Taking Games Seriously at GDC

The 2009 Game Developers Conference started Monday with a focus on specialty videogames, such as mobile games, casual games and serious games (games used primarily for non-entertainment uses).

Several things emerged quickly: a) all three of these categories are growing; b) the market is shifting, with new types of consumer demand; c) other countries are getting more involved; and d) the barriers between these game types are softening, so that (for instance) it is perfectly possible to build a serious game that is both mobile (deliverable on a handset) and casual (i.e., easy to use and quick to play).

Serious games at the show included apps for training military and government officials (including CIA, DIA, DHS, FBI, etc.), supporting teamwork and executive decision-making for business, for exercise and meditation, to make political statements, to train medical practitioners, to provide therapy for patients and to teach academic subjects such as history, math and science. Serious games were estimated at about $2 billion for 2008, which translates to many thousands of jobs, a fact that may surprise many animators and game developers in the entertainment segment.

Although the genre may have huge potential, several presenters listed challenges to beware of. One problem is that sponsors of serious games often don’t understand game technology. This is in stark contrast to entertainment games, where publishers are usually game experts. Bob Bates, chairman of IGDA, and Lyn Gubser of Windwalker Corp. strongly recommended planning for very early prototypes to elicit feedback. They mentioned that half of early design assumptions might not wind up in the final product. This method, called rapid iterative development, is necessary for drawing out what customers really want, since they often can’t express it as a formal requirement. For government-funded games, a good source to check is the online Federal Business Opportunities (www.fbo.gov). Another recommendation was that companies entering this segment hire a marketing person that understands games, and can be dedicated to interfacing with customers.

Unfortunately, the serious games market is still fairly unorganized ‘ there are no large accumulators (such as Sony or EA in the entertainment sector) to promote a serious game across industries or continents. Developers may be interested in the approach of Purple Vision, a successful serious game company that has produced decision-aiding games for the DIA, DHS and similar agencies. Purple Vision teamed with BTS, a Swedish company that trains business managers in implementing change and improving profitability. Clients include Coca-Cola, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Sony and Vodafone, and span the globe.

Ed Heinbockel, founder and CEO of Purple Vision, said his company is providing games to help train middle managers to think strategically. He demonstrated a new 3D game that will be released soon, Winning in Wireless, which will be marketed with BTS.

‘In a sense, providing serious games resembles producing the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show,’ he said. ‘It had to appeal to two audiences, both kids and parents. An effective training game has to appeal to upper management (which sponsors it but does not understand videogames) and be satisfying and challenging for the end users (who often belong to the younger generation that has been playing games for years).’

To be able to hit both of these objectives, Heinbockel recommended a modular approach to game design, and that decisions be controlled by the design team and not just by codeheads. ‘Our programmers build tools (for the designers), not specialized software programs,’ he said. He also recommended an immersive experience for end users, to pull them out of normal distractions. ‘Modern managers are so busy they have CPA (continuous partial attention),’ he noted. He also suggested using the term ‘sim’ or ‘simulation’ for traditionally oriented CEOs, rather than ‘game,’ which might conjure up the wrong image.

Reducing the costs of creating games continues to be a priority, especially for the business sector, according to David Martz of Muzzy Lane Software. Muzzy Lane, which has created games for classrooms (American Dynasties and Making History for history, Cell Saver for biology) and business (Refresh: An Introduction to Marketing), also sells the Sandstone development environment to reduce costs and improve delivery of classroom games. Games for training K-12 and college classes have been slow to get adopted by teachers, although more and more parents are buying such games to help their kids in difficult subjects such as math or science.

A Serious Games Showcase featured a wide variety of games and toolsets, including Hilton Ultimate TeamPlay, for new hires to learn customer satisfaction at the hotel chain; Pamoja Mtaani by Warner Bros., to promote behavioral change for youth at risk; Elect Bilat, by USC-ICT, to teach students how to conduct meetings and negotiations in other cultural contexts; CoJACK, by AOS Group, an autonomous agent that can be used within military training games; Human Sim, by Virtual Heroes, a real-time physiology engine for health and medical games; Genomic Digital Lab, a discovery-based learning environment for biology; Thinking Worlds, by Caspian Learning, a 3-D authoring engine to help build instructional design into games; Lessons from Brain Age, by Carleton University, for memorizing passwords; AKRASIA, by MIT, to illustrate and experience abstract concepts such as addictive behavior; and WolfQuest, by Eduweb, to teach how wolves live and socialize.

Other countries are starting to develop serious games. RANJ of Holland has created some 200 games to improve training, recruitment, communication, and management. A recent game, Shark World, tosses a newly hired manager into the Singapore office, where he has to solve problems while figuring out what his predecessor did and what history exists at that branch.

Asked what he looks for in new employees, RANJ co-owner Gaf van Baalen said: ‘Versatility. It’s good to have a broad spectrum of styles. Flash experience in 2-D and 3-D is a real plus. It’s also important to be able to immerse yourself in the customer’s environment. For our medical game for kids with diabetes, that involves understanding what they need to learn ‘ about food, medication, and understanding the condition, all within a stimulating gaming context.’

A major opportunity for new developers is producing serious games for handhelds. ‘The iPhone has changed everything,’ said Neil Young, CEO of Ngmoco, which specializes in iPhone games. Whereas mobile games have been hamstrung in the past by the restrictions of telecoms, almost anyone can develop a game for the iPhone, which offers a decent display with online connectivity and WiFi, and is supported by Apple and its online and BAM stores. Whereas the iPhone may not have the resolution of a PC or PS3, it brings other advantages ‘ the customer can keep the phone always near and always on, and invite friends to join into a game for social interaction. Use of the iPhone’s built-in camera and location tracking will lead to whole new generations of location-based games that incorporate the physical location of the players into the gameplay.

If you attend the GDC, you’ll see an Intel booth that offers free energy drinks. You may want to visit it often ‘ you’ll need it to see all the booths and keep up with the creativity, enthusiasm and possibilities exhibited at this show.