How Learning Games Get Funded, Part 1

====== CASE STUDIES ======

Commercial success stories, indies making it, and studio survival strategies.

[ Part 1: Case Studies | Part 2: Summary ]



Commercial Success Stories

Universe Sandbox

History:

Universe Sandbox is one of those unicorn stories: in 2007, Dan Dixon made a gravity simulation in his spare time and posted it for free to the internet in 2008. A big name on the SomethingAwful forums found it, shared it, and suddenly Dan’s website visits went from about 50 per day to 9000-view spikes, and then never dropped below 200 after that. He transitioned to pay-what-you-want, and was almost making enough to support himself for the two years after the game’s initial release on his website.

In 2011, he got in touch with Steam and was accepted onto the platform (this is several years before the indiepocalypse). It did much better than anybody expected; well enough that he was able to bring on a handful of other developers and begin working on a remake/sequel, Universe Sandbox ².

Dan said he plans to just keep working on this project forever. The sales have done well enough that he has the freedom to keep adding features (lasers! dinosaurs! dyson spheres!), making it prettier, more performant, and refining the user interface .

tl;dr:
  • Made a side project while working day job.
  • Put it on the internet for free in 2008.
  • Internet loved it. Began selling it.
  • Got onto 2011 Steam when there were only about 1600 total games on the platform. Was an even bigger hit.
  • Released sequel in 2015 (which has generated twice the revenue in half the time).
  • Uses revenue to keep working on it, with lasers, megastructures, localization, and a mobile version planned.
Educational Contexts:

Universe Sandbox ² has been included in a handful of educational contexts; distributed through the TeacherGaming channel, briefly in the planned Steam For Schools effort, and planned to be in the App store in the education category. However, financially, none of the educational efforts have come close to the commercial success on Steam.

Pricing:

Steam: US² is $25 per copy.

Classrooms: TeacherGaming is selling educational licenses at $16.74 per user, perpetual. You need a license for each simultaneous user of the game.

Kerbal Space Program

History:

Probably the most widely-played science-based game out there. Here’s a better summary than I can write. It’s a weird story as far as game development goes.

tl;dr:
  • Made demo while working day job.
  • Put it on the internet for free in 2011.
  • Internet loved it. Began selling it.
  • Got onto 2013 Steam. Was an even bigger hit.
  • Released improved version in 2015.
  • Acquired by Take-Two Interactive, with expansions and ports planned.
Educational Contexts:

TeacherGaming handled the translation to a classroom-ready product: KerbalEdu. From the site: “KerbalEdu is an official school-ready standalone remix of the award winning game Kerbal Space Program. The game is available for everyone to purchase and has been enhanced with features that help integrate it into the classroom.”

Pricing:

Steam: KSP is $40 per copy.

Classrooms: TeacherGaming is selling educational licenses at $17 USD per user, perpetual. You need a license for each simultaneous user of the game.

TypingClub

About

“TypingClub is the most effective way to learn how to type. It is web based, and highly effective. TypingClub is (and will always be) free for both individuals and schools. There is an optional paid school edition.”

Their website boasts 23 million students from 50,000 schools & districts.

Model

It’s a strange fusion of mobile-born free-to-play and institution-based subscription.

It’s dead simple to start: within two clicks from the home page, it has you playing the game for free in-browser at your appropriate skill level. No account needed.

Since it’s a skill-based program, people will keep coming back to it. They are thus encouraged to eventually make an account to save their progress. Teachers can even make a admin account for free to manage their student’s lessons and watch through the in-browser dashboard.

Since this free version has (fairly-well-targeted) ads, even if teachers never progress past this point it’s a monetary win for the program.

But then TypingClub pulls a Unity, where it only starts charging once the user scales up. If more than three classes at a school start using TypingClub, they offer a Pro edition with no user limit and other typical service bells and whistles (including an iPad app).

Pricing

Free for individual & institutional use up to 3 classes (albeit with ads).

Sliding scale per-student per-year for the Pro edition, starting with $4/student at 25 licenses and dropping about a dollar per student per additional order of magnitude (e.g. about $2/student at 2500 licenses).

MinecraftEdu

History:

Originally another TeacherGaming project. It took four developers five years to get it ready for use by the server architecture of schools (firewalls, sometimes ancient configurations and technology). After acquiring Minecraft, Microsoft re-started this process from scratch and it’s taken them about a year and a half to do the same.

Reflecting on this, Mikael Uusi-Mäkelä points out that, business-wise, it’s not usually feasible to remake a game for edu version. It can be a bit investment — almost the size of making a new standalone game — for a market that is potentially much smaller.

Educational Contexts:

The strength of MinecraftEdu is it’s a platform on which kids are familiar and motivated, and can be used for a bunch of different topics. (Contrast this to topic-specific games, where teachers go through the process of installing and learning the software and only end up using it for a day or week.)

