Metafocus: Making an Educational Game That Lasts 40 Years

Written By

Matt Sparks

August 24, 2017

In the book Perennial Seller, author Ryan Holiday describes the difference between perennial sellers—books that steadily sell hundreds or even thousands of copies, week after week after week, for decades—and blockbuster hits—books that may make best-seller lists in the short term but are quickly forgotten. Many writers dream of writing best-sellers, but what few authors realize is that 90 percent of the industry revenues come from publishers’ backlists. That is, perennial sellers far, far outsell the hits. This is true for music, movies, and video games as well. This column is a brief primer on why and how to create perennial-seller educational video games instead of big hits.

Perennial seller vs. blockbuster hit

The Oregon Trail, launched in 1971, is arguably the best educational video game of all time, having sold 65 million copies over 10 iterations and 40 years. Admittedly, the game didn’t have a lot of competition in the 1970s or ’80s. However, despite the simplicity of the graphics and slowness of the game play, I still enjoy playing The Oregon Trail. It helped me, and over 100 million other young students, learn about and better understand the lives of Old West pioneer families.

The game was a resounding success by nearly every standard imaginable except one: best-seller lists. The Oregon Trail didn’t sell any copies for the first couple of years. The developer was a teacher who played it only in his own classroom, and it took three years for the game to be redesigned and finally reach a small but respectable national audience. The game’s popularity grew slowly but steadily from there. Best-seller lists, in contrast to the Oregon Trail model, strongly favor games, books, movies, and other media with the highest sales in any given week. This means a game (book, movie, etc.) may reach best-seller status in the initial weeks after release, sometimes even just for a single week, before sales quickly drop as the newest new releases bump it off the list.

The new VR game Ark Park, set to launch on August 29, stands in stark contrast to The Oregon Trail. It was originally planned as an educational VR experience that would give players “the opportunity to truly appreciate and understand dinosaurs in their natural habitat.” However, the game has evolved considerably since its original promotions. The most recent teaser trailer demonstrates how laughably not educational the game has become.

Originally, the game was planned as a VR dinosaur petting zoo of sorts, “like Jurassic Park before things went wrong.” However, Ark Park game play now consists of shooting and killing fire-breathing T. Rexes, giant scorpions, and, inexplicably, King Kong with turret guns and lasers. The new version of the game may still be educational in a sense, just as watching any violence-packed action movie is educational to impressionable young minds, but I’m guessing the original educational objectives no longer apply. I’ll bet you a nickel that Ark Park won’t be assigned by any schoolteachers in 40 years.

Now, I don’t want to come down too hard on Ark Park here. In a way, I can’t blame them. This is a big-ish-budget video game. The developers have to make their money back. I can’t see millions of kids wanting to pay money for a game that allows them to gently pet giant beavers and feed fish to brontosauruses. But sneaking through the jungle and blasting away at wild packs of hungry velociraptors in a VR first-person shooter experience, what kid wouldn’t want to try that?

Snail Games, the game development company that created Ark Park, simply pivoted to a better business model, or perhaps this was part of an ingenious marketing strategy from the outset. Either way, more power to them. I hope they sell millions of copies and make a fortune. I only mention Ark Park and The Oregon Trail to clearly demonstrate the difference between a perennial seller and a (potential) blockbuster hit.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that you, as an instructional designer, teacher, or other educational professional, would rather build the next Oregon Trail instead of the next Ark Park. I’ll assume you already have an idea for a new game that will teach students valuable knowledge. You want the lessons to really stick with the students, perhaps even improving students’ lives over the long term. You want iterations of your game to be played in classrooms and online for years or even decades to come. Great! That’s a fantastic place to start. So … how do you do it?

What not to do

First, let’s start with what not to do. What pitfalls should you avoid on your path to making a perennial seller? DO NOT:

  1. Entirely disregard your educational objectives
  2. Pander to the lowest common denominator to generate lots of sales quickly
  3. Rely primarily on violence to keep players engaged
  4. Spend a fortune creating snazzy visuals and buying IP from established brands (e.g., Harry Potter, Star Wars, Disney, Marvel, etc.), forcing you to do 1, 2, and 3 above to recoup your investment quickly

How to make a perennial seller

OK, what not to do sounds simple enough. But what should you do instead?

Ryan Holiday describes the seven strategies to create a perennial seller book. Again, these strategies apply to any kind of media, content, or artistic work, not just books. Holiday explores each of these strategies in his book, as well as in the following article published on GrowthLab: “Forget going viral. Here’s how to create work that lasts forever.” Rather than trying to summarize each strategy here, I’ll link directly to the relevant sections in Holiday’s article, as he explains them far better than I could.

How to make a timeless educational game

Those seven strategies are all very useful, but strategies 2 ­­­– 7 are all about marketing and creating new work. Arguably the biggest and most difficult task is to execute strategy 1 well. It’s also the first task any creator must complete. Specifically, how do you create a timeless educational video game in the first place?

You and/or your team must of course learn the technical aspects of creating a game using a game engine such as Unity or Unreal Engine, as described in detail in this article. Besides the technical ability, you also need to plan your game well by following these eight steps.

  1. Define your educational objectives.
    This includes defining your audience and their needs. Once you define your educational objectives, make sure these are known by everyone on the team and incorporated into every aspect of the game, from start to finish.
  2. Brainstorm ideas for what the game could be.
    This includes setting, levels, characters, lessons, techniques, narratives, etc. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, especially if you’re creating a VR game, because educational VR games are still new for everyone.
  3. Read books on game design.
    This will help you design better games, inspire you with new ideas, and help you avoid common mistakes of game design.
  4. Play a dozen (or 50) different educational games.
    Write down what you liked and didn’t like about each so you can incorporate that design knowledge into your own game.
  5. Storyboard your game idea from start to finish.
    Until you clearly draw and describe each scene, lesson, room, character, chapter, etc., you don’t truly understand your game, and neither will anyone else.
  6. Solicit explicit feedback.
    Make sure to get feedback from people with different perspectives, including multiple students, teachers, and other content experts, instructional designers, game developers, game theorists, and game designers.
  7. Incorporate feedback into your game design.
    While you don’t want to completely change your premise based on every single offhand comment you receive, you also shouldn’t assume you know best. Be open to criticism. Improving your game based on honest feedback will help it evolve from mediocre to great.
  8. Build your game.
    Make sure content experts and game developers are both involved at every step. Game developers will make a great game, but don’t understand or care about content. Content experts know what needs to be taught and how, but not how to turn it into a game. Both sides need each other.

Summary

While the above advice may sound as daunting as “climb Mount Everest before lunch,” it’s not as hard as it seems. Take as much time as you need on each step in both Holiday’s list and mine, and you’ll be well on your way to launching the next Oregon Trail that students will play and love for the next 40 years.

Let us know in the comments which step of creating a perennial seller is the most difficult and why.

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