How we develop our serious games concept for effectiveness and fun

Last update: october 2019

Developing a serious game concept (or the gamification of problem solving) requires some extra steps compared to traditional game development, so we summarized our internal approach as a piece of game development advice.

Introducing research early and making it an integral part of game development reduces the risk of spending all the budget on a serious game that will prove to be ineffective in the end.

We are trying to get the best of both worlds – using the power of research and the expertise of a game development company to make a fun and effective serious game. The goal of research is to ensure that the core mechanics are effective in terms of both entertainment and education. These insights may be interesting for serious game companies, researchers, or clients who are interested in making a serious game.

During the production phase, research aims to gather feedback about the usability, engagement, and learning of the game in order to continually make improvements. Finally, during the post-production phase, the final game is tested for its efficacy and effectiveness in terms of the learning goal.

Based on these different types of research needed for each production phase, we propose the following five steps:

  1. Concept phase: making sure that we have a solid, evidence-based game concept (“How can the game make a measurable impact?”)
  2. Pre-production phase: testing the core mechanics using prototypes (“Does the core mechanics work for the entertainment and education goals?”)
  3. Production phase: testing the usability, engagement, and learning iteratively (“Is the game easy to understand, fun, and effective?”)
  4. Post-production phase 1: doing efficacy and effectiveness research of the final game (“Is the game efficacious and effective in reaching the learning goal?”)
  5. Post-production phase 2: tracking metrics after game is released (“Is the game effective in real life?”)

This article will focus on the first part – the concept phase. I will outline the steps that we take to develop the game concept in the next section.

What are the steps in the concept phase of creating a serious game?

 

The steps we take to develop our serious game concept:

  1. Define the goal of the game
  2. Extract requirements for the game from a problem analysis
  3. Create concepts filtered by the requirements
  4. Participate in the game testing with the target audience together with the clients/domain experts

1. Define the goal of the game

How do we define the goal of a game?

Defining the goal of the game is the most important step before creating a game concept. Ideally, we want a goal that is specific, time-bound, measurable, feasible, and relevant.
To make sure that we have a scientific list of requirements for the game, we do a literature research together with the clients/domain experts, which results in a document called “Problem Analyses”. We define the problems that the game tries to solve.  The solutions becomes the goal of the game for the players and the theoretical background it is based upon.

2. Extract requirements for the game from a problem analysis

How do we define the requirements for a game?

From the “Problem Analyses”, we extract requirements for the game concept. The requirements are dictated by the results from the literature research, as in, what does the literature offer as the solution for a given problem. These requirements are added to any requirements a client might have beforehand.

3. Create concepts filtered by the requirements

How do we use the requirements to create a concept?

When we finish the list of requirements for a game concept, we sent it to the clients/domain experts and ask them to rate the priority of each requirement. Based on their ratings we have a brainstorming session and come up with several game concepts. We start from the requirement that we think is the most important and jot down whatever concepts that come to mind. After we have an initial list, we run the concepts through the requirements that we derived from the previous step and select the game concept that meet the most requirements.

4. Participate in the game testing with the target audience together with the clients/domain experts

How does participating in testing help our game concept?

We do many tests with the clients and their target players to evaluate the effectiveness and fun of the game. We also look to see if players are clear on the goals the game communicates. From those tests, we narrow down elements that worked the best. Its best to have people from the game development team also participate in the testing, so that we can also observe what worked the best in terms of gameplay. To read more on game testing read this comprehensive wikipedia article: Game Testing.

At the end of these steps, we might go through these steps again if there are indications that we need to refine our concept. If you’re interested in how we apply the steps above to our own products, have a look at our method page as well.

 

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Additional Advice

 

Elicit feedback from within the company as soon as we have a draft of the game concept

Sometimes. the first time someone within the company, who was not on this project saw the game concept,was when we had the complete first game concept. They provide very insightful feedback, but we did not incorporate that because we did not have enough time. In the future, we should show the draft of the game concept as soon as we have a rough draft to make use of the team’s intuitions and expertise in making fun games.

Add a step to filter the clients/domain experts’ feedback before revising the game concept

We added a step to filter domain experts’ feedback. In this step, we separate the functional requirements from the creative suggestions. In other words, we follow the clients/domain experts’ requirements about the goals of the game but are more cautious when they suggest how the game should look, how the gameplay should be, or how the educational elements should be incorporated into the gameplay. When we are in doubt, we can get the opinions of other domain experts and the other members of the company or test the ideas with the target audience. If the clients/domain experts do not like the game concept, but it is effective and liked by the target audience, we stand our ground.

Expect a communication curve and communicate more frequently with the clients/domain experts

From the initial ideas that the client came to us with to the current game concept, there can be multiple iterations. During every iteration, we can discover discrepancies between what we thought the clients/domain experts wanted and what they actually wanted. It feels like the discrepancy is getting smaller and smaller when we talk with each other more and more. Eventually we will reach the Bull’s eye – a game concept that we are both happy with. Some parts of the communication curve are avoidable. For example, if we can get the requirements from the clients/domain experts and clarify them earlier, and if we could involve the clients more while making the first game concept, we can make a game concept that is more on-point the first time. Other parts of the curve are inevitable because the clients/domain experts may not be able to tell us what exactly they want until they see the concrete game concept. It indicates that when we plan for the development of a serious game, we should take the communication time into account, and communicate with the clients/domain experts earlier and more frequently.

Conclusion

We took  some time to address this workflow and are now benefiting from it in our new projects. One of these projects is Reducept, a virtual reality game that helps reduce chronic pain. Its game concept was developed in line with the workflow we described above, and is receiving many favorable reactions.  Hopefully you can use our advice to improve (parts of) your game concepts. Thanks for reading and good luck!

Resources

Game Testing
Serious Game Effectiveness
Serious Games

This is a condensed version of an earlier article, you can find it here.

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