A Bridge Too Far: Effective Distribution Remains Elusive for Developers, Teachers

For years the buzz of gaming and what it can bring to the learning of a child has fueled conferences, VC investors and cutting edge educators, but the platform that helps game developers find sustainable revenue and teachers and parents find effective apps is no closer today than five years ago.

What has happened in those five years is a litany of experiments and efforts that have, to some extent, withered on the vine.

That sobering reality was the topic of one of the panels at this week’s Games for Change conference in New York and kept scores of educators and developers in their seats long past the call for lunch (about the highest compliment possible at a conference).

The panel opened with a plea from Michelle Miller, the moderator and chair of Games and Learning, the nonprofit responsible for this site. She noted that in the hallways and in phone calls and Google Hangouts more serious and, at times, less optimistic conversations were playing out.

“What we’re talking about in the hall is what happened to Amplify? What happened to Apple’s work in this space? What happened to GlassLab?” Miller asked in a plea to make the conversation with developers an honest one.

She said the work of this site and her own background had again and again pointed to two core issues facing the game-based learning industry: “The pain points that we talk about are sustainability and discoverability,” she said, “We have consistently heard that these two problems.”

With that, Mark DeLoura, former White House games czar from the Obama administration, launched into a tick-tock of attempted educational game platforms that had grown up through organic or foundation-funded efforts. From the educational wing of Steam to the efforts of GlassLab, he noted that multiple groups had tried to build a network that would help good games find an audience.

But none have really taken and he stressed this failure may be the most pressing problem facing the industry.

The reason we need a platform that addresses the distribution question is to encourage a sustainability flow. They’re a lot of people who will make learning games for free, of varying quality and then they will go out of business. How does the developer who is interested in making a phenomenal learning game and whom I want to make 10 learning games work out a way to make games 2 through 10? Because if they make one and go out of business we are all at a loss.
— Mark DeLoura, former White House Games Czar

He noted that this is not about games for formal education or for the consumer audience, but that “Everybody in this space is having problems.”

With that, he turned for a call to action by the game industry.

“We could, as an industry, set up a distribution system and find some way to put it out as a nonprofit. Steam does this,” he said, adding, “Ultimately, we are trying to do is reduce risk all around, increase disoverability and develop tools. We think that would propel the industry forward.”

The meeting also featured two people who have developed platforms of different types – the commercial team at Samsung and the educational nonprofit First Book.

Ted Broadheim, of Samsung, noted he came to this discussion having served as a technology executive and as a former Chief Information Officer for the New York City Department of Education. The combo allowed him to speak from two perspectives and the techn one sounded much more optimistic than the educator one.

About schools, he was blunt.

“K-12 is very hard to break into. It is essentially an RFP-driven market and that creates a very high cost of entry… and add to that districts tend to be very risk-adverse,” Brodheim said.

He did note that professional training, whether for certification of educators or corporate training, are two markets looking towards gaming in a significant way.

He warned that building a new distribution platform would face clear challenges because, “buyers tend to look toward their traditional suppliers first.”

He stressed developers need to spend as much time identifying the customer of their product as they do the need they believe their game will address.

I have seen phenomenally good technology. I have seen people school districts and higher ed tell me they desperately want this technology. I have seen that technology go nowhere because the developers thought about that need. They thought about it very, very well. They created a product to address that need, but they did not think about the buyer. The person with the need doesn’t have purchasing authority.
— Ted Brodheim, former CIO New York City Schools

But when it came to the networks within Samsung, he said opportunities existed for companies in multiple ways.

“The way we think about the platform we have a handful, it is a fairly small number, a couple of hundred, high-touch companies that we work with – very large educational institutions, higher ed, government agencies, large corporations,” he said, adding that within this organization many companies can work with Samsung as channel partner.

This corporate model is markedly different then the one espoused by Jane Robinson, the Chief Financial Officer of First Book.

First Book is a nonprofit most known for supplying millions of books to lower income schools for the past 25 years. The nonprofit added an online marketplace and has built a network of 325,000 teachers, counselors and after-school program educators that can purchase a variety of products at discounted prices.

Robsinson said the network now supplies the “most needed, highest quality books, educational materials, basic needs, everything that an educator who serving children in need requires” to some 43 percent of the nation’s kids.

First Book hopes to avoid joining DeLoura’s list of troubled platforms by focusing on its business model.

She noted, “We don’t believe there will be any sustainability in this unless everyone benefits from this,” adding that First Book was pursuing “scaling funding” to expand the network that should reach 500,000 by the end of FY 2018.

But the fate of First Book, like that of other marketplaces that have come before, remains uncertain as the industry continues to struggle to find the right bridge that will allow it to connect serious game developers with an audience interested in and willing to pay for quality.

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Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.