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Serious Games, Take Two

Christopher Harz attended the second Serious Games Summit and found an odd mix of enthusiastic game designers, uniformed Army personnel and game producers trying to bring everyone together.

As seen in Gator Six, not all serious games are CG-based. © Will Interactive.

As seen in Gator Six, not all serious games are CG-based. © Will Interactive.

The second annual Serious Games Summit was again held in the Washington, D.C. area (Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2005), and was as surreal as ever, with an odd blend of enthusiastic game designers, uniformed Army personnel and game producers trying to overcome their cultural differences and bring it all together. What started out as an adjunct to the larger Game Developers Conference (the GDC, usually held in San Jose, California) has taken on a life of its own, with SRO crowds and multiple tracks covering learning games for the educational, government, health, military, corporate, first responder and science markets.

Demand is Growing

The market for Serious Games (also called edugames) continues to grow, and may now be double the level of last year, when an estimated $100 million of such games were developed. Serious Games typically lack the budgets of entertainment games, so edugame producers usually do not develop their own game engines (which can cost upwards of $5 million and 3-5 years of time), but, instead, lease popular game engines such as Unreal, Doom, Quake, Half-Life, Far Cry, Gamebryo, Stalker and Titan for game play. Serious Games are made for a fraction of the cost and time of games for the entertainment market, with budgets in the range of $400,000-$1 million being typical, and a development time of perhaps a year.

However, budgets for certain applications seem to be increasing. Were seeing some Serious Games being budgeted in the $10 million range, and above, said Douglas Whatley, the ceo of BreakAway Ltd., one of the major producers for this market.

A real star of the Serious Games arena is Americas Army, which started out as an advergame, to publicize the U.S. Army and help its recruiting drive, but has become so wildly popular (over six million registered players!) that it is now being used for actual training for the military, including giving new Army recruits some basic training before they hit base camp. It is also being used to evaluate new military concepts players are observed training in new weapons such as the BDM (Bunker Defeating Munition) in order to evaluate whether these new weapon systems should actually be developed and fielded.

Americas Army is always a top draw at serious game events. © Americas Army 2005.

Americas Army is always a top draw at serious game events. © Americas Army 2005.

The Americas Army team, which developed the original game for about $8 million, continues to add play levels and fresh content to the game (at a reputed budget totaling around $10 million per year). The team has actually split into three parts, with one continuing on with the original game, another developing specific training for the Army, and a third starting to adapt the gaming environment for other parts of the US government. The game is coming out this on the Xbox and PlayStation platforms, and other licensing opportunities are being investigated. It is available for free download at www.americasarmy.com.

Major care is taken to assure that Army standards and values prevail in the game, and that Americas Army does not turn into the wild shoot-at-anything-that-moves game that is typical of First Person Shooter (FPS) games in the entertainment field, according to Colonel Casey Wardynski, the games program manager, whose presentation at the conference was to a packed house. The basic Americas Army game itself is up for a major upgrade, and will be switching to the Unreal 3 game engine in 2006.

The dramatic presentation of Hazmat HotZone was a highlight of the event. Hazmat HotZone © 2002-2005, Entertainment Technology Center and Carnegie Mellon University. All rights reserved.

The dramatic presentation of Hazmat HotZone was a highlight of the event. Hazmat HotZone © 2002-2005, Entertainment Technology Center and Carnegie Mellon University. All rights reserved.

In general, the most successful applications of Serious Games appear to be for the military, with additional strong interest from other branches of government such as NASA, DARPA, the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. The Army was a major backer of the Serious Games Conference. Military students are used to using simulators of tanks, helicopters, and individual weapons to learn with, especially in areas where shooting from real systems such as helicopters might be too hazardous or expensive.

Such simulators tend to be costly, however, at around a million dollars each, and are so bulky that they are usually limited to military classrooms in U.S. locations such as Fort Knox (for armor), Fort Benning (for mobile infantry) or Fort Rucker (for helicopters). Edugames, on the other hand, can be delivered via laptops or even handheld platforms, which can be taken to and used in the field. Because of this, the military (especially the Army) is in the market for purchasing a wide range of such games, for teaching languages, for decision making in combat situations, and for learning leadership and weapons usage.

Some edugame markets have shown more success than others. Applications for military and government games have really taken off, and the medical and first responder fields are showing healthy growth. Results in the academic area have been more anemic. There has been a huge interest in games for civilian classrooms, for instance, but not very many games have actually been used for teaching by K12 teachers or university professors.

