MARKETING TIP 1: Winning distribution partnerships for your game

Build it so they will comeTakeaway: One of the fastest and cheapest ways to win a big audience for your new game is through a well-connected partner. It’s a lot easier to win partners when your product fits their interests and business model – and that needs to be built into your plans from the outset.

A lot of startups and smaller organizations assume that they have to build their own audience organically. This leaves a lot of great games (and other products) out of the market, unused and un-useful. Getting other organizations to push your games through their existing networks is the fastest way to pull in a sizeable audience for your product – even if you already have a respectable audience of your own.

Enduring distribution partnerships can happen by happy accident, but it’s possible to plan ahead – as early as your product strategy and design phase – to make them more likely. After all, it’s one thing to convince someone to Tweet about your awesome new game – it’s another for them to invest their own resources into a meaningful distribution effort. You can design your product to make it easier to secure these partnerships:

What’s in it for them?

Giving your partner tangible incentives for spreading the word is the best way to win real and enduring help:

  • Profit. Can your partners resell your product and make profits? This is the clearest way to incentivize a distribution partnership, but it’s not always easy to achieve – read my story below for some caveats.
    The various app stores, from iTunes to Edmodo to Steam, all offer access in exchange for profit-sharing – but don’t expect them to elevate your product above the clutter unless you have something extraordinary to offer. You’ll still need to push meaningful sales through sharp marketing, including more substantive partnerships.
  • Enhancement. Does your product meaningfully complement and enhance your partners’ products, e.g. fill a critical gap or provide a competitive edge? This can ultimately translate into higher profit for your partner, but you may have a harder time claiming a share if you can’t demonstrate direct causation.
  • PR. Can your product generate a meaningful boost in awareness, e.g. help win news stories in relevant publications? Note that this is the weakest and most ephemeral of incentives; after the initial flush of excitement, there’s little further incentive to continue promotion.

Does your product match your partners’ business model?

A few years ago I helped an indie game developer market its game for change. Among the most promising assets it had was a revenue-sharing deal with a major international nonprofit. That organization would help promote the game in exchange for a cut of the profits – a win-win for both parties.

Unfortunately, when the time came to promote, this relationship didn’t generate meaningful sales. Why not?

  • Audience alignment. While the game was compelling, it was also “hardcore” (e.g. not Candy Crush) and available only on PC. There just weren’t that many hardcore gamers among the nonprofit’s membership.
  • Channel mismatch. The nonprofit mostly promoted the game through Twitter. It’s pretty tough generating sales of a PC game through Twitter (a mobile game, maybe). The nonprofit refused to promote through its email list, where there’d be a somewhat higher chance of success. And this was because of:
  • Limited incentive. Sure, a cut of the profits is some incentive – but how does that stack against the organization’s other income sources? We’re not talking about GTA5 here; even in the best-case sales scenario, the game would only have generated vanishingly small revenues.

This same analysis applies to educational games and major publishers. Even if your game were a perfect match for a publisher’s content, does it match their marketing and sales strategy? Would the publisher be able to charge more for their existing products if they bundled yours in? Does it merely provide another “talking point” for a sales rep, or can it justify a meaningfully higher sales price? And remember the moral of this story: if the revenue is minimal, a sales team will have little incentive to push a new product.

Does 1 + 1 = 3?

Does your product have qualities that make it synergistic for potential partners?

  • Does it transform the partner’s product? For example, does it add new capabilities, especially those with high revenue potential such as assessment, or allow it to sell into a new market segment?
  • Is it broad as well as deep? A one-day intervention, no matter how profound, just doesn’t add the same value as something that enhances an entire semester. And make sure it feels coherent: one publisher I recently spoke with scorned mixing-and-matching games from different developers because it would result in a patchwork user experience.
  • Is it easy to integrate? For educational games, do your game’s data outputs match existing standards? Are all your games in Flash when your partner has standardized around HTML5?

Don’t just plan. Ask.

Despite everything I’ve written above, the surest way to build meaningful partnerships is to build real relationships with the intended partner. The best way to build a product that your partners will promote is to ask them directly what they’d like to see.

TIP: Educational games must meet curriculum standards

Takeaway: When developing an educational game for the K12 market, start by matching what you want to teach with what educators need to cover. State and local standards provide a handy shortcut, though nothing beats actual research (talking to real teachers).

Peter Stidwell, an Executive Producer at the Learning Games Network, has written up an excellent guide to developing games that can succeed in the K12 market. One of the most important points isn’t about marketing but rather ensuring the game itself fits the needs of American teachers:

Tie your game to standards. Stateside, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the equivalent of the National Curriculum. Sort of. CCSS only covers some subjects, it’s very new, and not all States have signed-up to it. There are also individual state standards in various subjects.

How to market your game to US schools (Edugameshub)

Common Core, gamed?

Ensuring that people actually want the product always precedes marketing — in fact, it precedes development. Too often I’ve seen organizations create materials that push an internal agenda, then scratch their heads about how to get teachers to use them. “Vanity projects” have little chance of gaining significant usage because they aren’t meeting an urgent need.

