Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education

Halo 3 was released this week. For those of you who don’t play video games or have kids who play them, this was a big event. Actually, that’s an understatement, it was THE event of the year for gamers. In 24 hours, the sales of Halo 3 topped 170 million dollars in the US alone. Projections for lifetime sales of this game are 700 million US dollars.

Halo 3 screenshotOK, so that’s a lot of money and game players. What does this have to do with educational games?

Putting aside any discussion of the merits of games in education, these Halo 3 sales figures shine the harsh light of reality on games developed for schools. Here are the facts:

Halo 3 Facts (sources: LA Times, Slave to the Game site, and other sites)

  • $170 million in one day sales at an average of $70 per game translates to 2.5 million games sold in one day
  • $700 million estimated revenue translates to an anticipated 10 million games sold worldwide
  • $30 million spent on the development of the game; artists, programmers, designers, testers, and others
  • $30 million spent on marketing and promotion
  • Halo 3 is the result of 3 years of effort by 300 artists and programmers

School Facts (US data – 2003/04 National Center for Education Statistics) (I’m using US public schools data because private school data is not collected as often and international data is not tabulated the same way.)

  • 3 million American public school teachers
  • 48 million public school students
  • 96,000 public school buildings

This means…

  • In one week, more people will purchase a copy of Halo 3 than there are teachers in the United States.
  • Every public school in the U.S. would have to purchase 100 copies of a game to match the sales of Halo 3
  • There will be one Halo 3 game purchased for every 5 students, or about 3 games per class (US kindergarten to high school.)

I know what you are thinking–every game can’t be Halo 3! You are making wild estimates! Surely there is room for developers and publishers to create games that are educational!

But here’s the reality. Let’s make the wildly optimistic estimate that 10% of schools will purchase any one educational game. This completely ignores the fact that a single game will likely not meet the needs of both elementary and secondary schools, satisfy state standards, or actually appeal to all children.

Let’s be really optimistic and toss in private schools too. That raises the number of US school buildings (potential customers) to around 125,000. If 10% of all US schools purchase the same game, your estimated sales are 12,500 games. Say you make a game that is so good you can charge $100 each. That gives you projected sales of $1.2 million.

A million dollars! That’s a lot of money, right Dr. Evil?

Well, not in the world of gaming.

A game development budget can start at a million dollars. For top-tier games, $3 million dollars is a low budget. Most marketing experts believe that in order to sell the game you need to spend at least as much for marketing as you invest in developing the game. Incredibly, marketing to schools is actually expensive compared to reaching a hard core gamer. In schools, you can’t count on the word of mouth or the intense interest that gamers have for their games. Producing and selling a game that will, at best, sell 10,000 units just doesn’t make economic sense. You’d be better off putting your development team to work on something more lucrative.

So, is this hopeless?
Are educational games doomed? No, of course not. But it does imply that educational games will not be developed or marketed the same way as other video games.

Could someone donate the money? Sure, a charity, the government, or some unknown benefactor could decide to put a couple of million dollars into this effort. Don’t forget, after you make a game, you have to make people aware that it exists. That costs money too. Knowing how slowly technology is adopted in schools, they had better have a high tolerance for pain.

The good news is that when you realize that following the well-trod path of traditional game publishing won’t work, it frees you up to concentrate on what will. Liberated from constraints of the market, someone might come up something innovative that will blow everyone away.

Think you’ve got what it takes to make the Halo 3 of educational games? The MacArthur Foundation has announced a 2 million dollar competition to find emerging leaders, communicators, and innovators shaping the field of digital media and learning. This is part of their 50 million dollar, 5 year initiative to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.

The deadline is October 15, 2007. Go for it!


4 Replies to “Halo 3 shines harsh light on games in education”

  1. Sylvia,
    I am particularly impressed by how much attention is placed by developers on the “user experience”. They field test endlessly, get feedback, and make changes to the game (no matter how much the developers like a feature) if any detail of the game is too frustating, too easy, not fun.
    They are sooo user focused.

    I wish every teacher and every educational software developer would adopt this commitment to the user, the learner.


  2. As a gamer myself I see the educational benefit of some of these games for our children. These games have changed the way students respond to problems and, more importantly how they connect and respond to one another. As an administrator, the kids get a kick out of the fact that play some of the same games that they do. Obviously not to the same extent but I play them just the same.

    Take a game, for example, like World of Warcraft (http://tinyurl.com/hfzmt) It is a multiplayer online role-playing game that requires high level problem solving and collaboration to complete the game’s objective. It can be argued that this type of game is more social than some face to face social activities.

    Games like Civilization (http://www.civ3.com/) really get into what it takes to create a society and how to work together to achieve a common goal.

    So we can create the perfect educational games, but I think its also important to recognize these types of games for their educational value as well.


  3. A couple of things I wanted to add:

    In reference to Pete’s comment about user focus, the August issue of Wired talked about the user testing that Bungie did for Halo 3. They took advantage of the “machinery” built by Microsoft to do testing on tradtional software products in order to tune their game experience. I too think the focus on the user is awesome, but it adds a tremendous amount of complexity and cost to the development process.

    Not every game needs to have a huge budget to be successful. It’s great to watch the XBox Live Arcade develop and grow because it’s becoming a very viable way to develop and release on the cheap. This is HUGELY important to gaming in education because it proves it can be done.

    Secondly, I think there are some great examples of educational games that can be cross-over hits. Expanding your market from schools to everyone really helps you be successful. Muzzy Lane’s Making History is one example.

    This supports your conclusion that “educational games will not be developed or marketed the same way as other video games”. For me, the true complexity lies in supporting state standards and in showing mastery. Halo 3 has a large array of data collection allowing your friends to go online and see how you did. We need to develop similar ways of measuring learning in educational games that shows improvement and learning in a way that validates the time spent playing games.

    For a wide array of parents, teachers, and administrators I think gaming has a stigma attached. Finding ways to help them understand that games aren’t all about killing, that games have built in systemic teachings (problem solving, analysis, etc.), and that games can help kids get a deeper mastery of subject matter by immersing them in the subject matter is extremely important. Sadly, I think it’s a “chicken or egg type problem”…

  4. Pete,
    Your comment is a very important one. Working in the game industry, it’s very clear that 99.9% of all game designers and programmers, and a very high percentage of the testers and artists are avid gamers themselves. They live, breathe and love games and it shows in their work. This is not true in the world of games developed for schools. First, it’s just impossible to become a second grader again! Seriously, it’s just a fact that games for schools are designed to be SOLD, not played.

    If you are interested in a more expanded discussion of the impact of measuring educational outcomes and meeting standards in educational game design, I wrote more about that in a paper presented in an Australian computers in education conference last year.

    Sorry your comment got caught in the spam catcher for a couple of days. I agree with you, there is no doubt that gamers learn a lot of from games. Strategy, planning, even social skills are necessary to complete many game objectives. The problem comes when trying to align these things with “content” as defined by state curriculum and measured by standardized tests. I think the question has to be whether our goals as a society are truely aligned with standards, and truely measured by our current tests. And that’s a whole other conversation!

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