What knowledge is needed to develop a serious game?



Research, design, programming, testing and marketing: a lot of knowledge is needed to develop a serious game. If your organization is considering the use of serious gaming, it’s good to know what’s involved. Even if you outsource the development and implementation of the game to a game developer, after reading this article, you will know what it takes to develop a serious game.

Spoiler alert: a successful serious game solution requires more than just a good serious game! Even though developing a serious game is a big job, the biggest challenge is to make sure the game connects with the target group and conveys the right message.

To make sure you don’t get lost in all the information in this article, we split it up into three steps:

  • Preparation: doing domain research
  • Development: knowledge required to build a serious game, namely: product owner, game design, game art, game programming, QA testing and research.
  • Implementation: how do you make sure the target group play your serious game?

Preparation: doing domain research

Serious games are games aimed at transferring knowledge, teaching skills and, stimulating a change in behavior. The first steps in the development process of a serious game are:

  1. describing your idea/problem;
  2. formulating your goal or objectives;
  3. doing domain research.

In these steps, you do not necessarily need specific expertise. However, a certain degree of objectivity is important. It is important to be objective and to involve others in making the idea/problem concrete.

For example: an organization sells vegetarian products and is successful with its target group (vegetarians). The company wants to enter a new market: young people up to the age of 27 who are very concerned with a healthy lifestyle. The company wants to use a serious game to achieve a change in behavior among this group and to encourage them to eat vegetarian meat substitutes at least 3 times a week. The game is played a lot, but the group rarely buys the product. During the collection of customer feedback, 70% of the target group indicated that they do not eat meat replacements because, compared to meat, they contain almost no protein. They need meat when they exercise intensively 5 times a week. Oops!

Even though a serious game is ideal to reach a new target group and even change their eating habits, in this case, the right target group was not chosen. By involving the target group directly in the first phase, you ensure that the game actually leads to the desired result. Or you find out that a serious game is not necessary at all to solve the problem. That’s fine too.

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Development: knowledge needed to build a serious game

And now for the biggest job: developing a serious game. We have already written a lot about the development of a serious game, for instance, what to look out for and how long it takes. Enough about that. In this section, we share what expertise is needed for development.

Product owner: planning, guiding and connecting

The product owner is ultimately responsible for the content of the serious game.  They are the central contact in the development team, for colleagues, and external parties. The product owner collects ideas, determines the priority of (new) ideas and helps with the translation and implementation of ideas into game functionality. In addition to knowledge about serious games, the product owner often has knowledge of communication and business administration. Additionally, they have planning and organizational skills.

The Product Owner guards the vision of the product and ensures that the highest ROI is achieved based on the expected impact and the implementation cost.

Game design: create the skeleton of a serious game

Serious games are fun! That’s why they work so well to change behavior, transfer knowledge or teach new skills. Game design is an important factor in the development of a serious game. In short, a game designer thinks up the skeleton of the game, consisting of:

  • Level design: leading players through different game levels and getting them excited to complete all levels.
  • Storyline: a game needs a good story. A game designer invents powerful, sequential dialogues that make the player want to continue playing.
  • Game rules: rules help the player navigate through the game without getting stuck.
  • User Experience (UX): within the development team, a person with extensive knowledge of User Experience is needed. UX helps to improve the player’s experience by implementing elements that provide feedback to the player. Think about signals such as an exclamation point above a character, meaning the player must click on the character to start a conversation.

Want to know more about game design? Check out this article!

Game art: design the skeleton with fascinating artwork

The game story of a serious game is important, but the eye wants something too! In fact, when it comes to games for entertainment, 75% of gamers say that the quality of graphics plays a part in their decision whether or not to buy a game. So it’s important!

Game art comes in different shapes and sizes, depending on the type of game, the platform, and simply the available budget. A serious game has either 2D or 3D art. Or a mix of both. A game artist also deals with the User Interface (UI), and with 3D-character animations.

Want to know more about game art? Check out this article!

Game programming: making sure the skeleton can move

Now that the skeleton has been designed and decorated with beautiful art, specialists are needed to make it functional. A simple example: if the player wants to go from platform A to platform B and presses the jump button, the character must actually jump. That is what the game programmers take care of.

The skills of two types of programmers are needed to execute the serious game: gameplay programmers and engine/system programmers.

Gameplay programmers create features that the end-user sees. A good gameplay programmer has knowledge of the entire process: development, testing, improvement, and maintenance. A gameplay programmer is knowledgeable on how to create an awesome gaming experience.

A game engine or system programmer has extensive knowledge of complex systems that make it easier to develop new features. Ensuring that games work smoothly, that gameplay programmers can easily implement new features, and also ensuring that the code is (and remains) clean. A lot of the work is behind the scenes, but just as important.

There are many other different types of programmers. For example, you might need a backend programmer to create a  dashboard. A virtual Reality programmer would be needed if you are working on a VR game.

Want to know more about game programming? Check out this article!

QA testing

Of course, you want to develop the best serious game there is on the planet! To get as close as possible to this goal, you need knowledge about QA testing. QA stands for Quality Assurance. The purpose of this method is to ensure that during the development process of a game, the quality standards are achieved. This is usually done by playing the game a lot. Again and again until something breaks. The problem is then passed on to the development team for fixing.

This process ensures that when the game is released, it is stable and the users have a nice experience. A game that crashes easily results in ‘1-star reviews’, dissatisfied players, and unmet (project) goals.

Serious game ontwikkelen

Other roles in serious game development

So far, we have just described the overarching roles. Note that, the larger the game production, the more specialized the roles become. For example, you may have a role for an artist responsible for how the trees and plants look in the game. These are then recreated as beautifully or as realistically as possible. This is obviously not necessary for every game, but it shows how detailed a role can be and how many different roles there are. Most of them fall roughly into the above-described categories.

Researcher and data analyst

To find out if the serious game does what it is supposed to do, you need to measure the results. And, to measure results, you need to collect data. The nature of the data collection and analysis depends on the project.

For example, Gryphon Rider is a serious game that helps rehabilitate children with a non-congenital brain injury. The game interacts with a dashboard where all movement data is tracked in real-time. The rehabilitation therapist, therefore, has insight into the entire rehabilitation process of the client.

Curious about more examples? Check out this article!

Implementation: how do you ensure that the target group starts playing the serious game?

We are almost there! The game is ready, tested and the first results are visible! But how do you make sure the target group will play the serious game or even know it exists?

A good implementation plan is needed to achieve the project’s objective. That is why you need people who have knowledge of:

  • Marketing: through which channels do you want to communicate, and where does your target audience find you? Do you need to build a website, create a social media campaign, run ads, and maybe go to trade shows?
  • Graphic design: is a logo needed? How do you develop a corporate identity that fits the serious game and appeals to the target group?
  • Aftercare: how can the target group contact us with questions or problems? Should a manual be developed?

Developing a serious game: it is quite a job!

We understand if you are a bit overwhelmed after reading this article. Still, we hope you now have a better idea of the knowledge needed to develop a serious game. This will be useful when you get started or when selecting a serious game development partner.


Did reading this article just give you more questions? Or would you like more information on a specific topic? Please contact Tim Laning for an informal talk::


Tim Laning

Business developer

Do you want to know more about the possibilities of serious games? Let’s discuss what serious games can do for you.


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