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Serious Games - An Emerging Multibillion-Dollar Market

The U.N. World Food Program offers free downloads of the FoodForce game in which players must get emergency food supplies to the starved populace of a war-torn region

In many cases, Serious Games are made available to users free of charge or are distributed to trainees within the client organization, which means there is usually no sales revenue stream for the developer.

Hazmat: HotZone is an instructor-based simulation that uses video game technology to train first responders about how to respond to hazardous materials emergencies. Hazmat: Hotzone is currently in development at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University in collaboration with the Fire Department of New York and is estimated to be completed in Spring 2007. Once completed, the goal is to freely distribute this program to fire departments across the country.

Nevertheless, serious-game developers see a lot of room for growth in their marketplace. The video game industry is finding more and more business outside the entertainment sector, using its creativity and technology to create state-of-the-art simulations that train, persuade or educate clients.

Growing Budgets - Growing revenues

Serious Games typically lack the budgets of entertainment games, so producers usually do not develop their own game engines (which can cost upwards of $5 million and 3-5 years of time), but, instead, lease popular game engines for game play. Serious Games are made for a fraction of the cost and time of games for the entertainment market, with budgets in the range of $400,000-$1 million being typical, and a development time of perhaps a year.

However, budgets for certain applications seem to be increasing. “We’re seeing some Serious Games being budgeted in the $10 million range, and above,” said Douglas Whatley, the CEO of BreakAway Ltd., one of the major producers for this market.

BreakAway Ltd, -- located in the Baltimore exurb of Hunt Valley, an East Coast hub of game development -- may epitomize this marketplace. The company creates both commercial off-the-shelf titles and playable simulations for clients ranging from the Pentagon to nonviolence activists.

Breakaway made more in revenue last year from its serious side -- about 75 percent of the company's business -- than from its entertainment side, according to Whatley. He believes that as more and more decision makers -- especially in the business sector -- see game-based training programs as an acceptable risk compared to traditional methods, the "floodgates will open."
"I do think we're ... just a couple of years away from a multibillion-dollar market," Whatley said.

The military -- which has used simulations in countless aspects for decades -- can now take advantage of recent advances in commercial computing power to put realistic training on the troops' desktops.

A real star of the Serious Games arena is America’s Army, which started out as an advergame, to publicize the U.S. Army and help its recruiting drive, but has become so wildly popular (over six million registered players!) that it is now being used for actual training for the military, including giving new Army recruits some basic training before they hit base camp. It is also being used to evaluate new military concepts — players are observed training in new weapons such as the BDM (Bunker Defeating Munition) in order to evaluate whether these new weapon systems should actually be developed and fielded.

The America’s Army team, which developed the original game for about $8 million, continues to add play levels and fresh content to the game (at a reputed budget totaling around $10 million per year). The team has actually split into three parts, with one continuing on with the original game, another developing specific training for the Army, and a third starting to adapt the gaming environment for other parts of the US government.

It's no longer necessary to deploy bulky simulator chambers or multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment to achieve virtually the same results, said Army Col. Casey Wardynski, who oversees the "America's Army" game program from his office at West Point.

BreakAway products include netSTRIKE, a CGI-based intelligence fusion simulation for the Department of Defense

Incident Commander, which teaches first responders how to manage incidents resulting from either natural or man-made disasters. Incident Commander, a game that confronts its players with emergencies like an imminent bomb explosion at a school or a chemical-train accident, isn't really about flashy graphics. The game's main screen is a top-down view of an urban area, and you don't see 3-D civilians running around screaming.

Instead, the screen shows you the little triangles representing men, women and children simply disappearing, while a text window dispassionately informs you that the people you're supposed to be protecting are falling victim to the disaster and that your score is being docked.

Simulators tend to be costly, at around a million dollars each, and are so bulky that they are usually limited to military classrooms in U.S. locations such as Fort Knox (for armor), Fort Benning (for mobile infantry) or Fort Rucker (for helicopters). Serious Games, on the other hand, can be delivered via laptops or even handheld platforms, which can be taken to and used in the field. Because of this, the military (especially the Army) is in the market for purchasing a wide range of such games, for teaching languages, for decision making in combat situations, and for learning leadership and weapons usage.

"You can dump two zeroes off the end of the [training] cost equation," Wardynski said.