What Can Farmville Teach Educational Game Developers?

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Zynga built the social gaming industry around what used to be an overlooked demographic: middle-age females. Now it hopes to repeat its success in another sector where many big game companies have fallen: education.

In October 2012, Zynga.org's Executive Director, Ken Weber, reached out to NewSchools Venture Fund to explore how the two could collaborate to build games for learning. NewSchools CEO Ted Mitchell saw a fit: "A lot of learning research we've seen point to the importance of grit and persistence. And we thought the gaming industry is ripe to tackle this problem." This past May, the two officially announced a partnership for a learning games accelerator, now formally called co.lab.

At last night's kickoff event, the first cohort of five companies--Motion Math, Pluto Media, Kidaptive, LocoMotive Labs, Edmodo--showed off game apps that tackle math, music literacy, early childhood development and special needs development, respectively. Edmodo plans to be the distribution channel for these games into schools. "We want to be what Facebook was for Zynga," said Edmodo Marketing VP, Ketan Kothari.

The evening began with a bold statement from Zynga CEO, Mark Pincus: "I hope these startups can create a viable industry for learning games."

It's easier said than done. Numerous media companies in the 90's have tried--and failed--to establish a foothold in what was then called the "edutainment" industry, as outlined in a report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, "What in the World Happened to Carmen Sandiego?"

Esteban Sosnik, Executive Director of co.lab, is well aware of the challenges. "There's a two-fold problem [for entrepreneurs in this space]. Your games has to be as fun as Candy Crush Saga, since that's what they will be compared to. And it has to deliver real learning value."

Zynga's wizardry with Big Data analytics is well-documented; it's the backbone of their success. Zynga employees will leverage this expertise to help co.lab companies on different aspects of product development, from game design and user engagement to business plans and monetization. A month into the program, co.lab company founders say they've learned valuable lessons on very specific data problems, such as how to measure different ROI on new game features and calculate the lifetime value of customers.

With Edmodo, Sosnik says the Zynga will share lessons learned from "all the pain points and hiccups that it encountered when working with Facebook."

NewSchools will bring entrepreneurs to its network schools where kids and teachers can playtest the games. It will also help them navigate the complexities of selling to schools and regulatory issues like COPPA laws.

The five-month program runs from September through January. Co.lab offers free space for cohort members along with weekly office hours and speaker sessions with industry experts. It will begin accepting applications for the second cohort next month. Participating companies will each receive a stipend between $25K to $50K in exchange for a "nominal amount of equity."

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