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早前的教育类游戏所留下的经验教训

发布时间:2015-06-02 09:57:57 Tags:,,,,

作者:Bryant Francis

从20世纪80年代末到20世纪90年代,当主机游戏和计算机游戏仍作为两个独立的市场时,不少工作室在蓬勃发展的个人计算机市场中建立起了一个强大的王国:教育类电子游戏。

包括Broderbund,The Learning Company和Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium等公司都卖出了数百万份游戏,其中包括了《The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis》,《Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?》和《俄勒冈之旅》。

尽管许多那时候的游戏具有惊人的影响力,但并非许多游戏都拥有与这些游戏同样的价值:它们得到了广泛的认可,并能够提供给学生们有关数学,历史,地理和艺术等学科的教育性。根据年龄,你可能还能记起自己在教室里用苹果2代手机玩这些游戏的情形。如果你在那个时代有自己的小孩,你可能会记得每年为了孩子而在家庭PC上花费200至300美元去购买一款40美元的这类型游戏。

但是在1999年以后,这股热潮却突然止住了。

Broderbund(from gamasutra)

Broderbund(from gamasutra)

尽管有些品牌仍然在一些全新开发团队旗下颠簸地发展了好几年,但是90年代的教育类游戏热潮在CD-ROM发行商Softkey收购了The Learning Company(并沿用了这一名字)和Broderbund后开始走下滑路了。之后The Learning Company又先后被Mattel和Gores technology Group所收购,然后在面对育碧和Riverdeep时又遭遇了分裂,同时他们也停止招聘并裁掉那些负责结合有趣的游戏玩法和高质量教育内容的员工们。

这些游戏对于整整一代人都产生了巨大的影响。它们不仅推动着学生们专注于像数学,地理或历史等课程,同时也让这些学生们接近了编程或游戏开发领域。现在许多那时候的学生成为了游戏产业中的一份子,像《Zoombinis》等游戏便在Kickstarter中取得了成功,而那时候的哪些经验教训仍然能够适应这个时代的游戏产业发展呢?

在教育领域什么是可行的?

对于那些致力于延伸这个时代的遗产的人来说,Broderbund和The Learning Company的遭遇代表着教育类电子游戏潜能的巨大损失。致力于Extra Credits同时也运行着非营利性的Games for Good的设计师James Portnow便一直提倡着现代游戏的教育可能性。他强调在这个时代,教育专家和游戏设计专家能够合作起来并致力于创造符合教科书内容的游戏。他表示如果缺少了这些联系,教育类游戏便不可能触及它们在过去达到的那个高度。

他说道:“现在的我们将教育游戏和娱乐游戏当成是两种完全不同的产业。我们会遵循不同的规定,浏览不同的网站并与不同的发行商合作。如果我们想要看到教育类游戏发挥其真正的潜能,我们就必须改变现状。”

让我们与那个时代的开发者和执行人员进行交谈,我们将能够学到那时候创造出如此巨大成功的一些经验教训。首先:当开发者有机会推动创造性局限并且拥有足够良好的环境时,教育类游戏便能够有效地运行。

Unity当前的研究与开发工程师之一的Peter Freese曾是致力于为学生开发游戏的教育类软件公司Edmark的程序员。

他所参与的第一款游戏《Thinkin’ Things》仍然是他最喜欢的那个时代的游戏。对于Freese来说,这款游戏之所以突显于其它游戏是因为它是许多来自其它更注重多层次项目的团队的全新设计师所参与的一个试验性项目。Freese说道:“我们有效地结合在一起,并且我们也有足够的自由去决定自己要在其中做什么。”

Laurie Pedersen,也是作为过去Broderbund的教育部门开发总监的Laurie Strand回忆道,在12至14个月的开发过程中,有3至6个月的时间将用于原型的创造。在像《The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis》等广受好评的游戏中,这便意味着与他们的开发伙伴,即来自剑桥的智囊团TERC吸取来自孩子们的反馈(游戏邦注:通常是公司雇员的孩子们),并使用这些反馈去完善原型。

