The global video game industry continues to experience unparalleled growth and Canadian game developers have benefited greatly from the ever-expanding audience and appetite for video games. While Canadian children are willingly embracing interactive media in most aspects of their lives, it remains a challenge for Canadian game developers to distribute their products where they can plausibly do the most good, i.e., in schools. That’s not stopping developers of all sizes from producing educational games, and now many are making progress in getting these products into the hands of the kids they mean to help, even if that’s outside of the classroom.
“Games are a special way of learning,” says François Boucher-Genesse, co-founder of Ululab, a Montreal-based educational game developer. “Kids can go at their own pace. In a classroom setting, educators feel like they’re teaching for that one kid in the middle. There is consensus that games can improve the learning process.” That consensus has led to a boom in educational technology. In 2017, the global EdTech market generated revenue of US$17.7 billion, according to research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, whereas Metaari recently reported that investments in the industry had reached US$9.52 billion (a record level and a 30% year-on-year increase). And revenue is expected to climb in the coming years and reach $40.9 billion by 2022.
Boucher-Genesse is deeply passionate about making educational games, a trait that he shares with many of his fellow educational game creators and he is deeply encouraged by the growth his industry is experiencing. He himself gave up a successful career with game developer Bungie—where he worked on the Halo 3 megahit—to focus on this growing educational space. Since then, Ululab has prospered; the company’s first educational hit, Slice Fractions, was featured as one of Apple’s best in 2014, spawning a sequel, Slice Fractions 2 (and a special version Slice Fractions School Edition which unlocks all levels and makes it easy for teachers to share with students). Along the way, he’s learned a lot about which business models work in education and which don’t.
The challenge of selling to schools
Ululab spends a lot of time in classrooms testing its games and speaking with teachers and students. Despite that, direct sales to schools make up only 10% of the company’s total sales. Boucher-Genesse says that it is not uncommon in the industry. While there is a consensus that educational games are beneficial to students, that part of the market is difficult to crack.
“It’s hard to reach them because you need a big sales team to make cold calls to schools. Schools will only speak with certain vendors—in person. If you’re not part of their world, it takes a lot of effort to get into the sales cycle. That’s hard for small and medium businesses,” he said.
“The bigger reason is because whenever a school adopts a tool, the tool needs to be comprehensive and cover the full year’s curriculum. You don’t want a program that will last for less than the whole school year. Teachers are not necessarily gamers, and it’s harder for them to learn several tools in a single year.” Ululab’s Slice Fractions focuses on one particular goal: helping kids advance their skills with fractions. Its targeted approach is what has made it so successful outside of traditional classrooms (Boucher-Genesse points to research showing that students are able to develop their skills with fractions from a third-grade to a fourth-grade level after having played the game for only three hours). It is this targeted approach, however, that has also made penetrating the school market difficult. Despite that, the EdTech company (like many others) is thriving.
Augmenting existing educational resources
In the case of Ululab, the lack of access to a viable school market has not stunted growth. The company has had success in the consumer market and with selling to educational resource publishers.
“The thing about good educational games is that they focus on a specific topic rather than the full school year and curriculum. There are companies whose exercises and resources cover the whole school year and all topics. So we’re often able to suggest our games as an enhancement of their current resources,” adds Boucher-Genesse.
“For the most part, we don’t sell to schools directly, but rather to school publishers that already work with schools. It’s more like selling a license to a school publisher and, that way, we’re able to solve both distribution and sales problems.” This, coupled with success in consumer marketplaces like Apple’s App Store, has kept the company successful. But that doesn’t mean that all of their initiatives have had success. François Boucher-Genesse says some business models have outright failed.
“What I’ve seen that has failed in the past is bundling a bunch of games on many different subjects together. We’ve tried to partner with a few groups with millions of dollars to spend, marketing and funding that bundle approach, and it just has not worked.”