Pricing:

Commercial: $26.95 per copy.

Classrooms: Microsoft is selling it at $5 USD per user per year.

Other examples:

Niche, Earth Primer, Eco, Doduko, Shenzhen I/O

(I wish I had the time/space to talk more about these, they’re all amazing examples of different ways to tackle this)


Indies

Nicky Case

Work:

Best-in-show when it comes to small (5-30 minute) in-browser “explorables” that demonstrate specific concepts. They’ve done games on voting systems, news cycles, prisoner’s dilemma, and others.

They started their Patreon in December 2014, and as of April 2018 have 1,020 patrons pledging a total of $3,193 per month — that’s best-case about three-and-a-half years to get to a sustainable income.

Supported by:

They’re currently completely indie, funded through Patreon. This both supports them and provides an organic audience.

Quinn Crossley

Work:

Worked at various organizations and institutes that are involved in aspects of edu games. Has done a lot of work on games with serious ramifications, including chemotherapy management, cultural training for soldiers in the Middle East, and consent.

Supported by:

They’re currently employed as a educational game designer at BrainPop, and do indie work on their own time (e.g. Trans* Mission for the 2018 Global Game Jam).

Andy Hall

Work:

Accessible, cartoony games based in physics and chemistry. Gravity sims, speed-of-light platformers, puzzle games whose mechanics are electrostatic forces.

Most popular game is the free browser-based Gravity Simulator. He sees a fair number of classrooms use it; 20 people with similar IPs visit it all at once.

He also made Bond Breaker, a chemistry game that was built as the public outreach portion of a grant from the University of Virginia.

Supported by:

Half-time contract work, a fair chunk of it from universities and museums.

Melanie Stegman

Work:

Melanie has a PhD in biochemistry. Her work in games is both pedagogical (evaluating Immune Attack for studies on learning & self-efficacy) and practical (developing Immune Defense, which shows how white blood cells track and consume germs as a function of their membrane proteins).

She also founded and runs sciencegamecenter.org, a catalog of games that “take some bit of reality, simulate it and then build a game around it.”

Supported by:

An NIH research grant.


Studios

Filament Games

About:

“At Filament Games, we create digital experiences that expand a player’s way of thinking. Our approach to game-based learning has the power to engage, inspire, motivate, and educate. For the past 12 years, we’ve used this approach with partners all over the world to create more 115+ best-in-class digital learning games across every subject area and age group.”

Project sources:

Combination of work-for-hire contracts and grant-backed independent development (e.g. Department of Education’s SBIR funding).

Distribution:

Direct sales to districts/schools/parents, Steam, and the Play/App Stores.Involved with individual teachers for support and doing efficacy studies.

Licensing partners who bundle a bunch of edu games together and do the work of marketing and distributing to schools.

For contract-based projects, the client handles using the game for whatever they had in mind when they contracted the job (e.g. iCivics).

Pricing:

In-house games: students and teachers have Steam-style Filament accounts, to which they can add individual games for between $2.99 and $5.99.

Teacher accounts include an integrated dashboard.

Schell Games

About:

“Schell Games is the largest full-service education and entertainment game development company in the United States. Since 2002, we’ve worked to create interactive experiences on every platform to enrich the lives of players of all ages. Projects in our award-winning portfolio range from mobile, desktop, and virtual reality games to interactive installations and theme park attractions… and everything in between.”

Project sources:

Combination of contracts and grant-backed independent development.

For Happy Atoms, they developed a prototype in-house for an AR game were players construct a physical model of a molecule, then interact with it on a tablet. Jesse Schell took it to Toy Fair and partnered with Thames & Kosmos; Schell Games would make the app, and T&K would handle the hardware.

Distribution:

In-house games: through the traditional channels of Steam, Playstation/Oculus/Play/App Stores.

Thames & Kosmos sells Happy Atoms through their toy distribution channels & splits profits with Schell.

Contract-based projects: the client handles using the game for whatever they had in mind when they contracted the job (e.g. Night Shift).

Pricing:

Most are either free or around $3, but with a few morecommerciallyattractive games at $9.99 and $19.99.

Happy Atoms kits range from $60 to $160.

Dragon Box

About:

“The DragonBox Method is not a simple translation of traditional learning methods to a digital medium, it is harnessing the power of digital tools to create a new, deeper learning experience. We believe that children should be actively engaged in their learning process because they are, by nature, curious and inquisitive.”

Project sources:

All in-house. Laser focus on identifying problem points in learning math and thoroughly addressing them through the language of games.

Jaw-dropping results for algebra challenge: 1.5 hours of play gets 93% of students to where they can solve something like (x*a/d + b = c/e). They also showed that most students can pick this stuff up earlier than anybody thought, and that having adaptive gameplay enables slow learners to automatically get the extra practice they need.

Distribution:

App Store and Google Play.