Pedersen解释道:“TERC同时也参与了测试过程。之后我们将聚集在一起并说道,‘这并不可行’,然后他们便会测试不同的游戏玩法,我们的动画团队也会调整角色的外观。”

她补充道:“这是一个漫长的过程。这在今天这个你只需要30天时间便能够够创造出一款应用的世界中是不可能的事。”

Pedersen也响应了Portnow对于共同参加会议的评价,并回想起了Broderbund参与了全国教育计算会议以及在波士顿和旧金山所举办的其它教育性会议。

而所有的这些都是发生在一个理想化的工作环境中。Michelle Bushneff(在Broderbund工作期间从美术师发展成艺术总监后又发展成副总经理)将办公室描述为“它让我看到了真正的生活应该是怎样的,因为那时候它其实是一家家庭式运营公司。工作室里允许狗的存在,我们为动画师提供了网上绘画课程,在皮克斯早前发展阶段我们还曾与该工作室中的人员进行过交谈。”

那时候并不存在太大的危机。所有人都对任务充满信任。基于曾经作为教师的工作人员所组成的销售团队并致力于将无数Broderbund游戏带到教室,这些内容便是该公司能够提供的最棒的奢侈品。这是一个非常积极的环境,它并不会对Bushneff及其同事之后的职业生涯造成任何不利的影响。现在的他们仍很亲近,每隔几年便会在创始人的家聚会,并始终保持着与彼此的联系。

无形之手的攻击

安全的现金流,有才能的员工,协作空间,平等的层级结构都非常适合较长的原型创建过程—-对于任何工作室来说所有的这些都是最理想的条件,但是它们却仍不能保证持续的成功。

曾与程序员Edmark致力于像《Blood》等游戏的Freese见证了教育类游戏的起起伏伏,对于这类型游戏的最大开发者的衰败他并未感到太多惊讶,他反倒惊讶于没有人能够替代他们,因为他也有自己的孩子。在90年代已成为过去式的时候,当他想要购买高质量的教育类游戏时,他却发现很难再找到这类型游戏了。

Freese解释道:“公司改变,起起伏伏,成功与失败这些都是正常的事,我们期待发生这些事,但却不存在后起之秀能够取代它们。”

进一步着眼于The Learning Company和Broderbund的衰败,这并不是环境的原因—-这是整个市场变化的征兆,而是因为其买主Softkey的改变。Softkey的销售模式完全影响到了Broderbund和The Learning Company创造游戏的高成本与高回报模式。

现在作为作家同时也是初创企业顾问的Ken Goldstein曾经是Broderbund的娱乐和教育部副总裁,他能够清楚地描述出Softkey所引进的定价模式,他们游戏的巨大销量以及CD-ROM热潮对于Broderbund业务模式的改变。

Goldstein说道:“在90年代,当CD-ROM疯狂盛行时,最先找到我们的便是Price Costco,他们寻求我们能够提供给他们的每一家商店游戏。我们从制作10万份游戏变成了制作100万份游戏,并且在短短的1年内,我们90%的业务都转向了大卖场。”

logical journey(from gamasutra)

logical journey(from gamasutra)

“因为仓库装不下这么多游戏,所以我们只能将它们堆放在停车场并祈祷着不要下雨。”

“如果面对的是这样的数量,即你想要卖出1百万分游戏,那么像49.95美元或59.99美元的价格点是不合理的。你需要将价格调至29.95美元才能达到这一目标,这意味着你是以22至23美元的批发价进行销售。然后竞争激烈的零售商将把价格调至19.95美元,而批发价也将降至12美元。”