The challenge here seems to be cultural as much as anything else teachers are used to having it their way, like the popular hamburger chain promotes, with each teacher having his or her own blend of books and other instructional material. Many seem to hope that they can get the same level of customization in edugames, and fail to realize that no type of game can be developed (at this point in time) for a market of 100 or so total students. It appears that educators will have to become more willing to compromise and band together to form a market that can realistically support the costs of an edugame (around the $500K region).

The only alternative is that games will have to be developed that allow easy customization by educators, so that each teacher can tweak a game for a particular classroom. Since both of these alternatives seem to be some years distant, it appears that the actual purchase and use of edugames for your local high school to interactively teach math, geography or history will be ardently discussed, but will not actually happen. It appears that parents will have to purchase such games on their own, to use after school lets out. This is a pity, because studies at the University of Washington and elsewhere have shown that students learn and remember subjects such as math and science much more quickly and enthusiastically using videogames than by poring through traditional textbooks, which tend to be long, boring, and extremely non-interactive.

From Hazmat HotZone, citizens emerge from the subway after an attack has taken place.

From Hazmat HotZone, citizens emerge from the subway after an attack has taken place.

A Serious Game for First Responders

One of the most powerful sessions at the Serious Games Conference was for an edugame for firefighters, Hazmat HotZone. Ten New York City firefighters showed up in front of the Standing Room Only room to demonstrate the game, including two chiefs, two captains and a lieutenant (an instructor) from the NYFD Training Academy, all of them in full uniform that was really dramatic.

It was sad to hear the chief say that they really needed training now more than ever, because their management ranks were so decimated on 9/11. It was inspiring to see how much they reacted to the game, how much they got into it and wanted to learn.The first time guys get into an emergency, they get kinda hysterical, noted the instructor. One of the roles of the game is to get them used to working under pressure. Weve found that the success of a mission gets decided in the first 2-3 minutes.

A NYFD team went through a whole session, from getting an incident ticket that listed a suspected gas release in a New York subway station, through entering the station and putting on masks, determining that it probably was gas, and calling a Hazmat team in and evacuating sick civilians from the station, with a debriefing afterwards.

The firemen used their hand radio sets to communicate, talking to each other and a chauffeur who stands at the doorway and relays messages to the other units.Four victims down but not out.Everybody, mask up (put on gas masks)10-4 (I understand).4-4 (the Manhattan unit) suspects 10-80 (a Hazmat incident), call Hazmat battalion.10-4.Green gas is low lying, suspect chlorine.Set up decon (decontamination unit, at street level).10-4. Hazmat battalion is 10-84 (has arrived on scene).

At the end, the instructor debriefed the team. Why did you suspect gas? Where did you look? Then he gently asked, the leader, What sounds did you hear? The team captain began, Well, I heard the other guys, and an announcement over the speakers, and OHMYGOD! There was an incoming train! I forgot to call Port Authority to stop the trains! He hung his head sheepishly, and said, Im sorry, this was my first time. Thats OK, Cap, the others said, We learn something new every time we go through this.

When asked what he had learned that surprised him, the Captain noted, It was how we have to take care of the new guys, the major roles they have. In the replays, we saw how they all had to make decisions, and how we had to be there for them.

The game, created by Carnegie Mellon University, has some design compromises. There were places that we had to make the interface simpler, noted the instructor. Some things didnt matter, like whether there were turnstiles. But our guys objected to how clean the subway was we asked CMU to put in some virtual trash so it would feel realistic.

You could feel the tension in the room as the team went through the exercise this was a far more compelling form of learning than reading through a lot of books. The lieutenant noted, The crews used to fall asleep at all the PowerPoints in the Hazmat classes, but now they ask for extra time to repeat the game again! You could tell how emotional this game is and that the leader of this training exercise would never, ever again, forget to call to stop the incoming trains.

Weve lost a lot of guys since 9/11, said the instructor. Learning with this game will save lives.

Shanna Tellerman represented the Carnegie Mellon team that created the firefighter training game. The edugame is at www.projecthazmat.org. CMU hopes to distribute it nationwide with the help of animators from each city that will customize the game to include local streets, buildings and landmarks.

Screenshots from netSTRIKE, a CGI-based intelligence fusion simulation for the Department of Defense. © Breakaway Ltd.

Screenshots from netSTRIKE, a CGI-based intelligence fusion simulation for the Department of Defense. © Breakaway Ltd.

