Let’s say you’re considering building a serious game. Perhaps it’s a simple game-based learning (GBL) cross-platform app, an augmented reality (AR) mobile app, a PC-based game in 2D, a virtual reality (VR) training simulation, or perhaps some combination of these. You may be wondering where to start. Who should build it?

Ultimately, you must choose between four categories of educational game developers, each with very different business models. Your choices include:

  1. Educational game development companies
  2. Universities and studios associated with universities
  3. Indie game developers
  4. In-house development teams

This article explores the pros and cons of each to help you decide which option is best for your needs and budget.

1. Educational game development firms

Educational game development companies focus on developing educational games for clients using different mediums, platforms, and devices. They’re often very good at what they do. In addition to developers and artists, they may have eLearning professionals, instructional designers, and game designers on staff. You provide the domain expertise and the learning objectives, and they’ll work with you to build a high-quality game experience that perfectly meets your needs in a reasonable time frame.

It’s a small market, as there are only a few dozen of these companies to choose from. Filament Games and Schell Games are good examples. Depending on the scope and complexity, projects can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but if you’ve got the budget, educational game development firms are well-worth it.

2. Universities and studios associated with universities

Many universities have game development labs or even whole game development departments. While their services aren’t always advertised, these labs sometimes accept contract work from outside clients. Occasionally, universities will even spin out a for-profit studio that may remain loosely affiliated with the lab. For example, Triseum, a for-profit GBL studio led by André Thomas, grew out of LIVE Lab at Texas A&M.

These studios tend to produce excellent work, often backed by strong research and a focus on efficacy. Project prices can vary, depending on whether they employ grad students or full-time professionals. They may not always have the capacity to build a game right away, and they might not be geared or staffed to design your exact kind of project. Also, depending on the school’s control over the studio, working with them can potentially be a bureaucratic process.

3. Indie game developers

There are thousands or even tens of thousands of independent (“indie”) game developer companies. These companies usually focus on building one or two entertainment video games at a time. Their business model is highly cyclical, and they’re often willing to take on contract work to pay the bills, such as building games and experiences for corporate clients. Similarly, individual game developers sometimes take on additional “side hustle” work as independent contractors, though individuals’ skill levels vary widely. Some multimedia (e.g., mobile app, animation, VR, AR) development studios also accept contracts to build serious games and training simulations, and if you can find a good one, the work tends to be high quality and relatively fast.

Indie game developers are often very talented, but they’re not likely to keep any eLearning experts, instructional designers, or other learning professionals on staff. Thus, they’ll contract them and/or work closely with a client’s staff, as needed.

This option can be more affordable than the others in this list, but projects may take longer and the quality of the instructional design may be lacking. Even so, indie game developers can be a good option for small serious game projects if you already know exactly what you want and just need someone to build it for you.

4. In-house development teams

Instead of looking outside your organization, you can build your own team internally. In-house teams are great if you plan to build multiple, large, and/or ongoing serious game projects. The cost structure and unit economics for this strategy will be different from the earlier options. Instead of one large, upfront fee paid to an outside developer to build your game, the bulk of your projects’ costs will be monthly overhead in the form of salaries. This can be cheaper and more effective over the long run, especially as your portfolio of games may need periodic updating and debugging. The key is attracting and developing talented but hard-to-find people who have both domain experience in your industry and serious game development skills.

Many larger organizations opt to build serious games and training simulations in house. For example, large architecture, engineering, and construction firms have begun hiring in-house Unity game engine developers who also have building design or construction industry experience. These developers create detailed 2D and VR simulations of building projects, which serve multiple purposes ranging from project design to marketing to L&D.

All four of these options allow you to test your project on learners and then make modifications based on the feedback. However, it will be easier, faster, and more cost-effective to test, iterate, and retest with an in-house game development team.

How to decide which is the best fit for you

Each of these business models fits different needs. As you plan your serious game or training simulation project, you have a lot to think through before deciding which category of game developer to pursue. You’ll want to consider such questions as:

  • Do you have multiple projects planned?
  • How big and complex are they?
  • Do you already know exactly what you want to build, or will you need help planning it out and designing it?
  • Do you already have or could you find designers or developers on staff who can design and build your projects, or who can at least help an outside firm with the design phase?
  • If considering an outside team, what serious game projects has the company built?
  • What is your budget?
  • Would you rather spend a lot upfront, or a little bit monthly on an ongoing basis?
  • How quickly will you need your project/s finished?

As you answer these questions, your strategy will become clear, and you can begin contacting outside game developers for quotes or building your own in-house team.

Let us know in the comments below which of these categories you’ve used or plan to use to build a serious game, and why. How did it go?