价格的下降会导致利润的下降。随着Broderbund董事会决定将公司的所有业务转向大量的零售业,该公司便发现他们与Softkey等软件开发者(以极低的价格,即9.95美元在销售CD-ROM)成为了竞争者。这意味着他们只能从每款售出的游戏中获得1至2美元的利润,基于这样的利润,他们将很难去支持Broderbund软件的长期原型开发与较高的制作成本。

由Softkey和其它身处抵消销售CD-ROM业务中的开发者所推动的全新定价模式破坏了教育类产品生产周期的经济可行性。显然那时候的Goldstein深受并购的打击,但是在17年后,他表示这是无法改变的过去。对于他来说,Broderbund的模式是建立在“人类–产品–利润”的经营理念基础之上,即有才能的人创造出能够带来利润的优秀产品,一旦出现并购,该经营理念便会反向而流。

Portnow表示,随着这种巨大的变革,Mattel可以想到一种方法去利用The Learning Company的百万美元教育资源。

最后

即使Mattel不知道他们所坚持的是什么,但实际上他们手上正握着完整的游戏类型。

不管何时当Goldstein谈起他在Broderbund的时光,他总是会感叹Broderbund的付出的重要性:“当有人看到我的作品集中那些在Broderbund所创造的游戏时,他们总是会说正是这些游戏将自己带到了软件工程领域,还有什么比这一点更让人感动的吗?”

Freese在Edmark的工作也对他之后的游戏开发生涯具有重要的影响力,这也时刻暗示着他现代游戏中的一些功能具有教授玩家关于数学和阅读等能力。

Freese说道:“我学到许多关于如何向那些非读者的用户呈现内容。当在致力于一款游戏时我总是有许多想法。我所坚持的一点是,如果你必须向某人解释该怎么做的话,那就说明你彻底做错了。”

非盈利性的TERC通过在Kickstarter筹集到了101716美元而复苏了《Zoombinis》,作为西班牙裔或非洲裔美国人的游戏开发者谈论了Carmen Sandiego以及Lynne Thigpen在《The Chief》中的角色是如何帮助他们始终保持对于教育的兴趣—-这是游戏产业对于多样化呈现的早前里程碑。

90年代的教育游戏所播撒下的种子在多年来一直影响着游戏产业,它们的经验教训也仍然受益于游戏领域的设计师们。基于强大的数字发行模式,并且那些怀旧的消费群体也都有了自己的孩子,我们是否能够看到关于这类型游戏的强势回归?

本文为游戏邦/gamerboom.com编译,拒绝任何不保留版权的转发,如需转载请联系:游戏邦

Where in the world did blockbuster educational games go?

By Bryant Francis

From the late 1980s through the 1990s, as console games and computer games remained two very separate markets, a handful of studios built a blockbuster empire atop the burgeoning personal computing market: the educational video game.

Broderbund, The Learning Company, and The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium were selling millions of copies of games including The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and The Oregon Trail.

While many game series from that era went on to be massive blockbusters, not many could claim the same value these titles did: that they were widely accepted as providing a clear and arguable social good, capable of teaching students about math, history, geography, and the arts. Depending on your age, you might remember playing some of these games on your classroom’s Apple II. If you had kids in that era, you may remember shelling out between $200 to $300 a year for these $40 games on your home PC in the hope yourself that it might help your child’s grades.

But after 1999, it all just suddenly stopped.

Though some of these brands limped along for a few more years under new development teams, the educational game boom of the 90s slowed to a halt after CD-ROM publisher Softkey purchased The Learning Company and adopted its name, then acquired Broderbund in a similar fashion. The new giant known as The Learning Company was bought up by Mattel, but after posting losses even as the sale was ongoing, The Learning Company was sold to Gores Technology Group, then splintered between Ubisoft and Riverdeep, all the while laying off and forcing out the employees who made the secret combination of fun gameplay and quality education possible.

These games had a huge impact on an entire generation. Their lessons inspired students not just to dig deeper into lessons about math, geography, or history, but in some cases to take up programming or game development themselves. With these students now becoming part of the game industry, and titles like Zoombinis making a successful return on Kickstarter, what lessons from the era still apply to the game industry today?

