A Serious Look at Serious Gaming

Ryan Lesser delves into Autodesks Combustion 4 to see if the software is explosive or a wet firecracker.

The Serious Games Summit has moved from the sidelines to the spotlight. The annual gathering now attracts record crowds and substantial money.

The Serious Games Summit has moved from the sidelines to the spotlight. The annual gathering now attracts record crowds and substantial money.

Theres a lot of buzz around Serious Games, a term almost unknown a few years ago, but now a hot topic in the gaming and animation world. The Serious Games Summit used to be a sideshow at the Game Developers Conference, with only a few dozen attendees. Last year the Serious Games Summit had an overflow crowd at its inauguration as a separate show of its own, in the Washington, D.C. area. Serious Games last year had somewhere around $50-100 million in funding, which is, well, serious money. At a time when production of mainstream entertainment games is becoming increasingly costly (over $5 million per copy) and risky (less than 10% of games produced turn a real profit), many of the smaller studios are looking at Serious Games as a source of extra revenue.

Background

Serious Games are games used for other than entertainment purposes. Games in this context are usually physically similar to commercial videogames, playable on game consoles or PCs, and distinguished from the more elaborate simulators that the military uses. A typical military simulator for an M1A2 tank, for instance, costs around a million or so, and weighs a ton, which means its pretty hard to schlep it around. Networks of such simulators may be good for teaching classic warfare tactics such as shoot anything that moves, but they dont develop people-to-people skills much, and that is what the Army increasingly needs now, as menacing hordes of enemy tanks are harder and harder to come by, while incidents of clashes with people are occurring without letup. Suddenly the military is a major fan of videogame-style story-driven games, and is developing games such as Americas Army, which are actually showing users which people not to shoot. The military services and other government agencies are shopping around for Serious Games to perform a wide variety of tasks, including medical training, driving in convoys through hostile areas, language learning, working with law enforcement and firefighters (for homeland defense), getting ready to go to Boot Camp, and making unit leaders able to deal with people problems such as misunderstandings arising from cultural diversity.

Whereas the military was one of the first customers of Serious Games, it is being joined by a long line of users, including other government agencies (the State Department, the Intelligence Community, the Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the National Science Foundation and even the Agriculture Department), schools (both K-12 and universities) and Fortune 500 companies (for team building, leadership training, sales training and product education, among others).

BreakAway develops history games like Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom (left) and city environment games such as A Force More Powerful. © 2005 BreakAway Ltd. All rights reserved.

BreakAway develops history games like Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom (left) and city environment games such as A Force More Powerful. © 2005 BreakAway Ltd. All rights reserved.

There are three basic categories of Serious Games. The first type is games that have been developed from the ground up to be used for serious purposes only, such as Joint Force Employment, developed by Cornerstone for the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The challenge with such games is finding a large enough market to cover development costs. If the game is for government purposes this may not be a serious problem, as the government usually covers all development costs (with partial upfront payments) of games that it wants.

The second category is games developed for the entertainment market that happen to also be useful for serious applications, such as NovaLogics tank game, Armored Fist, an entertainment game with enough realism to let it be used for training commanders of armored units. A third category is hybrid games, which are either modified or developed from the outset to be released for both entertainment and serious markets, such as Close Combat Marines, a modification of the entertainment game Close Combat, from Atomic Games (now Destineer Studios).

There have been some crossover hits, such as Americas Army, which was developed for military purposes, but has become so popular internationally (with some 5 million online players) that it is coming out this summer on both the PS2 and Xbox.

A Gap in Gaming Application

Instructors dont know how to play games. Research sponsored by the British government shows that, while game based learning has tremendous potential, educators such as K-12 teachers tend not to be familiar with games or how to use them for instruction. (This should not come as a surprise when was the last time you saw a group of teachers fighting in the aisle of a videogame store over the last copy of Final Fantasy?) The research further demonstrated that instructors needed to be versed in gaming techniques in order to use gaming effectively in the classroom, and that such instruction of the teachers should be interactive and immersive in other words, the instructors could not get games by just reading about them. In short, easy-to-learn games oriented toward teachers seem to be desperately needed in order to enable Serious Games to reach their full potential in the field of education.

