How Game Developers Choose Between Consumer, K-12 Markets

How Game Developers Choose Between Consumer, K-12 Markets


The use of tablets in schools continues to grow and the differences between games for the classroom and games parents buy for kids continue to shrink. But still, learning game developers need to clearly choose a primary market. They must decide--dive into the App Store fully or aim for adoption in the school market?

The choice should not be made lightly and fundamentally changes the game developer’s plans, from design through the business model.

Filament Games has decided to focus on schools, saying that decision was a bet on the long play.

“In the consumer world, within two weeks you will know whether you have a hit and within six months no one will remember the game. The educational world you may not know whether you have a hit for two years, but then you will have people buying that game for 10-15 years,” said CEO Lee Wilson, adding: "The consumer market is a hill of fast dollars and in the school market it is more a mountain of slow nickels."

Wilson stressed that he believed with the exception of Scholastic, no firms have truly succeeded in appealing to both markets, but some new players in the field hope to do just that.

Trip Hawkins knows the fast world of consumer games Wilson is talking about. Hawkins is a veteran of the video game wars, having started Electronic Arts and having developed Madden NFL and other top titles.

Now, Hawkins aims to use games to teach social and emotional intelligence and he wants a product that will work in both school and home.

“If…” has what could be one of most creative business strategies we have come across in the last year of reporting. It comes down to using Wilson’s fast hill of dollars to invest in what the company needs to climb the mountain of nickels.

“We initially make our debut on the consumer side so that we can then develop that market first and have customers fund our continuing R&D,” Hawkins said.

“Certainly a school is going to have more functional requirements, for example they are going to want to have a more sophisticated teacher management system. They are going to want a lot more accounts per device, and they are probably going to want to have more explicit data about student choices that is available to the teacher,” he added. “So there is a more advanced feature set that we are going to have to work our way towards, but the other thing is we are going to want to be more confident about the learning measurements.”

But for every firm like “If…” there are as many like Pixowl, a savvy group of developers within the co.lab accelerator that explored the school market and decided not to take the plunge.

Pixowl co-founder and COO Sébastien Borget said the firm went into the accelerator intending to build a version of its world builder game, The Sandbox, for schools.

They started testing the game in a couple Bay Area schools in California and were pleased with what they found, saying they “did not need the teacher [professional development] exercises to show them how the game would work in a lesson,” Borget said. "We had this vision of having more teachers using it, but as it turns out I think this was a little bit too ambitious of a vision compared to the constraints of that market and all the preparations it requires in terms of documents, curriculum alignment, training, writing lesson plans and all that.

But that didn’t fix the larger market problem.

“NewSchools Venture Fund was explaining the market is growing, but it is still a small part of the pie to be shared between a hundred or a thousand entrepreneurs, and most of the millions of dollars being spent are going to a small number of companies like Pearson,” he said.

“So if you do your pure mathematics, you say, ‘Hmmm, I’m doing all that and at best, if I am the first app in the App Store I may make $100,000,’ but it is growing and it is sustainable revenue.”

The Case Against Schools

Still, there are companies out there successfully building games for the classroom. But that is not easy. Developers in this space were quick to highlight some critical limitations they face in creating games for the formal education market.

First, there is the time. Game play in the classroom tends to be a short-term affair. PowerPlay, makers of the Math Planet games, found that time spent playing a game during a lesson tended to be between 10 and 15 minutes.

Over at iCivics, a suite of government and citizenship games that boasts more than 10 million game plays, Executive Director Louise Dubé stressed, “The whole industry of educational gaming still needs to capture more classroom time,” adding they are constantly working to be more than an supplemental activity in the classroom.

Then there is business math of building a game for a single grade versus selling to the rest of the world, developers like Toca Boca and Pixowl have found.

Toca Boca CEO Björn Jeffery visibly shuddered when considering what it would take to make his app company work for schools.

“If we were to take on education and do it that way, partly we would lose all our international business. That’s number one. We sell in 160 countries and I am a quarter Norwegian, a quarter Swedish and half English living in America. Trying to figure out the American educational system and realizing that even from state to state there are differences. It’s very complex,” he said.

So let’s say you are willing to forego the global market and focus on schools, there are still challenges at the technology and user levels.

On the technology front, schools have radically different systems in place.

As Muzzy Lane’s Dave McCool explained, “In our view, we are making curriculum software for schools so the platform, the software structure, the compatibility and usability issues are every bit as big as the game design… You need to be web delivered. You need to integrate to web-based learning management systems and assessment.”

