Serious Games Squared

IMO, few things are as “newsworthy” as a major publisher declaring their real commitment to the pursuit of the serious game market — at least today, while declared publisher interest in serious games is still rare. And by “real commitment”, I mean more than just publishing another take on Brain Age. I was thrilled to attend Ichiro Otobe’s talk at GDC, a rough but relatively faithful transcript of which is copied below.

Background, for those who don’t know: Square Enix is developer/publisher of game franchises such as Final Fantasy, which has sold 75M units worldwide, and Dragon Quest, which has sold 41M units worldwide.

So why is Square Enix interested in serious games?

“Burden of new media” — games are affected by a generation gap. They are judged based on values appropriate to old media. For example, they are compared to books and movies and found lacking from a story perspective, but that’s not a fair comparison. Games should be judged by how they challenge your brain — not by how they compare (story-wise) to old media.

If we don’t expand games beyond the core market, we may find ourselves stuck in a niche, as opposed to becoming a mainstream medium. but we need active efforts to insure that we become mainstream.

So why do we (Square Enix) want to do serious games? Well, because then we can make games that are taken “seriously.”

Also, we can make money.

The “serious” comic book has elevated comic books in general to the status of mainstream media in Japan. The Himitsu (Secret) comic series by Gakken (1970s) told interesting, fact-based stories and sold over 20M copies. I learned many things from this kind of comic book. I learned Japanese history from comic books — my parents bought a 20 volume Japanese history comic book and I read it so many times I memorized it. If we push serious games in the same way, we can make games mainstream.

“Serious games” are already top sellers in Japan. Of the top 20 titles in Japan in 2006, you can call five of them “serious”. They are: two Brain Training games (7M units combined), English Training, Common Sense Training, and Cooking Navigation.

Serious games present many new challenges to developers:

  • The customer is totally different (they have little interest in games, in general). We’re used to selling to people who love games, which is true all over the world. Our new customers have very little in common with these existing customers.
  • The game design requires different skills. educational, medical, etc. Art design vs. “exploration” design — i.e. encouraging the customer to do whatever it is that stimulates their mind.
  • Different business models
  • Internal politics: for example, our serious game needs to compete internally with final fantasy for attention.

Our approach to these challenges:

  • SG Lab — we partner with pros in the education space
    • JV established in 2006 with Gakken, a publisher which has strengths in education and an extensive networks with schools, libraries, etc. Gakken, again, is the company that helped turn comic books “serious” in Japan. SG Lab is focusing on BtoB (again, schools, libraries).
    • Gakken created a comic book, on behalf of the toiletry industry, that explained the importance of tooth-brushing and distributed it in schools. We’re following a similar model.
  • Project GB — teach what we are good at… i.e. how to make games! Project GB is a serious game on the Nintendo DS that will communicate the fun of game development.
    • Game development involves many useful skills: programming, graphic design, music composing, writing, etc.
    • Many people choose to make a game when they are first learning programming — it’s just a natural outlet for that skill.
    • Project GB lowers the hurdles to successful serious game development. We’re targeting the same customer we always do. We know how to train people in game development because we have to train our employees. And the business model is known (straightforward Nintendo DS game), and same for internal politics (i.e. “we’re just making a regular DS game.”)

(At this point, a version of Project GB was demo’d. The demo showed, for example, how the player would be taught to understand the RGB color scheme and quickly pick the color he/she wanted on the fly.)

What are the challenges of serious game design?

  • No cheating allowed
  • We need to inspire user creativity instead of tell a story
  • We need to avoid creating a completely open simulator; there needs to be a clear educational path from beginner to expert

Bottom line: learning is fun! Serious games should not be thought of as a “sugarcoat” for something bitter — they should communicate the fun of learning more effectively.

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