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Accidental Game Publishers: Foundations, Universities, Government and Non-Profits

Accidental Game Publishers
Foundations, Universities, Government and Non-Profits

Alan Gershenfeld

Foundations, universities, government agencies and non-profits that fund games to further their learning, health and social impact goals are game publishers – and yet most do not realize it. These research and impact focused organizations did not set out to become game publishers and certainly do not consider themselves game publishers, but they have taken on all of the key functions of a game publisher.

In the game business, a publisher serves the following functions:

• provides capital to make games
• selects development teams to design and create games
• manages developers through the game development process
• ensures the games reach their target market and meet their financial goals

When a foundation, university or non-profit decides to fund a game they are essentially responsible for all of the same functions:

• they provide capital for games (often through grants)
• they select developers to make games (usually through an RFP process)
• they are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the games they fund are completed and that they reach their target audience
• they track the overall impact of the game

Unfortunately most of these organizations are not staffed to effectively manage these functions. Millions of dollars have been invested in impact and research-based games that are sitting on shelves because they ran out of money, shut down because developers ran into technical troubles or have reached only a handful of players because they are not fun, do not fill a clear need or are not effectively marketed and distributed.

The problem is not in the quality of the research. There is an exciting, diverse and growing body of research highlighting how digital entertainment can transform learning or make a positive social impact. The problem is that most of this research is disconnected from the development of sustainable business models and publishing strategies and the initial team structure rarely have these skill-sets.

The fact is, publishing engaging, impactful and sustainable computer and video games is extremely difficult and requires significant domain expertise. The process involves a complex set of competencies in software development, interactive entertainment/game design as well as a deep understanding of diverse and constantly evolving platforms, distribution channels and business models.

So, how can we turn accidental game publishers into effective game publishers?

There is no silver bullet solution, but we can start this process by better understanding how successful commercial game publishers operate and how to develop methodologies for adapting these best practices to the impact game sector. While a complete analysis of this process is beyond the scope of this paper, there are a few high level approaches that can greatly increase the liklihood of an effective transition from research to sustainable, market ready game-based product, service or business.
First, impact game initiatives need to engage more experienced game producers and executives from the game publishing side of the industry. These are professionals with experience building portfolios of games, conceiving and managing green-light processes, sourcing and doing due diligence on game developers, creating effective stage-based financing and milestone schedules, ensuring effective resources for development teams that run into trouble and thinking through the full lifecycle of a game project from concept, design and development through to marketing, distribution, assessment and optimization.

Creating effective impact friendly game publishing methodologies and businesss models is as much a craft and skill as creating effective impact focused game design. Most impact-focused organizations tend to focus their efforts on finding good game designers and overlook the importance of publishing skills. Sourcing and managing great game designers is necessary, but not sufficient to creating effective impact games that make sustainable impact at scale.

Second, most successful game publishers have a portfolio strategy that effectively balances platforms, genres and risk profiles. A typical portfolio would have a thoughtful mix of new and existing franchises, new and existing technology, platform and genres. Most philanthropic and public interest games are based on one-off grants and do not effectively leverages the benefits that can come from an effective product and portfolio strategy.

Third, effective game publishers build repeatable and scalable models for designing, developing and publishing impact games. Most successful commercial game franchises have been built over many years through numerous iterations. They also benefit from aligned marketing and distribution channels that are also built over many years and can be leveraged across multiple games. It is very difficult for individual projects to build this infrastructure.

To fully realize the great potential of games for learning, health and social impact we need a more integrated approach to research, development and publishing of impact games. We also need to put as much rigor, creativity and innovation into impact-friendly business and publishing models to ensure that projects can make meaningful impact at scale as we put into the underlying research and design.