game and simulation approaches to training and education – is a market space that is currently at the early stages of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle (TALC) but one that is gaining momentum at a pace that often takes even those of us that are in it by surprise. My motivation for penning this article is to attempt to summarise the stages that vendors in this space (and for that matter our clients) are working through to encourage others in both the supply and demand space. It takes, after all, a critical mass to build an enduring industry that is sustainable and which can really push the boundaries of what is possible.  I have drawn mainly upon personal and anecdotal experience and I do not operate under the pretence of creating herein a body of work that will stand up to significant academic rigour. I hope, though, to both stimulate further thought and to help others to rationalise the current state of this fledgling industry. Just to be clear: I have deliberately limited the scope of this article to the application of digital games and simulations to adult training and personal development in the public and private sectors. I am, of course, aware of the tremendous level of activity that is propelling the application of Serious Games within the military and medical sectors.  That is not, however, my area of experience so I’ll leave discussion about market development in these areas to others better qualified than I. 

In ‘Crossing the Chasm’[i], Geoffrey Moore described six stages of market development or, more accurately, six types of ‘customer adopter types’ which he categorised by their willingness to purchase technology products at a certain point in the life cycle of those products. I lack sufficient (formal) grounding in such weighty matters as to add genuine new thought to these concepts. I can, however, relate the observations that my own company and others have made and are still making as this infant industry struggles to reach adolescence. Herein (below) is my humble attempt at doing this.  

Stage 0: “We can do this better” People from inside the game industry and many from outside it take a long hard look at the way that technologies are being applied to training and education. They conclude that the videogame industry is, in the main, extremely good at captivating an audience that can quite easily choose to go do something else and spend their money on something else. They then compare that to eLearning, CBT and edutainment and realise that there lies an industry that has a captive audience – employees and students generally have to take the course whether they want to or not – but which is serving up a diatribe of extremely dull, linear and pretty ineffective boreware. Said individual thus hand in the resignations, cash in their pension funds and obtain second mortgages on the family home and excitedly start up a Games-based Learning or Serious games venture.  

Stage 1: “Doh! Referring to ‘games’ is getting us nowhere!” ‘Work for hire’ studios, boxed product vendors and technology providers alike all realise  – hopefully fairly quickly – that using terms such as ‘game’, ‘play’ and ‘fun’  leads to many a slammed door (both virtually and physically)  in the great halls of the blue chip/Fortune 1000 company training department. Before 2002 there were very few companies that were brave enough (or should that be stupid enough?) to pitch innovative learning technology solutions ‘where your staff can play games, have fun and be, like, engaged dude’.  Terms such as ‘Interactive, experiential, goal-based, learning pedagogies with a constructivist foundation that fit all learning styles’ were manifest as GBL providers sought a protocol that they could use to establish effective dialogue with potential customers. 

Key takeaway: The investment that you have made spending nocturnal hours mastering WoW, Doom, Sim City and the Unreal editor will be of no commercial value to you until you can relate the central characteristics and capabilities of computer games to mundane (but important) organisational needs in a terminology that the customer understands. You are in foreign lands now so learn to speak the language!

  Stage 2: “Sales meetings with the super-impressed interns” Vendors/studios start to receive numerous unsolicited ‘sales enquiries’, get very excited, create terrifically impressive revenue forecasts and spend an inordinate amount of time on a series of ‘opportunities’ characterised by complex sales cycles that never end. This stage is where we start to reap the initial benefits of our networking, PR and unrelenting self-belief. The trouble is it has a tendency to lead companies down numerous blind alleys that contain only ‘techno junkies’ who have possess seemingly endless enthusiasm and time but who also have a correspondingly low ability to place orders or commission projects.  Vendors take comfort that the message is at least finding some reception within their target private and public sector organisations but realise, after much frustration, that getting to the senior decision makers is going to take something extra. 

Key takeaway: The reason that you cannot close the deal is, well….because there is no deal to be had. There is a kind of person in every large organisation (particularly universities I find) that takes delight in being associated with and/or becoming knowledgeable about COOL STUFF just in case it actually ends up working so that they can do the whole ‘I told you so’ thing to their peers. These wannabe gurus will suck up your valuable time, give you false confidence and just damn well get in the way of developing a proper business. If you detect a wannabe guru ask then straight out whether they are someone that can secure budget in the next three months. If they offer anything other than a solidly convincing ‘Yes!’ then move on.