From this article: “Most of those sales have been to parents and homeschoolers, says Huynh, and the majority have come via word of mouth. ‘We are really lazy at marketing,’ he said.”

Pricing:

Per-app, either $4.99 or $7.99 USD. There are some bulk deals depending on the platform, e.g. 50% discount on 20+ licenses.

Teachers can get access for free.

Immersed Games

About:

“Immersed Games is an early stage ed tech startup with an audacious vision of how games can be used to empower student learning.” “We are harnessing the power of video games for learning by creating an educational online game (MMO) to empower students.”

Flagship product is Tyto Online, a MMORPG that uses the classic World of Warcraft format where players complete quests, and also engage in sandbox experiences. They are developing it as a multi-topic platform, starting with Ecology and now building out the rest of Life Science (for middle school target). Students play as Tyto Academy students on an alien planet in the future, helping to solve problems like figuring out if something is an invasive species, collecting poop samples to generate food webs, or building their own ecosystems from scratch.

Project sources:

All in-house. Supported by private investors, a SBIR grant, and a Kickstarter.

Distribution:

Steam, direct outreach to schools.

Pricing:

Consumers: Tyto Online is $5/month for consumers.

Classrooms: $10 per student, per year, for all content. Discounts/free trials are available.

1st Playable Productions

Project sources:

Purely contract-based, for both educational and entertainment projects.

Some of their projects are from larger properties (e.g. Frozen, Hello Kitty, Barbie) that they were connected with through LeapFrog.

Also worked with a textbook publisher who was looking to get into this “game” thing. Made many microgames based on point-by-point curriculums. The idea here is that some traditional textbook publishers are worried that the same thing is going to happen to them as happened to Kodak, i.e., that they’ll ignore the growing digital marketplace & get left behind.

Pricing & Distribution:

Varies, depending completely on the contracter project.

Other examples:

Mystery Science, Concord Consortium, Killer Snails, Triseum, Motion Math, Gizmos


“Steam for educational games”

Steam for Schools

About

“When we heard the buzz surrounding the new role video games are playing in education, we had to throw our hat in the ring.”

Status

Announced 2012. Flagship’d by giving Portal 2 to schools for free. Tried to leverage Steam’s access to high-quality science (or science-ish) games by putting together a bundle suitable for schools. Titles like SpaceChem were planned to be added, but only Universe Sandbox (Legacy) made it on before the project quietly closed.

Closed. The developed lesson plans are archived here.

GlassLab Games

About

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and MacArthur Foundations. “GlassLab creates and enables high-impact games that make learning visible.”

Status

Founded 2011, with the goal of both developing edu games and providing a platform for other orgs to distribute their games to schools. The strategy was to pull schools onto the platform with a bunch of high-quality free content, and then offer 3rd-party games.

Erin Hoffman, at her Games for Change 2017 talk:

“Now, we pivoted to building a platform around year 2. I was only tangentially involved, but we brought in people who understood how to build game platforms. But the platform didn’t make it. The learning companies that make it with these platforms have sales forces of hundreds of people. It is so intimidating. And we thought maybe we could do it without the sales force, maybe that’s gonna be the disruption. But it didn’t work.

And you need to have the capitol to get bodies into classrooms and talk to teachers and talk to system administrators and all of these people — because our education system, even in the United States, is so federated that you have to do that one person and one foot at a time. And we haven’t yet found a way to skip around that process. Someone hopefully will, but until they do, there’s no quick avenue to getting games into schools.”

Hibernating. The last activity on their social media was in 2016. Merged into the LRNG platform and appear to be waiting on grants / AAA support to retool and continue operations.

TeacherGaming Desk

About

“Minecraft showed us how a skilled teacher could engage their students with a new medium. Next, we wanted to see if we could enable any and every educator to do the same. We believe that educational games are a good fit for any classroom, no matter the skill level – and that is where TeacherGaming Desk comes in.”

Status

After Microsoft bought out MinecraftEdu, they’ve moved on to experimenting with a platform called Desk. Instead of just selling the software, each game on Desk comes with a plug-and-play series of lesson plans along with a dashboard.

Still relatively small (~30 games) but growing (just partnered with Filament Games). Their two criteria for a game’s inclusion in Desk: “it needs to be fun, and it needs to make sense in the curriculum.”

Pricing

Subscriptions (“an all-in-one solution”) get you access to most of the games on the platform. They’re per-school per-year with tiers based on student count: starting $150 for up to 30 students, and ending at $1,150 for over 500 students.

As mentioned in the Kerbal and Sandbox Edu sections, they also sell more granular per-user game-specific perpetual licenses (which still include the dashboard and lesson plans).

Other examples:

BrainPOP, Classcraft, Legends of Learning, Amplify/Touch Press Games, STEMscopes


[ Part 1: Case Studies | Part 2: Summary ]


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By Wick Perry | © 2018 Wickworks
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