Why Build Learning Games?

BY Stephen Calender
If you could create any game, what would you make? Would it be a chaotic universe where anyone can be a superhero, an epic intergalactic adventure, or a medieval fantasy world with wizards and dragons? After several years in the games industry, my answer is creating learning games.

Though it may not seem obvious at first, there are significant differences between creating learning games and entertainment games. Not only must developers add in specific learning objectives, the business models are fundamentally different. Most companies in the game industry are focused on making the next big hit and success is a blessing and a curse.

In the games for entertainment sector, the business case for turning a single hit into a franchise is so seductive that you will be making the same game for most of your career. Consider the developer Bungie who developed the hit title Halo. After Halo’s success, Bungie spent the next nine years making more Halo games, eventually Bungie split from Microsoft with undertones that “Apparently MS just wants Bungie to make Halo for the rest of their natural days.”

Ironically, Bungie’s first game since Halo is Destiny, yet another futuristic first person shooter that has a 10-year franchise plan. In contrast, Filament is never going to create a franchise or build sequels to teach the same learning objective. There is an endless and diverse amount of content to pull from that keeps the creation of learning games novel.

My favorite rule from school was that you are allowed to build whatever you want, but no shooting violence. The reason was because it stifles creativity, it is too easy of a mechanic to use without really thinking. It is much more challenging and interesting to build a game that has never been made before. It is also more risky so there are not many opportunities to make completely new experiences.

Filament’s development model is composed of many small teams and it is highly desirable to work on small teams. The big blockbuster game titles have multimillion dollar budgets and often teams of more than a hundred people. Developers on those teams end up with very specific roles. You would only work on animating, networking, artificial intelligence, or perhaps an even narrower subset of a discipline and it is incredibly difficult to transition to a different role. In a small team you are exposed to every facet of development, it keeps work interesting and is better for your career.

My first big break into the games industry was on a big team with the focus of working on user interface. It was a fantastic experience, I still enjoy working on user interface, it is the magical veil between the game world and reality. Despite having other skills and interests, I could only get return calls from hiring managers for the same niche role on other projects, of which there were few options available.

Most game development has to address ‘the content problem’ at some point. The content problem can appear in several different flavors; predominantly it materializes as the rate the studio can produce more of the game space (levels, worlds, environments, stories, missions, etc), or the speed at which the player can progress through the game (if too fast you have to produce that much more content - which creates the first type of content problem, if too slow then your experience can turn into a dreaded grind). Learning games still need content; however, we are overjoyed when players quickly progress through the experience because it equates to mastering the learning objective.

Games made purely for entertainment value attempt to create a space where the virtual world draws you in and you become more invested, interested, and excited about the potential experiences in that space. Learning games flip that paradigm and inform, inspire, and drive passion about the real world. There is still a large amount of overlap between conventional and learning games; both have the same essence of engagement, feedback, challenge, and desire to be the best part of someone’s day. The added potential of real world impact is incredibly fulfilling and is why Filament is involved with organizations like Games For Change.

The creative culture at Filament is composed of a variety of content and work that inspires us, as employees, to make a positive impact on the world. When we craft an experience it is our goal to make learning engaging and to spark interest in the subject long after the game ends.