Other Canadian companies are also generating success by incorporating game mechanics and resources into existing educational materials. By gamifying the learning process, EdTech companies like Classcraft (Sherbrooke, Quebec) are creating new ways of keeping students engaged by augmenting the existing classroom setting with new interactive experiences and ways to track student progress.
And the numbers back up Classcraft’s and Ululab’s approach: a recent report on gamification in education predicts that the value of the global market for these kinds of EdTech experiences could reach US$283 million by 2020.
Bolstered by the success of Assassin’s Creed Origins and the Discovery Tour mode
While getting into schools remains a long-term goal for Ululab, there is further proof that educational games (and educational game components) are gaining traction in consumer markets and that has given Boucher-Genesse continued confidence in the industry’s future.
Not far from Ululab’s offices is the Montreal headquarters of Ubisoft, that produces the hit video game franchise Assassin’s Creed, and now creates educational games of sorts. Last year, the company released Assassin’s Creed Origins, which included a “Discovery Tour” mode. While players of the core experience explore the ancient Egypt setting, battling foes and meeting objectives, those who opt for the Discovery Tour can simply explore the environment while receiving historical tips and lessons about the lives of ancient Egyptians who lived during this period.
“We all acknowledged that our games made history more accessible for players, even though they are not documentaries. With that in mind, because people like to learn about history while having fun, we decided to do more than just create the game,” explains Maxime Durand, Ubisoft’s historian who worked on the Assassin’s Creed series. Durand states that, in the early days of development, Ubisoft believed it would be best to have little history lessons pop up on the screen. However, the more research the team did, the more it realized that the best thing to do would be to create a separate fully educational experience for schools and others that weren’t interested in playing the main game.
“You can look at books, but everyone will have a different picture and only part of the information. Or you can watch a movie or a TV series, but you’re only tapped into one location or historical storyline. Even though the Discovery Tour is not a 100% reproduction, you can really navigate everywhere or climb the pyramids. You don’t need to prove it’s fun to climb the pyramids because people will be naturally inclined to do it. And just because they do that, they’ll go inside the monument and learn about it and get engaged about the things they see. This is really powerful and motivating for a historian,” he says.
Durand has been getting a lot of positive feedback from both educators and students, and he sees a greater trend in history education to making learning more fun and immersive. However, like his colleagues at Ululab, he feels we’re still a long way away from seeing educational games including the Discovery Tour, make their way into school systems. Ubisoft is making inroads, however, hoping to put teachers in the driver’s seat.
“The Discovery Tour is aimed at different school levels and it doesn’t line up with school curricula. Because the Discovery Tour is an international product, we can’t just create one specific scenario per type of school. We decided to create content that was very accessible for anyone over the age of 12 who wants to learn and experience ancient Egypt. One of our next steps is to build a network between teachers so they can discuss within their districts if they think this is something they want to use and how they want to use it.”
A bigger future for educational games
Ubisoft plans to invest further in educational components for its games. For Durand, having games become a bigger part of children’s lives at school has a dual impact. “Our game engages them to actually read about history, the monuments, characters, events in the way we do at Ubisoft. At the same time, they also learn about programming, teamwork, design and many aspects that will be useful to them in adulthood,” he says.
“I hope we’re setting a milestone here. There have been historical games before, and there will be many more in the future, but I do hope that, in ten years from now, the Discovery Tour will be just that idea from 2018 and, in 2028, the idea will be much more popular than it is now.”
Seeing large game developers investing in educational components for games has encouraged François Boucher-Genesse. Like Ubisoft, however, he acknowledges that it is teachers who will lead the push to getting them into the classroom.
“My hope is that, the more time passes, the more teachers will be aware of the power of games. Research shows that these tools work way better than many other techniques in the classroom. I’m therefore hoping that, even though education is slow to change, it does change over time,” he says. For him, like Ubisoft, creating interactive educational resources is a labour of love, one that he hopes will pay off greatly in the long term for both his company and the students who will benefit from the games in their classroom.