   Stage 3: “Finally, they’re starting to get it” After going through much introspection (not to mention numerous rounds of proof-of-concepts, marketing material re-prints, web site refurbs and several sales/marketing personnel) vendors finally manage to identify a select number of qualified and, at least, semi-senior customer contacts. Both vendor and potential customer are starting to get to grips with each other’s quirky languages leading to novel conversations and where terms like ‘real time physics engines’ and ‘end-user compliance issues’ coexist awkwardly in some surreal Douglas Coplandesque setting. Vendors have learned that they must get customers to articulate their organisational needs in an optimistic attempt to be able to define something tangible that they can bid for. The problem is that the customer’s people really struggle to grips with this and, after wasting many months searching on Amazon for “The Dummies Guide to Commissioning Serious Games Solutions for Corporate Governance” they finally furnish the crest-fallen vendor with the classic “Maybe in a year’s time” email.  

Key takeaway: The customer contact has to take a mighty personal career risk to sign off a budget at this point no matter how convinced he/she is in the potential of Serious Games. Most will not be willing to make the jump at this point (even though it is also a massive opportunity for them to make a mark for themselves). Patience and reflective perseverance are in order.

  Stage 4: The penny drops…the trouble is that is also the budget! Suddenly the Serious Game vendor is inundated with RFPs, invitations to tender and phone messages declaring that customer X “has budget and needs a proposal by last Tuesday”. The vendor does their (now studiedly prudent) probability calculations and realises that with so little competition in the market place and so many opportunities that even a 10% success rate is going to start to look pretty impressive. That is, however, before they are able to quantify the tiny budgets, ridiculous feature requirements and highly compressed timeframes mentioned (or not) on page 187 of the Ts and Cs of the boilerplate RFP. Vendors (and lets not forget to praise the now well-renowned ‘industry gurus as well here) have done a remarkable job of hyping…sorry…raising awareness of the business benefits of Serious Games and now it seems that everybody and his dog wants one.  But before you start trebling your headcount wait a moment.  Unfortunately the vast bulk of customers will not have had the privilege of working on a Serious Game project before and consequently they will fall back on their trusty eLearning commissioning survival guide.  This ‘handy publication’ preaches the following vital tenets: 

  • eLearning is linear content (text and pretty pictures)
  • eLearning content can be rapidly developed in a RAD/WYSIWYG tool
  • eLearning content development can be outsourced to Mumbai for 1920’s prices
  • eLearning developers in Mumbai work 47 hours a day, 9 days per week
  • eLearning developers in Mumbai possess the power to read customer’s minds and never say no
  • eLearning developers in Mumbai will assign IP to their customers and the content will conform to all interoperability and accessibility standards known to man.

 Despite all of the above points being actually true – how on earth do those guys pay the bills? – they are of no use to the Serious Games vendor who knows very well that games development is a complex, time-consuming and, often, very iterative process. It is a very different thing indeed to its eLearning cousin four times removed that it has encountered only once previously at a drunken wedding in 1994.  Serious Games companies will struggle to make the software applications meet full standards compliance (repeat after me…it is not ‘content’) and will live and die by their ability to retain and reuse IP over the code that they write. There is a saying in software sales circles that goes along the lines of: “Quick, good and cheap – pick two” referring to, for example, the extremely low likelihood of a low cost, rapidly hacked out software application being any use to the end-user.  That ‘softwarian’ law, which is reasonably well appreciated in other areas of business, has yet to penetrate the corporate Serious Games space where it is very common to receive an RFP that upon initial estimation requires 9 months for development and at least $150k but which actually allows 2 months (including Christmas and beta testing) and for which the budget is $20k. 

Key takeaway: The customer now pretty much believes in games as a tool to enhance their training initiatives. They don’t yet know how to cost, spec and commission a Serous Game project. Take note! The customer is NOT wrong, they are simply in need of………education. Believe in your offering and be prepared to walk away (politely) if the project constraints are too painful. If the project does indeed go pear-shaped then chances are that the customer will recall your professional advice – which they choose not to take the first time round – and realise that this Serious Games malarkey is not quite as easy to implement as eLearning. You will thus become the trusted expert and a preferred supplier.

  Stage 5:  Woohoo…we’ve got ourselves a big name case study! The Serious Games market WILL explode. We haven’t even got to create a market really as it already exists. Apparently, according to ‘a big market analyst’ the corporate training market and eLearning market are already worth 18.9 zillion dollars per annum!  Whatever the actual figure may be, Serious Games vendors can take confidence in the fact that they don’t have to cultivate a market from scratch. They ‘simply’ need to persuade customers to repurpose some of it. Before that can happen though, this industry needs to have generated enough verifiable evidence to prove the case to the mass market out there. We’re talking efficacy here. We need to demonstrate that Project X actually saved the client significant money and had no down side. We need to be able to show that by using a Serious Game, client Y significantly improved the effectiveness of their core business processes. We need to illustrate how a Serious Game implementation led directly to a marked increase in profitability for customer Z. When the industry as a whole cracks this stage then we will all be driving around in uncomfortable Italian sports cars and getting to actually spend time with our kids but the evidence suggests that this is not yet the case.

[i] Moore, G. A. (1991) Crossing the Chasm, HarperBusiness, New York