At Designing Digitally, Inc. we’ve developed serious games and simulated learning experiences for over a decade and in that time we’ve had some successes and some failures in many capacities. We would like to share our lessons learned and the challenges involved in team development of serious games. (For example, sales training in Figure 1.) We hope this will help you start off on the right foot when you decide to begin your own game development effort.

Figure 1: Sales skills are a perfect application for serious games

First and foremost: team member attitude!

The key thing that has helped us to be very successful in developing online training solutions for clients is the willingness of each team member to adapt and change. Technology and skills are important, but team efforts will not succeed unless team members leave their egos at the door. A collaborative group dynamic makes a huge difference. This enables the work to move forward as the members think through processes together. When everyone does this, the results are amazing—even award winning!

It takes a team with skills to build a good serious game

The level of sophistication that it takes to develop a serious game goes beyond using television game shows as a model. Those models do provide good mechanics if your aim is only to drop in content or as a format for course reviews, but they are “so 1990s” as approaches to eLearning. Developing serious games requires stepping up your game (if you’ll pardon the pun) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A serious game will require achievement feedback that is more sophisticated than a simple leader board

In our experience, the best way to create serious games is to assemble a team made up of:

  • Video-game developers
  • 2-D and 3-D graphic artists and animators
  • Interactive media developers
  • Web programmers and designers
  • Instructional designers and copywriters (who are gamers at heart)
  • Educational specialists and subject matter experts
  • Quality-assurance testers

Then you lock them in a large studio together with no sharp objects. This collaboration between different types of people from very different backgrounds allows for a very creative workspace and extremely creative learning experience outcomes.

The most important people in the room (apart from the learners)

Now that we have a team together to spearhead the development, we must talk about the client team. It often seems that clients feel that if they throw money at these efforts it will be a huge success. Too bad it’s not that simple.

We found that if you do not treat a serious game as a plant that needs consistent nurturing and watering by an internal client champion you will not get the ROI you would like to see from your venture. This is very true with any adaptation of new approaches or technologies.

The client team comprises a subject matter expert (SME), and a project champion (PC), plus a target audience group for testing purposes. These are critical players at the organization who must be available throughout the experience. You must find out how many hours the client can allocate to this effort; all of the members of the client team already have at least a 40-hour workweek, and this is an additional task on their to-do lists. That means you will frequently be low on their list of priorities, but that does not change the client’s expectation that you are going to provide a home run with your “field of dreams” serious game. Be careful of this, and make sure the client takes this type of approach as more “serious” and less “game.”

Game development phase by phase

The first priority for the game-development team from beginning to end is to work hand-in-hand with the client—this is critical. The development team must be able to open lines of communication (and keep them open) so the client team feels free and safe to talk about pain points, issues, and problems at their organization.

Phase One: Research

Your goal in the research phase is to identify the actual problem the game is to solve or the behavior or skill the game is to produce, not the perceived one. Do this by interviewing the audience members on the client team, and by doing a detailed needs analysis. What you are aiming to do as a team is find out why the problem exists, and what is affecting the behavior of the client’s staff. The development team and the client team can then develop concept ideas and solutions that focus on the appropriate audience and the actual need.

Phase Two: The design document (where it gets real)

With the need clearly understood, the next step is to prepare a detailed design document. This specifies the game mechanics, game loops, infrastructure, technology used, and learner themes that support the learning content and the audience.

Serious games put so much focus on the gaming aspect. However, no matter how you shake it, you need the learner to learn something, and you have to put it in their face throughout the game experience. The goal of having the game developer and instructional designer work together in this phase is to ensure you effectively mix the game mechanics with content, while still asking everyone this question: “How does this aid in learning?” If there is not a quick answer for that concept, and possible theme for this serious game, you may want to try a new approach.

Phase Three: Technology decisions

Once the dust has settled from the epic research and analysis we determine the technology used to create the serious game. Most of the time this technology determination takes place during the research and analysis phase, but I am going to discuss this separately because it’s so very important to the limitations of your mechanics.

Clients often want to ensure that the learning experience works within specific technology or bandwidth restrictions, while still expecting something that is far beyond the technology capacity of their infrastructure. The development team must ensure that the technology for the serious game fits the client’s infrastructure, supports the client’s technology, software, and hardware, and will continue to fit and evolve as the company evolves. Make sure you spend time analyzing the technologies that can be implemented without upsetting the IT department.

That moment when your assumptions come around and bite you

In our years of experience we have come to understand that, once you develop storyboards, agree on the game mechanics, and approve the storylines, there are breakdowns in communication due to assumptions.

Assumptions can be a good thing and a bad thing in serious game development. Many times an instructional designer may have a vision. Maybe it’s clear, maybe it’s not, and until the designer can get their hands on it they may not even know themselves. A programmer may think they know exactly what the ID is thinking, but until they have something that both parties can grasp with their five senses, they don’t really know what they have. So prototyping, sketching, and walkthroughs are just as vital internally as they are with the client or end user. This means the instructional designers, the game developers, artists, and project managers must be actively involved in each and every step within the project to ensure that the vision from each person is brought to the table and fully understood. Otherwise your execution will not meet the expectations of your client, and may not grab the interest of the target audience.

Phase Four: Test and fix and test again

One of the biggest secrets is to make sure you allocate enough time for testing. While creating a linear eLearning module is what our industry is very used to making, those types of learning experiences do not necessarily need ongoing nourishment like a serious game does. You can stick the eLearning module on the shelf and tell people to go take it online. That’s not really the case for a serious game. The development team must have time to test both internally and then within the client’s location(s). Testing should take as much time as the original development took.

Mutual understanding and … marketing!

Your job as the development team is to make sure you and your client fully understand what this serious game really is. With a serious game there has to be constant nurturing of this experience and, as stated above, an internal champion promoting it to staff. Above all, there has to be a compelling reason why people want to play this learning experience. That means you need make sure that you have effectively understood the audience and that you have marketed this effort internally.

Don’t forget to market! Throughout the years we have found that many organizations focus on the serious game development. However, there is so much more than just the bells and whistles to think about. Clients sometimes believe that if you build a serious game, it’s going to be so popular you will change the way the company learns. This is called the field of dreams mentality, and it has failed in our industry many times over. There is a mindset that if we build an addictive serious game, they will come play.

If you truly want your serious game to be a success, it doesn’t matter how many game developers and instructional designers created it, you must have an integrated marketing plan to constantly provide intrinsic and extrinsic incentive to your employees for it to succeed.

And there’s still more

I hope this fast management-oriented overview of the team requirements and the process for serious game development has been helpful to you. There is truly much more to learn about game design and development: technical details, techniques, mechanics, modeling, and graphics, just to name a few specifics. There are many venues in which to learn about these matters; The eLearning Guild’s events and Learning Solutions Magazine will have much more to say about them in coming months. But the foundation of your success is the team that you build and the collaborative group dynamics that develop between the members.