Using Game Engines

Because of time and funding constraints, Serious Games producers usually do not develop their own game engines (the basic software system that organizes the gaming data files and models, and moves the characters around in a particular way), since these can cost millions of dollars and take 4-5 years to generate and de-bug. Instead they lease existing game engines. There are many of these now on the market. If you want a first person perspective (where the camera view is directly through the eyes of the player), for instance, you could use the Half Life engine from Valve (this engine has been used for popular games such as Counter Strike), or the Unreal Tournament engine from Epic Games. The better game engines come with both a good SDK (Software Development Kit) and a user club website.

Second Life gives players a chance to create a new identity and life. © 2004 Linden Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

Second Life gives players a chance to create a new identity and life. © 2004 Linden Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sources of Funding

There are many possible sources of funding for Serious Games, including major corporations (especially those with large sales staffs) and the myriad of government agencies. A common way to get government support is to submit a proposal in response to an SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research project) or STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer program this typically involves working with a non-profit organization such as a university), which are administered by the Small Business Administration. For more details on SBIRs and STTRs, see www.sba.gov/sbir/indexsbir-sttr.html.

Another common way to get into Serious Games is in partnership with universities, which may already have ongoing sources of government funding, but which are not really skilled in creating games or productizing them for commercial markets.

Getting funding is an opportunity to be creative, to think outside of the Xbox, so to speak. For instance, you might be able to develop the same game for two or three different sources, such as creating a game about history for a museum, and then adapting that same basic game for history classes for the high school and college markets. You might develop an advergame to promote a companys new gismo, and then adapt that into a game for the mobile entertainment market (games for mobile applications such as cell phones are usually low cost, around $30K-$50K). Although such approaches might take some creative thinking and effort, they might still be more likely to result in greenlighting than pitching a $6 million game idea to Sony Online Entertainment these days.

Serious Game Companies

There are many dozens of companies with a variety of backgrounds producing Serious Games. Here is a sample.

Visual Purple (www.visualpurple.com) creates customized training and decision-making games for the military, the FBI and other agencies.

Take Back Illinois is an issue-oriented, political game that challenges participants to play through important topics for that state, such as medical malpractice reform, education and better participation by citizens. © 2005 Persuasive Ga

Take Back Illinois is an issue-oriented, political game that challenges participants to play through important topics for that state, such as medical malpractice reform, education and better participation by citizens. © 2005 Persuasive Ga

Persuasive Games (www.persuasivegames.com) produces online games for political information purposes, such as Take Back Illinois, which challenges players to play through important issues for that state such as medical malpractice reform, education, and better participation by citizens.

Linden Labs (www.secondlife.com) created a persistent 3D online world that supports a variety of experimental games for research and other applications. The company just raised $8 million in venture funding, bringing the total to $19.5 million; it sells virtual real estate in its world to some 20,000 inhabitants who subscribe for about $10 per month.

VSTEP (www.vstep.nl) is a Dutch company that produces Serious Games such as Fire Brigade Commander for First Responders and other markets.

BreakAway (www.breakawaygames.com) not only creates games for the government and commercial markets, but also generates game tools to help other companies with gaming and visualizations. An example is TRIX, which helps create city environments using satellite photos as input. The company also has a stable of interesting history games.

Inhance Digital Corp. (www.inhance.com) creates games and visualizations for large aerospace companies such as Boeing.

Wild Divine (www.wilddivine.com) is one of many companies with innovative games relating to medicine and health. Its popular game, The Journey to Wild Divine, incorporates biofeedback in order to get its players into advanced states of relaxation and meditation.

The military is a major fan of videogame-style, story-driven games, and is developing Americas Army, which shows users which people not to shoot. © U.S. Army.

The military is a major fan of videogame-style, story-driven games, and is developing Americas Army, which shows users which people not to shoot. © U.S. Army.

The Make a Wish Foundation (www.makewish.org) has a number of games, including Bens Game, which helps children with life-threatening illnesses such as cancer.

Zipland Interactive (www.ziplandinteractive.com) produced Earthquake in Zipland, which helps kids with divorced parents.

Summary

Serious Games offer a wide variety of applications, many of which do good and useful things for our fellow humans educate them, help them get healthier, or support them in getting happier and more relaxed. That may not bring the thrill of selling 10 million SKUs, but could bring deep pride and satisfaction to a new generation of game production companies.

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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