Wednesday, August 24, 2011
DigiPen was just within walking distance of the place I was staying. The first morning, I took the route of the cars but, the second day, I found a pedestrian/bike path following the course of a mid-sized stream. I had my mobile breakfast(banana and yogurt) on the way, topping it off with a couple wild blackberries growing by the path.
Day Two of the conference began with a plenary panel addressing another important business decision: choice of platform. Clark Aldrich introduced the panelists and each gave a brief presentation of their work and related research.
Alicia Sanchez of Czarina Games and the Defense Acquisition University presented first. She outlined a value creation model for serious games which identified the intersection of mobile, social, and real-time gameplay as the sweet spot for attracting investors.
She spoke about a game by the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab. Super Nutrition is a browser-based game combining elements of resource management and RPG mechanics and content about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Children take the role of super-heroes-in-training, eating healthy foods for energy and completing missions in the neighborhood and superhero academy. The game targets kids 9-12 year old. I liked the artwork. Purposefully distorted proportions and errant pen marks give it the feel of a flash-back from a manga cartoon (which is what cartoons taught me memories look like).
The presentation by Sam Adkins, Chief Research Officer of Ambient Insight, was packed with assertions about dominant and emerging platforms. I will go through my highlights and refer you to the presentation slides.
Sam’s first point was that the adoption of the iPad was largely limited to a few specific demographics, despite the common perception that the iPad is “spreading like wildfire” and would, by virtue of penetration, come to dominate the delivery of educational content.
He listed several platforms that he saw sticking around for the near future. Personal computers are “not going anywhere” and will remain a fixture of the home, school, and workplace(though the market for packaged edugames is still in mobile). He declared that “within 60 days, every major mobile browser on the market will support HTML5” but Flash and its offspring will remain in wide use. Additionally, consoles and handheld gaming devices will not be pushed out by tablets and smartphones.
Laure Casalini is the Dean of Supinfocom, a school for animation, game design, and industrial design. She stayed right on topic. Serious games targeting developing countries must be mobile. Mobile is the number one platform of emerging markets. Tablets are dominating for the very young and very old, the older demographic for the larger text size and the younger for the intuitive interfaces. Motion capture has huge possibilities and look for the continued rise of serious games on the Wii, Kinect, and PS Move. Finally, the television offers increasing possibilities for interactivity and is present in virtually every American household and has penetrated most markets throughout the world.
Also on the panel was Nick Berry, President of Data Genetics, a data analysis consultancy.
The first question addressed by the panel was implied in the session title and one that everyone hoped they would get a hard answer to: what platform should I use? And, of course, the answer was that it depends. Nick suggested that you use whatever language and tools your team was most comfortable with. Sam put forth that developers of custom-made titles are making their money on non-mobile platforms but you really needed to do your research and know your market. Alicia echoed the sentiment and instructed not to develop on platforms that the target market was not already using. Laure suggested that developers use the game engine Unity because it is cross-platform and accessible with limited programming experience (they also offer a pretty good publishing deal).
The talk shifted to problems of distribution. Many people related issues with getting games adopted by school systems. Mobile devices were touted as the answer. However, Sam Adkins pointed out that making a mobile game and putting it in the app market was a not a sure path to success. While the profits in the mobile games industry have been huge, the top ten publishers are seeing the vast majority earnings. Most smaller mobile game developers are making little.
I was so impressed by the info in the opening presentations of Sam Adkins and Tyson Greer that I decided to attend Sam’s own talk, “The U.S. Game-Based Learning Market: All Roads Lead to Mobile.” Much of the information presented in this talk was broached earlier.
Ambient Insight analyzes the market for learning technologies according to their own taxonomy. The products, buyers, and suppliers are each broken down into segments. There are eight types of pedagogically-defined learning products, two of which are simulation-based learning and game-based learning. Both segments are growing though simulations are already larger and growing twice as fast as games. Simulations will reach $2.48 billion by 2015 and games will reach 413.2 million. The games segment can be further split into custom content development services and packaged content (this is making a game for somebody else versus making your own and selling it). While packaged content will remain a much larger share of the market, custom content development is growing twice as fast at 21.4% as opposed to 10.2%. Custom development concentrated in non-mobile and this will continue into 2015 though mobile is growing more quickly.
A chilling statistic for those seeking to sell games to a public education system, 75% of the budget is commonly teacher/trainer salaries while only 1-2% is reserved for instructional materials.