And even the mighty Google stressed the need to make technology completely fuss-free if it were going to work in class.

“If it becomes slightly cumbersome in a school, it becomes impossible. At Google we’ll all futz with our technology for a few minutes in a meeting to get something to work...We’ll take five minutes to make something work. We all live with it. Teachers won’t live with it,” Rick Borovoy, product lead for Google Play for Education, said.

Still, there is hope.

Recent reports have highlighted the need to expand the real-world lessons and applications of skills that games are often perfectly suited to the use of games and, according to experts, games continue to solidify themselves as a more core tool in education.

“The culture around digital games is growing to encompass a substantial proportion of the world’s population, with the age of the average gamer increasing every year. The gaming industry is producing a steady stream of games that continue to expand their nature and impact – they can be artistic, social, and collaborative, with many allowing massive numbers of people from all over the world to participate simultaneously,” The New Media Consortium’s 2014 K-12 Horizon Report concluded.

The Case for Schools

So why develop for schools? And once decided, how different is it from commercial work?

The why may be the easier question to answer.

“We very much believe that when you create a good piece of education technology and you make it available on the commercial market, the parents who can afford it are going to buy it. And the kids who come from families that have access to that kind of technology are going to benefit from it,” said Filament Games Chief Product Officer Dan White. But, he adds:

We want to have an impact and we don’t want that impact to be limited to the kids who come from a background of privilege and that is the beautiful thing about institutional education.

That is something we have heard often. Game firms truly committed to going into schools aren’t in it for a quick profit or because their game is too nerdy to work outside the classroom. They are usually in it to change education and ensure access to technologies by all children.

If you are a company considering going after the school market, there are some tips we’ve heard from veterans.

Limit Yourself

First, the game needs to focus on the formal learning goals it aims to enforce.

“Games that we typically develop with [educational] partners start with the learning objectives first so we decide what the game design is going to be after they have told us what the learning objectives are. And we say 'Ok, well then we need to do a role-playing game or we need to do a term-based game or a puzzle game' that will best achieve those learning objectives,” said Chris Parsons of Muzzy Lane Software, a firm that has worked with McGraw-Hill and National Geographic to build classroom games.

But more than just focusing in on learning objectives, it is embracing the vision of what the school wants to teach, said Hawkins at “If…”

“When you start to think about it being applied to learning and education, that’s where you have to take curriculum seriously and ask yourself ‘What is it governments believe is important in education?” Because if you are not lined up to do what governments believe in, you are probably not going to get very far,” he said, adding, “Obviously, we’re harnessing ourselves to these constraints about what does the government say is important, what does the science say is important, what does the domain analysis say, what does the teaching standards require and we’re making the game development team conform to that instead of making their own Tetris.”

Embrace the Chaos

But developers caution you cannot go on standards and learning outcomes alone. You must consider the teacher and work with them to ensure the game will actually fit into classroom schedules and technologies.

This part of the process can also feel like a limitation, but the minds behind Motion Math beg to differ, saying it is where the actual creativity kicks in.

“We talk to teachers and look at data on what Common Core concepts kids most struggle with--what are the biggest pain points we can turn into something delightful?” Then we talk to teachers more and look at resources already out there, we look at learning literature on what experts know about how kids learn that concept, to get a sense of what’s already known. And then we start brainstorming what kind of game mechanics might teach it,” explained co-founder, Jacob Klein.

“Sometimes that’s thinking more and more about the concept, or getting inspired by a non-learning game that has a fun dynamic, and that’s a very open, chaotic part of the process.”

And this creative process, developers told us, is critical to the game being an actual game and not a series of flashcards or an online quiz.

Jeffery over at Toca Boca said this is his main criticism of many learning games--they are so focused on the learning they forget the game. When this happens, Jeffery said, the entire point of the game is lost, saying, “If there is not engagement and there is no usage than there is no educating anyway and that, I think, a lot of people here miss. They are so focused on the game being super correct from an educational standards that you almost forget about the kids.”

Don’t Build Just One Game

Finally, people we spoke with have stressed the idea that a single game will not cover all the skills it needs to cover or produce sustainable revenue.

NewSchools Venture Fund has backed many edtech startups and Shauntel Polson said they look for game developers to come with a full business plan for a series of games.

“You can’t just make one game--especially if you are trying to do something in the classroom--you have to think about the suite of games that are going to cover a specific topic or a specific curriculum area,” she said.

This is a short version of the original post, which ran in

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