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Debacle by design: Building a game that won’t make money

Posted by Michael Warshaw  February 13, 2013 12:07 PM

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By Kellian Adams, founder and chief executive, Green Door Labs

At Green Door Labs, I build videogames for nonprofits and education. Some are funded by clients that need games for specific purposes: fundraisers, exhibits, education technology products that need a boost, companies that want to connect with a nonprofit. And then some games… aren’t.

Sometimes we want to build a game just because it’s cool. In fact, a lot of the time we want to build a game just because it’s cool. I’m an education and culture geek, and I have no delusions that an unsupported game on arts education will suddenly make a bazillion dollars or get magical super-funding. Most likely it will be totally unprofitable. So do we build it? Hell, yes.

Take, for example,our current dream game: Project Arachne, which we’d like to build with – and run at – a particular public library. It will most likely never make a dime, yet it is worth every minute we put into it.

The key to a dream project that’s not a money-maker is to first find an amazing team that’s willing to do it for cost, or close to cost, just because it’s awesome. That isn’t as hard as you would think. Either great visuals or a great story helps.

Arachne’s life cycle started with a chat between myself and an excellent game designer about one of our favorite artists, Hilary Scott, and how much we wanted to build a real-world game with his work. We contacted Hilary; he was game for a game. We sent images of his work to our Green Door designer, who loved the story and Hilary’s art so much that he built out a logo, images, and color scheme in a day. We suddenly had a pitch deck. Our COO loved it, and started to mine her tech contacts from MIT and think about how it could potentially be built by abusing students and friends. Now we had a producer and some possible programmers. Our building team was ready.

Deck in tow, we thought about the perfect place to hold this game. Arachne, the statue we wanted to build the game around, looked like a mechanical librarian. A few Googles about games at libraries sent us to Justin the Librarian, a smart, energetic youth librarian from Portland, Maine, who’s transforming his library into a community space that experiments with games and multimedia as outreach.

Justin introduced us to his library’s executive director, who was totally on board. A short trip north, and we met a fantastic team of librarians that were excited to do something unusual. Team #2, our cultural partner, was ready to go.

Why is it important to have a partner? Game builders will have different takes on this, but I personally think that for culture games, you want to have a ready-to-go group of core game players to get the word out.

Now for the details. When we build a project, we like to think about what we have for resources and work backwards, rather than think of the perfect situation and seek out the perfect resources for it. With Arachne, our resources were some great pieces of art, a fantastic story, and an intriguing space full of people who really wanted to make this happen. We sent the library’s executive director a number of proposals and asked: Do we want to do this cheap or do we want to do it wow? He said he preferred wow; we would find the money. (By “wow”, I do not mean World of Warcraft, I mean a project that would make players say “wow”- with augmented reality, codes hidden in books in the library stacks, secret pieces of art and multimedia responses.)

arachne.jpg

Okay, now’s the hard part. How do we fund it? We’re working with a library, so we can’t charge people to play. We also can’t get budget dollars from the library’s annual fund, because this is an experimental game, not something that’s sanctioned in the budget of a public place. We can find a corporate sponsor that might be willing to work with us. We can build the game in a way that it will travel to other libraries that could license it and offset some of our initial costs. We could also crowdsource it, but that hasn’t been really been done with this type of library project before. We could also write about a million grant proposals. I’d been chatting with some incredible educational media producers, like TERC EdGE and the Kickin’ Kitchen video project, who have been funded by grants.

What will we try? Everything. What will be the solution? Whichever one comes through first. The key is that we’re not sitting on our hands waiting for our dream game to be funded. In the meantime, we’re building out a new Green Door Labs gaming platform. We’re building a new game in partnership with the Joslyn Museum of Art and consulting for education technology companies like Alleyoop and startups like Mobee. We even started a gamification meetup group where fellow game nerds can meet and talk about what they’re working on. There’s a lot to do!

For us the key is to build games that will make no money while you build games that actually will make money. Google has its 80/20 rule (80 percent of its staff’s time is spent on funded projects, and they’re free to spend 20 percent of the time to work on unfunded projects), which has been instrumental in the development of some key products. Patrick from Owlchemy Labs was recently telling us about Jack Lumber (A man out to avenge his grandmother. He hates trees, loves animals.) which they originally built for kicks, but which was picked up by Sega.

Sometimes these pet projects actually are money-makers. Does this mean it’s worth it to risk your business on products that might possibly be a surprise blockbuster? I know the start-up community is a come-what-may kind of place sometimes, but I would personally say no. Never stop producing profitable projects in the name of dream projects.

But by all means build it. Definitely build it. Just don’t expect that a “game that will never make money” will suddenly and magically make money. It will most likely lose time and money – and you and your team will be so proud of the time and money that you lost. You’ll love it and be glad that you did it.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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