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Serious Games Conference: A Booming Business

Christopher Harz gets serious about the booming business of serious games, reporting back on the highlight of the Serious Games Summit.

The Serious Games Summit, a part of the Game Developers Conference, offered keynotes and multiple tracks for game design, the business of games and learning theory. 

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) this year had an adjunct, the Serious Games Summit (SGS), co-located at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center, on the two days before the main GDC started. The SGS had keynotes and multiple tracks for game design, the business of games and learning theory, in keeping with its challenging mission of blending the fun of gameplay and the seriousness of using games to teach. The record crowd was an interesting combination of government and business executives in dark suits, university professors in pullovers and game developers in black T-shirts with skeletons and skulls on them.

The business category of Serious Games, though much smaller than its entertainment games cousin, is obviously booming. Serious Games, which first found use for military learners, are now being produced for a whole panoply of applications, including medical students learning surgery, lawyers practicing court procedures, firefighters encountering hazardous materials, Navy personnel trying to keep aircraft carrier decks in order and pharmaceutical salesmen trying to explain products with tongue-twister names. Hundreds of companies are springing up in the U.S. and Asia to meet growing demand and major schools are starting classes to train game producers, animators and writers to specialize in the many new applications that are arising almost weekly.

The following is small a sample of the many presentations, themes, producers and games that were discussed at this year's Serious Games Summit at the GDC.

One of the most interesting presentations was "The Future of Collective Play," by Jane McGonigal, who was part of the I Love Bees creative team at 42 Ent., and now works for the San Francisco Bay Area's Institute of the Future. I Love Bees was a huge success for the new game category of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), using the website to lure hundreds of thousands of players to the viral game, which involved delivering clues via pay phones and other multimedia outlets worldwide. Online cooperative communities formed almost overnight to solve a series of puzzles, which then led to other clues and further puzzles, somewhat like the movie The Da Vinci Code, and, like that move, involved moving around in geographical areas. The game contributed materially to the game it was created to promote, Microsoft's Halo 2, which exceeded $100 million in its opening weekend. McGonigal was both a designer and played the role of an in-game ethnographer, spending numerous hours as a virtual prisoner in her (real-life) apartment, listening in to the communities that formed online and sending feedback from the players back to the game designers, who had to keep creating new content because the player communities solved puzzles much more quickly than anyone had expected. McGonigal earned a PhD from UC Berkeley for her pioneering ethnographic study of the strange world of gamers, somewhat like Jane Goodall did for her immersion in the strange world of primates.

I Love Bees was a huge success for the new game category of ARGs which used a website to lure hundreds of thousands of players to the viral game. © 2007 Microsoft Corp.; © 2007 42 Ent. Llc.

"I design games from the future," said McGonigal in her keynote. She has become expert in the development of collective intelligence, or CI, sometimes termed crowd-sourcing, which describes the collaboration of very large numbers of people, each of which may have only a small part of the overall picture but contributes to the whole. Examples of CI in addition to I Love Bees are Wikipedia and Google Image Tagging; there are many examples of CI in the animal kingdom, including, of course, beehives. CI characteristics include massive multi-user environments, social data gathering and analysis, and creative, often unexpected results. McGonigal referenced two other experts in the field, Dr. Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, and Vernor Vinge, who penned Rainbow's End, both of whom argued that humans would increasingly use CI to solve problems in the future. Jenkins believes it should be taught in schools.

ARGs can be incredibly complex and sophisticated, McGonigal noted. The I Love Bees community split into three groups, each of which had a different hypothesis about what the first clues, consisting of series of numbers, meant. Each formed a message board and gathered data. Eventually one group figured out that the numbers were GPS coordinates for pay phones, which in turn provided other clues. Remarkably, players that came to erroneous conclusions did not feel discouraged. "The game was very inclusive," McGonigal stated. "Every player felt that he or she had played a part." The design process of I Love Bees was very different from that of conventional games. "Usually there is a formal line between the designers and the users of a game," she said. In contrast, this design team interacted very tightly with the player community, even re-designing parts of the game to incorporate elements that emerged during game play, such as a wiki created by the players.

One of the most popular high end game engines is Epic's Unreal engine from the Unreal Tournament series of games (above). Virtual Heroes has extended the Unreal engine into the Unreal3 Advanced Learning Technology system. © Midway.

McGonigal believes ARGs can be employed both to teach people how to solve problems in real life and to produce useful outcomes. She enjoined the audience to check out World Without Oil, which releases April 30, 2007. Other groups are now looking to use ARGs to support product releases. For instance, Microsoft launched The Vanishing Point, an online global cross-media puzzle game, to celebrate the release of Vista, its new Operating System. More than 100,000 players registered for the game, which placed clues in world landmarks such as San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and Singapore's Victoria Theater.

One of the things that makes a Serious Game different from an entertainment game is the budget: a Serious Game will typically have a budget of around $1 million, whereas a PS3 game these days can easily reach a $10 million level. This means that Serious Game producers have to re-use a lot of assets that some other group created, especially middleware such as game engines, the software that supports how characters move around in an environment, how they and the terrain are rendered and interact, etc. There are a number of game engines available and the choice of which is best is always a hot topic at every Serious Games conference.

One of the most popular high-end game engines is Epic's Unreal engine from the Unreal Tournament series of games, which has been used for such Serious Games as America's Army, Tactical Iraqi and Hazmat: Hotzone. A company named Virtual Heroes has significantly extended the Unreal engine into the Unreal3 Advanced Learning Technology system, which is now a complete game development framework, with content creation tools and support infrastructure. Prices start around $40K and can go around 10 times that.

A less costly alternative is SIGMA, from Muzzy Lane, which is especially targeted for the education market. "We decided to build a new platform from the ground up that has integrated assessment, is affordable and is designed for K-16 education from the start," said Dave McCool, company founder and president. Another engine is mosbe from BreakAway Ltd., which is one of the major producers in the Serious Games space, and which has decided to focus on middleware for other game producers. mosbe is a PC-based desktop development studio that has been designed to be easier to use than most of its competitors, so that even small companies can create educational games with it. "BreakAway will become a game platform company, more than a game development business," said Doug Whatley, BreakAway's president. "That's where we see the largest opportunity in the Serious Games space."

BreakAway is one of the largest and most successful producers of educational games. It creates commercial entertainment games as well as Serious Games, believing that a product mix of the two under one roof is beneficial. Its serious products include 24 Blue, a 3rd person action simulation of Navy personnel aboard the chaotic flight deck of an aircraft carrier, trying to keep things under control; A Force More Powerful, a political game created for the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict that teachers players how to organize and carry out non-violent protests; Virtual Training Bank, which challenges auditors to uncover bank theft by following clues along the money trail; Incident Commander, which teaches incident management to public safety officers in situations such as severe storm recovery, chemical spills and bomb attacks; Pulse!!, which teaches medical professionals to practice clinical skills with patients in a virtual hospital; Free Dive!, which leads children who are undergoing painful medical treatments in real life into an engaging underworld environment full of fish and treasure; and Code Orange, which trains teams of medical personnel to respond to catastrophic events.

The field of Serious Games is growing both in number and in scope, and funding is now available from many corporate sources, as well as government and military organizations. This field is one that animators and others interested in getting into the gaming field should seriously consider, since the number of possible applications -- and the opportunity to get started -- appear to be much greater than is the case with high-end entertainment games. Check out the organization's website which has many leads to conferences, specialty organizations, schools and jobs in this field.

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.