Serious Game Producers

One of the most successful companies in this area is BreakAway Ltd. (www.breakawaygames.com), of Hunt Valley, Maryland, which produces both serious and entertainment games. This strategy seems to have worked well for BreakAway, which has grown some 500% in revenues over the past five years, and now has around 100 animators and other game-related talent at its offices. Having a steady slate of both types of games keeps our production staff excited and motivated, noted CEO Whatley. Having both types of games could also help balance out the pros and cons of the two types of gaming.

Serious games tend to have good cash flow (the government pays up front) and easy DRM (Digital Rights Management), as the government usually lets the developer keep all rights, but there are often delays in greenlighting various phases of such a game, as sponsors unfamiliar with gaming try to figure out whether they are getting the results they wanted. Entertainment games, on the other hand, can have downright awful cash flow (back end payments may only trickle in after games start selling in stores), but review and approval cycles are typically much faster.

BreakAway products include netSTRIKE, a CGI-based intelligence fusion simulation for the Department of Defense, Virtual Convoy Trainer, which trains soldiers the quirks of driving through war zones in the Middle East, and Incident Commander, which teaches first responders how to manage incidents resulting from either natural or man-made disasters.

Not all Serious Games are CGI-based. Will Interactive (www.willinteractive.com) has created a series of games that incorporates a live video clips students from the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Justice (DoJ), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interact with crisis situations filmed with live actors, and see the consequences of their choices with variable outcomes.

Second Life is not really a game, but a virtual world where almost anything can happen. © Linden Labs.

Second Life is not really a game, but a virtual world where almost anything can happen. © Linden Labs.

Linden Labs (www.secondlife.com) did a presentation on its popular 3D animated world, Second Life. Although Second Life is not a game in itself it is properly called a persistent world it lends itself to the easy creation of many types of games, and many of its members are gamers or educators. Membership in Second Life is free (the company makes its revenue by selling virtual real estate within the game, from small amounts of acreage on which you can build a house to large estates or even entire islands. Because this world allows the buying and selling of virtual goods, it has created interesting careers for some animators, who are creating virtual objects (e.g., clothing, cars, boats, jewelry, houses, apartments, swimming pools, furniture, you name it) or animation cycles (e.g., fancy dance moves, precise personal moves such as typing on a laptop or writing with a pen, different facial expressions) on a part-time or full-time basis.

I have met a number of animators or graphic artists who are making healthy livings ($70,000 per year and above) doing so, opening up stores and shopping malls in SL (Second Life), to which the residents come to shop. Although SL gives each new member a basic set of clothing and movements, these get old really fast, and then its time to go shopping for something new and cool. There are also some interesting new toolsets being developed by the residents, including the 3D graphic equivalents of blogs and wikis. One group of neighbors are using a 3D wiki to design a city park, which is then slated to be actually built in the RL (Real Life). Several members are working on an area that enables collaboration with a 3D sandbox, moving around people and objects around to help visualize different plans and scenarios.

Since this type of tool does not yet have a name, I hereby propose the term MuWiki (Multimedia Wiki) for it. You heard it here first, folks. All in all, Second Life is a fascinating environment populated by often creative and colorful members some 80,000 of them (the company expects to reach the million-member mark within a few years).

Epic Games (www.epicgames.com) is another major company in this space, and provides many of the core technologies for Serious Game developers, including the popular Unreal gaming engine, with its superb SDK (Software Development Kit).

Other Conferences

In addition to the Serious Games Conference, there are other meetings springing up that deal with specialized fields. One example is the Games for Change Conference, which promotes games for the social good, such as finding non-violent solutions for international political problems. Another is the Games for Health Conference, which covers both games for patients (e.g., for relaxation, therapeutic exercises, help in dealing with chronic pain, or teaching healthy living habits) and games for health care providers (e.g., training for surgery, for emergency medical response, and for managing surgical teams).

The Education Arcade: Games in Education Conference specializes in games for classroom teaching, and is usually held in association with the E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo); other education-related expos are Games in Education, the Virtual U Workshop, and the Games, Learning and Society Conference. All of these meetings are great for meeting sponsors and game producers, and for sniffing out where animation and other game production jobs and other opportunities are.

Summary

The Serious Games field is expanding in many directions. Companies in the field are actively looking for animation and related talent something useful to know in a time when many studios are cutting back on graphics professionals for conventional applications such as film and TV work, and the entertainment gaming industry is increasingly dominated by low-risk sequels and film-related games instead of anything new and creative. The easiest way to get acquainted with the growing community of Serious Game developers is to visit one of their conferences. Although the vocabulary of some of the applications may be strange (as in the New York firefighter game, above), if you speak basic gaming or animation, and do so enthusiastically, you already have all the vocabulary you will need to make friends and get accepted.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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