What Worked In Education?

To those working to carry on this era’s legacy, the fracturing of Broderbund and The Learning Company represented a huge loss for the potential of educational video games. Designer James Portnow, who writes for Extra Credits and runs the nonprofit Games for Good, has been championing the educational possibilities for modern games. He notes that this era was the one time that experts in education and experts in game design worked together and produced games that weren’t just re-skinned textbooks. He argues without that connection, educational games can’t reach the same potential they did at their incredible heights.

“Now we think of educational games and entertainment games as two different industries,” he says. “We go to different conventions, read different websites, and work with different publishers. This needs to change if we ever want to see educational games grow into their true potential.”

Going back to speak with developers and executives from this period though, there are other lessons from that time period that drove this cottage industry’s success. The first: the edutainment genre was one that operated at its finest when its developers had both the opportunity to push their creative limits, and a healthy environment in which to do so.

Peter Freese, one of Unity’s current research and development engineers, was a programmer at Edmark, an educational software company specifically developing games for classrooms.

Thinkin’ Things, the first game he was hired to work on, is still his favorite from the era. To Freese, that game stood out from the other titles because it was an experimental project filled with new designers where input from all team members held more value than on a more hierarchical project. “We bonded really well, but we also had a lot of freedom to decide what we were doing in the game,” Freese says.

Laurie Pedersen, known as Laurie Strand during her time with Broderbund as head of development for the education division, recalls that in a 12- to 14-month development cycle, three to six months of that time would be spent building a prototype. And on critically acclaimed titles like The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, that meant working with their development partner, a Cambridge think tank called TERC, to take feedback from children—often children of company employees—and use it to improve those prototypes.

“TERC was also very very involved in testing on their side as well,” Pedersen explains, “and then we would come together, and say ‘well this didn’t work,’ and they would test different gameplay, our animation team would fine-tune the look of the characters.”

“It was a long process,” she adds. “It’s not something possible in today’s world where you might need to do an app in as little as 30 days.”

Pedersen also echoed to Portnow’s comments about mutual conference attendance, recalling Broderbund’s participation in the National Educational Computing Conference and other educational conferences in Boston and San Francisco being essential both for driving sales and sharing knowledge about the design at hand.

All this took place in a utopian work environment many would consider a work of fiction if it hadn’t actually existed. Michelle Bushneff, who rose from artist to art director to vice president during her time with Broderbund, describes the office as one that “kind of spoiled me over what life would look like, because it was just for the family-owned run company at the time. Dogs were allowed at the office, we had on-site life drawing classes for the animators, and in the early days of Pixar we even had some of the guys from Pixar come in and talk to us.”

Crunch was limited. The mission was something everyone believed in. And with assets like an entire sales force filled with former teachers working with school districts to get millions of copies of Broderbund games into the classrooms, those luxuries were ones the company could afford. It was an environment so positive it didn’t just spoil Bushneff for the rest of her career, but also her fellow Broderbund employees. They’re still close, gathering at the founder’s house every couple of years and keeping in touch even after going their separate ways.

The Invisible Hand Strikes

Secure cash flow, talented staff, collaborative spaces, flat hierarchies that work well with long prototyping periods–all of these conditions would be ideal for any studio, but they still don’t guarantee constant success.

Freese, who watched the edutainment genre rise and fall as he struck out to work on games like Blood with his fellow Edmark programmers, wasn’t so much surprised with how the genre’s biggest developers fell apart, but he was surprised with the fact that nothing came in to replace them, mostly because he had kids of his own. As the 90s passed, when he went shopping for high-quality educational games, what he found was often either inadequate–or just plain nonexistent.

“Companies changed, they had rise and falls, and successes and failures and that kind of thing,” Freese explains. “That was normal, and we expected that to happen, but there weren’t new stars rising to take their place.”