After so much business talk, I was ready to get back to the development perspective so I headed over to hear Talib Hussain of Raytheon BBN Technologies talk about “Techniques for Achieving an Effective Blend Between Engagement and Learning in Games.”
I am sure that everyone at the conference had been waiting for this talk. By the title, it seemed that this guy would give a step-by-step explanation for the art of instructional game design. Unfortunately, he did not offer up the recipe for the perfect game but there were some helpful suggestions.
Make every decision taking both learning and engagement into account. Further, keep the game simple. It is important to consider the total cognitive load of every moment of gameplay. That includes the intrinsic load of content as well as the load imposed by the game. Extraneous game elements can overburden the player.
During lunch, I sat with with one of the few people younger than me at the conference and his mother. He was an undergraduate at George Mason University and considering DigiPen for a graduate degree in game design. I am pretty sure they were the only multi-generational delegation at the conference. He was also the least invested in the idea of serious games and made some interesting counter-culture remarks.
After lunch, I went to listen to Jeremy Friedberg, the founder of Spongelab Interactive. In the “lab,” entitled “Play the Science: ‘Experiencing Science by Having Fun with Games,’” Jeremy allowed volunteers to play several of his company’s titles and talked about a couple more. My hand was first up for a Guitar Hero-style game about protein linking. The use of those mechanics for the content was an exciting concept and was reasonably well implemented. However, as one who has been acquainted with guitar controller for a while, the tempo and variability of “notes” of the game were a little too easy to maintain my engagement. I would be interested to see how the game is received by younger children.
The History of Biology is an “interactive, online science scavenger hunt where students experience the history of biology, through the people and the impact their discoveries had on, and continues to have on, our culture, society, politics, economics, and ethics.” It was not a game that can be demoed in five minutes so we did not get to play.
The last talk of my day was given by David Versaw of WILL Interactive. It was a presentation of several of his company’s projects entitled “The Lost (But Critical) Art of Storytelling in Serious Gaming.” They custom develop interactive, choose-your-own-adventure(remember Goosebumps?) instructional videos. The experience is designed to stimulate empathy for the character in the drama. That emotion is purposed to to engage the player and promote retention of content.
The first was made for Fannie Mae called Ways Home. It is an interactive video about financial management and foreclosure. The player selects a character and scenario analogous their situation and tries to work through the dilemmas in a choose-your-own-adventure format. The High Ground was produced for the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic. You play the role of a officers making difficult decisions in combat and training. The Fumble also confronts ethical dilemmas, this time for student athlete’s navigating classic issues of role conflict.
We were even fed dinner that night. I dined on multi-topping pizzas and fine juices with an assortment of interesting individuals. Tariq Lacy, an employee of Nintendo and former employee of Apple, is interested in language learning games, specifically for Mandarin. He was well-spoken and full of ideas. Nelleke van Wouwe is a researcher with TNO Defence, Security and Safety, based in the Netherlands. With the Department of Human Performance, she is studying the potential of games to train physiological control. Her organization entered a game which uses biofeedback. Sensors attached to three fingers measure the variability of heart rate and surface moisture and one must complete tasks by staying calm. I also met two members of a local audio engineering firm, Omni Audio. They have worked on titles such as Tom Clancy’s End War and Halo 2.
After dinner, the hopefuls and onlookers filed into the computer lab to for the awards ceremony of the competition. Zachtronics Industries scored a silver with SpaceChem as did, one of my favorites, Fate of the World by Red Redemption. Among the gold winners was Gamestar Mechanic by E-Line Media and the Institute of Play. This game was developed at New York City’s own, Quest to Learn. With a team of developers, a whole school of play testers, and high profile funding and publishing, Quest to Learn should be putting out a number of learning products
The award for Best of Show went to Air Medic Sky One, developed in the Netherlands at the University Medical Center Utrecht. The game teaches young doctors about patient safety while also engaging the player in exercises using the same biofeedback system I described above.
During the presentation of awards, I got the chance to play one of these biofeedback games. I played TNO’s entry and tried to keep my cool so my helicopter would lower nice and steady to a landing pad. I am sorry to say that I was awful at the game! My heart rate was through the roof and hands were apparently drenched in sweat. I tried restarting, rubbing my hands of on my pants and thinking about Mom’s kitchen, but it was no use. I could blame it on all sorts of extenuating circumstances but maybe I just shouldn’t be flying multimillion dollar aircraft.
Like the night before, they eventually kicked me out and I made my way home. As much as I enjoyed my host’s company, I was perfectly okay to find him away when I got back. I hit the pillow hard.