Thursday, November 02, 2006

D.C. Serious Game Summit

The RL Cliffordb Hightower, Deap Tweak, and Jason Mowder were fortunate enough to go to the Serious Games Conference in Washington D.C. this past month. Here were a few of the notes I gleamed from the conference, for those who are interested.

Notes from the SGDCC in Washington ‘06

Successful Games

  • Modern game project groups usually contain around 70 people. Be prepared to hire big teams of diverse talent if you want to have the next WoW.
  • Typical successful MMORGing budgets are approaching 50 million. WoW had an initial budget of around 100 million. Be prepared to have to spend or raise large amounts of money to create a blockbuster game.
  • Successful games teams consist of a wide variety of talents including game designers, programmers, artist, project managers, etc… These groups all have different cultures and often don’t communicate well with each other. Teams that produce successful games learn how to work together to overcome these communication and cultural challenges.
  • Distribution is hard. Better to partner with a professional distribution house then go it alone.

Interesting Facts

  • Traditional entertainment like movies causes the body to relax, get comfortable, and brain patterns begin to resemble sleeping. Game play causes accelerated arousal, more intense brain patterns, and more engaged body postures. Do people learn more when they are passively or actively engaged? That wasn’t addressed but I can bet what the answer most of the time is.
  • Experiments have been done that show that gamers will use different parts of the brain if they believe that they are interacting with a “bot” or a person. Even simple things like a game where a player has to follow a ball around show that if the player believes the ball is controlled by another person the areas of the brain that typically light up during social interaction will show increased activity. Where if the player believes the ball is controlled by the computer, even though the ball moves in the exact same pattern, the areas of the brain that control social interaction will show minimal activity.
  • The more a game resembles real life visually, the more areas of the brain that are associated with social interactions will become active.
  • Professional distribution houses are constantly looking for quality commercial and educational games to distribute. They also have money. Black Board is looking hard for games to distribute to k-12.

Game Design

  • Games typically follow a pattern of players performing actions and receiving immediate feedback. This is “interactivity”.
  • Games typically have short term and long term goals. These long term goals are almost like chapters in a book. Most of the plot lines and rewards are given to players as they complete these long term goals. Completion of these long term goals give players a sense of accomplishment and reward, which encourages them to pursue the next set of game goals.
  • The short term goals are really breaking down the long term goal into manageable chunks so as to not overwhelm players.
  • Assume the right levels of gamer fidelity. Don’t assume that they should know background things that they may not, don’t plow them with information that they already know.

What Keeps Users Engaged

  • Player ownership of assets in game worlds tends to keep them around longer.
    Social interactivity and grouping keeps players engaged. But you can’t do this with a heavy hand (see below).
  • The range of engagement of players is key. If players are over-challenged, they get frustrated and quit. If the challenge gets to easy players get bored. Also the challenges must very. The more variance, the more stimulation.
  • Unfortunately the more primitive the challenges are, the more stimulated players become. The more gamers “kill” the more exciting each kill becomes vs. the longer players meaninglessly wonder around the less stimulated they become.
  • Obviously a good storyline and a well built out game environment are necessary for success.
  • Having players involved in creating or being a part of the story line keep players engaged as well.
  • Players tend to like good 2.5D or 2D graphics over crappy 3D graphics.
  • Just-in-time instruction is very useful. Players often want to get immediately into the game, and limiting the “meta” information they receive about how to play the game to just what they need to know at a given time often keeps the game flowing and more engaging to users. Many newer games integrate game tutorials into the initial plot line of the game.
    “Cheating” can be a useful tool in enhancing the players experience in the game. It is no accident that almost all modern games have cheat codes built into them. Also almost all modern games have extensive information about how to solve the games either online or in professionally published hint books. There are many different reasons why people “cheat” and the level in which they “cheat” at, but allowing some degree of “cheating” in the game can help less experienced gamers to get unstuck, allow gamers to “fast forward” past game spots that might otherwise cause them to get bored and drop the game, or to give players an entirely new dimensions of game play which keeps them engaged.
  • Games with too much cheating and obvious exploits quickly caused players to become frustrated and leave the game (a warning to Second Life).
  • There are different personality types in gaming. Some included killers, achievers, socializers, builders, explorers, etc… A good MMORPG will try to keep each player type engaged.
  • “Think outside the box…or rather think outside the game.” Don’t overlook tools outside of the game itself to make the game a success. Give gamers internet web sites, discussion boards, bling, toys, etc.. To give gamers the full emersion that they desire, even if those items end up not making to much money in and of themselves. This acts as an “emersion multiplier”.
  • You would think this would be obvious, but it isn’t. Good games research and know their audience and are constantly adapting to meet the gaming needs of their audiences.

