GDC '08: EA takes games seriously

Publisher offers a look at how it adapted The Sims, SimCity, and Madden NFL franchises for educational purposes and why it won't be making a habit of the practice.

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SAN FRANCISCO--An executive with Electronic Arts gave a presentation at the Serious Games Summit portion of the Game Developers Conference, and one of the overarching themes he returned to repeatedly was that EA is not in the serious games business.

EA's vice president for global brand development of The Sims label Steve Seabolt was there to bring the audience up to speed on a handful of the company's games that had been adapted for educational and training purposes, but he stressed the company is still laser-focused on making entertaining games above all else. One of the main reasons why is that every dollar spent on making an educational game is one less dollar the publisher had to spend on its frontline franchises like Army of Two or Madden NFL Football.

"The reality is that we are a hit-driven business," Seabolt explained. "And economically, we can't really commit to launching a product unless we think we can sell a minimum of 2 million units. If you talk to anybody in the venture capital community, there's probably more economic roadkill around educational games in the past 20 years than just about any other category. Nobody's proven that you can sell a huge quantity of games yet."

Seabolt said EA is frequently approached by people looking to convert its games to educational or training purposes (or perhaps to commission a new game outright), but that it turns down eight or nine such proposals for every one it accepts. As for how it picks its projects, the publisher insists that the proposal fits well within the existing brand, that players would "be delighted" by the association, and that the project is an "opportunity of scale," or has a wide reach.

"That's probably the hardest thing to say no about," Seabolt said. "When the Tennessee Department of Health asked us to do something for a smoking-cessation product, that wasn't a natural fit, nor was it an opportunity of scale."

As for what projects have met the criteria, some have already been well publicized. For instance, the publisher last year donated an open-source version of SimCity to the One Laptop Per Child project. The SimCity Societies partnership with BP Alternative Energy also started off as a serious gaming proposal.

Seabolt said that 18 months ago, with development well underway on SimCity Societies, BP approached EA with an offer to pay for a game to teach youth around world about energy choices and consequences. Instead of creating a new game from scratch, the publisher decided to update the way pollution works in the game.

Instead of managing the generic "pollution," players have to consider the various amounts of carbon each of their energy sources pump out into the atmosphere. Technologies like solar panels and low-carbon power plants might cost more up front, but they provide longer term benefits that can lead to a happier, healthier population.

The publisher has also converted its various franchises into a few lower profile serious games projects. Seabolt talked about EA's contribution to Carnegie Mellon University's Alice, the open-source educational computer programming tool. For the next iteration of the program, EA is helping to underwrite development and is contributing art and animation from The Sims to put an accessible face on students' sometimes daunting first steps into computer programming. Alice is currently used in dozens of universities and a few high schools, and the developers are working on versions for grade school students as well.

Even the Madden NFL franchise has been tapped for serious gaming. The best-selling football franchise is at the heart of XOS Technologies' PlayAction Simulator, a pigskin training tool used by NCAA national champions the LSU Tigers. The simulator allows players to get a first-person perspective on how different plays look and then grades them afterward on abilities, like reading the defense and choosing the best receiver for a pass.

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