Looking closer at The Learning Company and Broderbund’s collapse, that’s because it wasn’t due to isolated circumstances–it was a symptom of an entire changing market…which changed in part because their purchaser, Softkey. Softkey’s sales model ultimately interfered with the high-cost high-reward model Broderbund and The Learning Company had built their best games on.

Ken Goldstein, now an author and startup consultant, was vice president of entertainment and education at Broderbund and can chart exactly how the pricing models introduced by Softkey, mixed with the huge sales of their games and the CD-ROM boom shifted the entire way Broderbund did business.

“In the 90’s, when CD-ROMs went crazy through the ceiling, the first one who came after us was Price Costco, who asked for a pallet of games for each of their stores,” Goldstein says. “We went from producing 100,000 copies on a run, to 1 million copies on a run, and within one year 90 percent of our business was in big box stores.

(Zoombinis CD case picture credit: The Strong.)

“We used to stack it all up in our parking lot and pray it wouldn’t rain because our warehouse couldn’t hold all the goods!

“When you went from these kinds of volumes the idea of a retail price point like $49.95 to $59.99 doesn’t work if you want to sell through a million copies. You need to sell at $29.95 at retail to hit that goal, which means selling at $22-$23 wholesale. Then competitive retail dropped to $19.95 and wholesale slipped to $12.”

And with dropping prices came dropping margins. With Broderbund’s board pushing to move all of the company’s business into high volume mass retail, the company found itself competing with other software developers, like Softkey, who were selling CD-ROMs at dramatically lower prices as low as $9.95 thanks to mail-in rebates. That meant only $1-$2 profit margins on every individual copy of every game sold, and on such margins, the ability to fund the long prototype times and high production values of Broderbund’s software slid away with every game.

The new pricing model, driven by both Softkey and every other developer in the business selling CD-ROMs at such low prices, destroyed the economic viability of the edutainment production cycle. Goldstein was obviously frustrated with the merger, but 17 years later, he says it’s water under the bridge. To him, the Broderbund model was built on the philosophy of “people–products–profit,” where talented people created good product that drove profit, but once the merger kicked in, that philosophy seemed to flow in reverse, and Broderbund, now part of The Learning Company, was sold to Mattel.

Portnow notes that in the wake of this dramatic change, Mattel could only think of one way to utilize The Learning Company’s multimillion dollar educational resources–developing licensed Barbie games destined for the dollar bin at Circuit City.

Graduation

But even if Mattel didn’t know what it was holding on to, with practically an entire genre of gaming in its hands, the rest of the world did.

Whenever Goldstein gives talks about his time at Broderbund, he has a frequent encounter that reminds him why Broderbund’s work was so important: “When someone sees these Broderbund games in my bio and they tell me that these games were what got them into software engineering…what can warm your heart more than that?”

Freese’s work at Edmark was massively influential in the rest of his game development career, and a reminder that some features in modern-day games have strong roots in games meant to teach math and reading.

“I learned a lot about how to present things to users who are not readers,” Freese says. “I’ve always carried with me the idea that when I’m working on a game, how I design the interface? And one of my philosophies is, if you have to explain to someone what to do, you’ve done it wrong.”
The nonprofit TERC has revived the Zoombinis franchise on Kickstarter to the tune of $101,716, and game developers of Hispanic or African-American backgrounds talk about how Carmen Sandiego and Lynne Thigpen’s character of The Chief were fixtures that helped them stay interested in education–early milestones in the game industry’s quest for diverse representation.

The seeds sown by the 90s educational games have continued to influence the game industry over the years, and their lessons remain relevant both for designers working in the entertainment space. With strong digital distribution models and an informed and nostalgic consumer base now having kids of their own, will we soon see a strong attempt to revive the genre?

And knowing how it all fell apart before, could it be kept from collapsing once again?(source:gamasutra)

 


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