Educational games are no different than any other product: they must meet customer needs. Designing your game to explicitly meet Common Core or state standards is a pretty good bet – though your best option is to first conduct user research, to make sure. How you interpret the standards may not be how schools or teachers do it — or maybe teachers are only spending 20 minutes on what you think is a one-week topic.

Example: Key to iCivics’ widespread adoption was to develop our games and other materials to meet specific middle school civics / social studies standards. We started with in-house standards alignment and eventually outsourced it to Academic Benchmarks both because of the time involved (there’s no Common Core for civics, so we had to match to 50+ states — including DC, military, and territories — different standards) and the credibility of third-party certification. Check out iCivics’ standards-matching.

Learning Games, Teaching Games, and Educational Games

(Draft 2; revised 2013/06/26)

@poetichentai : EdSurge’s @tonywan and iCivics’ @genekoo on stage at #G4C13’s Plenary Response. Big ups to Asians in edtech! Last week I was asked to join the Games for Change panel, “Games 2020”, and share some thoughts on the what the next few years might offer learning games from my perspective as Executive Director of iCivics. It’s a good time for reflection — we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Games for Change Festival and Jim Gee’s seminal What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, and the ninth of Games+Learning+Society. iCivics has been along for half the ride, building what is arguably now the largest game-based curriculum in the country (18 games, 33K+ registered teachers).

From our experience so far, there appear to be two major paths forward: games for learning and games for teaching. The two categories overlap but are not the same. They imagine different audiences, different deployment environments, and different imperatives:

Learning games target the consumer directly. They’re played “at home” (nowadays, that means anywhere). To players they provide entertainment or escapism, satisfy curiosity, and/or offer some sense of agency.

Teaching games target the consumer indirectly, through an intermediary educator who’s also the primary customer. Like other teaching resources, they must demonstrate effectiveness (in developing knowledge, skills, or dispositions), meet standards and requirements, and be usable by teachers either standalone or with available training and support.

Of course, the best teaching games are also learning games. I’ll call this sweet Venn spot “educational games.” It’s nice to imagine that it’s a big target, but unfortunately experience suggests that it’s not.

Do I Have a Right? concept art

Concept art for “Do I Have a Right?”

Here’s a concrete example of how these two categories diverge. Do I Have a Right? is iCivics’ most popular game, with over 2 million game plays over four years. Part of the reason for its success is that we optimized it for classroom use: it’s browser-based and needs only Flash installed, students can complete it in under 30 minutes, and they can play 1:1 or share computers. (Many of our teachers project the game via Smartboard to the whole class at once). Despite the hoopla over iPads in schools, it seems most of the users of our iOS version of the game, Pocket Law Firm, play for entertainment or edutainment. The feedback we’ve gotten reflects that audience’s interests: When are you adding more levels? Can we get more in-game loot? Why does the game peter out at 40 minutes?

Simcity Edu
On the flip side you have SimCity, the AAA entertainment title from EA/Maxis. Alongside Oregon Trail, SimCity is probably one of the most-cited examples of a learning game, especially because it’s a sandbox featuring complex, interacting systems. As a major commercial title, the latest version was built with consumers in mind (complaints notwithstanding). The potential to teach gamers key concepts in economics, urban design, public policy, and environmental science is tremendous. But the same features that make it a AAA title also make it unusable in the vast majority of schools: it requires software installation, because it requires serious graphical horsepower, and because it must always stay online (with considerable bandwidth requirements). GlassLab, an Institute of Play project, has invested heavily in adapting the game for classroom use by developing scaffolded scenarios for STEM topics. I hope these investments will not only make SimCity a better learning game, but also more accessible to schools.

So learning games aren’t necessarily teaching games. However, the very best teaching games should also be at least good learning games — that is, satisfy the needs of both students and teachers. Note that I write “student,” not “consumers” or “youth.” It is, I admit, a much easier user to satisfy. The competition is not “Call of Duty” or “Walking Dead.” It’s textbooks.

Educational games find a balance between teacher needs and interests, and student needs and interests. They also find a balance between supporting and challenging schools as we find them. Challenge schools too much with technical requirements or massive reworking of pedagogy, and scaling will be a tough road to walk. Accommodate the school environment too much, and you’re back at the maligned edutainment / disguised-multiple-choice-quiz that pervaded the previous generation of educational games.

If great educational games are to thrive, we need new investments in the coming years:

1. We need better information and research about games that succeed for student learning. We’re already seeing major efforts here with Common Sense Media’s ratings for parents and the forthcoming Games and Learning directory from the Games and Learning Publishing Council.

2. We need developers to pay more attention to the needs of teachers and not just students, and for founders/investors to underwrite these additional requirements. Let’s be clear here: it’s probably more expensive to develop games that are good for both students and teachers. Though, in iCivics’ experience, not necessarily that much more.

3. We need marketplaces that support these products so we can run sustainable businesses that can continue to support, evolve, and innovate these products.

What if we try all of this and find that the best learning requires sophisticated games that can’t be utilized in today’s schools? I suppose you do as Katie Salen did and open new ones, or as Jim Gee does and advocate for better school systems (and a fairer society). But let’s not go straight to the near-impossible task of remaking the system as our first impulse. Let’s see if we can hack them first with educational games that push towards better teaching and learning.