Notes on Grouping And Socializing

  • Grouping is hard. There is something called the Halloween Effect (from the movie Halloween and the time period where trick or treating almost stopped because of an almost irrational fear people had of children getting poisoned candy). Some gamers expect their fellow gamers to really be serial killers and psychopaths. Thus there is usually some resistance to socializing and grouping within a game.
  • Because of the Halloween Effect if you get to heavy handed in trying to engineer social interactions as being necessary in games, users may drop the game. Yet at the same time grouping and social tools are one of the main sources of enjoyment for gamers once they get over their initial mistrust of their fellow gamers. So a well designed game will foster grouping and social interaction without appearing to force it on the game’s players.

Serious Game Design

  • Interestingly, game design and instructional design are very similar. Instructional design and game design are all about stimulating an audience in such a way that they learn something. Various inputs, scenarios, information, etc…are all presented to that audience in an engineered way to get that audience to learn something. Gamers try to teach users how to do something that enables them to participate in some game play that they enjoy. Instruction designers try to teach students an academic concept. Different goals, similar if not the same methodology. If you realize this, it is easier to design serious games, as you are really designing educational materials using newer technology.
  • Games must be designed to meet specific academic goals. Many school systems have standardized testing requirements that they must focus their curriculum towards. The more a game can demonstrate a direct correlation to helping the students achieve higher standardized test scores, the easier it will be to convince the “gate keepers” in schools or colleges to adopt the game.
  • Many schools have equipment that is several years behind the bleeding edge. Your system specs for your games must be reasonable.
  • The amount of time players will be able to spend on your games is limited in an educational environment. Class time constraints must be considered.
    Games must be considered in their educational context. Games must show that they both have or can be included in a larger educational framework. You must do work outside of the game including creating lesson plans that provide and educational context for the game and how it should be used, pre and post assessments, perhaps provide additional community tools where players and teachers can discuss the game, etc… Be sure to think outside the game.
  • In serious games, as with commercial entertainment games, you must research and know your audience and strive to meet there needs. With serious games you might have multiple audiences. One audience that must approve and continue to approve the use of a game in an academic environment, the students audience that must enjoy and accept the game, the teacher audience that will have to administer the game, etc… Each audience must be made happy for the game to be successful.
  • For selling serious games within your organization, it is proven over and over again that this is much easier to do if you if you can “convert” a local champion within the specific business or academic unit you are trying to have adopt your game.
  • Be careful about appearing “too sexy” in the beginning. It only encourages scope creep as your customer’s imaginations will run wild with the possibilities. Reveal what you need to in order to keep customer interest, but no more, else you will continuously make more work for yourself.
  • Again, this might appear to be obvious, but it is not. Subject matter experts must be included in creating the game. Without them it is really hard for game designers to wing it and meet the stated academic goals of the game.
  • Pre and Post assessments are critical. You must demonstrate that a game actually helped students learn. You build the greatest game learning tool in the world but if there is no way of proving it your game will not be adopted.

Books that Were Referenced in the Conference

  • Synthetic Worlds
  • The Attention Economy
  • Got Game
  • The Future of Work
  • The Media Equation

Selected Contacts

We met a bunch of people, many of whom expressed a desire to collaborate with us in some capacity if we are interested. Here are a few.


Helen ? Helen’s group does a lot in the UK with educational games in secondary schools. Her experiences and research are worth looking into. and


Byron Reeves
Leighton Read

These two guys have a company called that is trying to build tools that exploit the psychological plumbing of game play to make business applications more engaging to next generation workers. They demonstrated an interesting beta tool that uses money to manage email glut. Each employee is given a certain amount of influence money that they are allowed to spend on emails. They try to buy other employee’s attention with the “serioso” currency by attaching so many bucks to each email in order to bribe the recipient to open it. The way currency is spent is tracked, which reveals a lot of interesting details about which employees are respected by their peers, which are not, who receives the most information, who is the key to actually reaching others, etc..

Chung-Ang University in Korea

Jong-Hyan Wi
Eun-Sok Won

These guys impressed me because like Helen in England because they made efforts to do research and assessments to show that games do in fact help people learn. Some of their work in the k-12 and the college levels are impressive. They are also spear heading the adoption of serious games in Japan, China, and many other Asian countries. They hope develop a global serious gaming initiative soon and seemed to be very open to our involvement if we wished to be involved. A back door for UoP into Asia?


Mike Nelson

According to Mike, IBM has about 250 people exploring Second Life in some capacity right now. Some internal job titles include “metaverse evangelist”. Mike might be a good person to contact if we plan to roll hard with Second Life.

Technologies to Check Out

Vastparks appeared to be a scalable Second Life clone that let you run your own server that in theory could support up to 1000 concurrent users.

Emergent Technologies

Tim Page

Emergent is behind the gamebryo game engine that has been used for games such as Oblivion, Civilization 4 , and other awesome games. He said a commercial license cost 150k, but because we are a University we would probably get a huge discount on that. If we do want to build our own multiverse, this engine is definitely one to check out.

Cryptic Studios

Jack Emmert

Jack’s company created the second largest North American MMO, City of Hero’s. He is an academic at heart, and might be open to collaborating on making us the next Second Life.


Post a Comment

<< Home