Talking Serious Games with Pioneer Jesse Schell

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Not everyone who comes into the Serious Games business starts out there. In fact, given how many schools, companies and healthcare organizations are just starting to realize the benefits of using game-based technology, to teach kids, educate employees or help people that have had health issues and need to be in rehab, it’s a safe bet that there are still quite a few pioneers who are just getting their journey started.

Jesse Schell is a veteran of this fascinating new part of our industry. In fact, he’s blazing a fast path into Serious Games, or game-based learning, which are games used for education or training Probably best known for his traditional video game successes, such as being instrumental in creating Disney’s first MMO for kids, he eventually decided to go down a different path, and is reaping rewards because of it.

Schell founded his game development firm in 2002 and could have easily kept working in video games, and would have had quite a few more successes. Instead, he transitioned over to also doing Serious Games alongside the purely entertainment ones, being one of the first professional videogame developers to see the potential of this burgeoning market. Today the company has more than 100 employees, and is one of the biggest players in several markets in serious game technology: educational products for school children and, more recently, healthcare.

Schell is speaking at the Serious Play Conference in Washington DC on July 10 – 12. Before that happens, we talked with Jesse about his early career, his transition to Serious Games, and why he thinks more talented game developers should start blazing their own trails into games for education and training.

GiN: How did you initially decide on a career in the videogame industry? Were you a gamer growing up?

Jesse Schell
Jesse Schell

I’ve always loved all kinds of games and entertainment. Videogames were just starting to exist when I was growing up, and I was fascinated by them. By the time I was 12, computers were starting to appear in homes, and I started making my own videogames because it was so exciting and interesting. It was a while before my family could afford a computer, so I learned to program by hanging around the electronics section at the Sears store in the mall. The salespeople probably should have chased me away, but I think maybe having interested kids do things on their computers helped with their sales pitch.

GiN: After you got your Master of Science in Computer Networking and Virtual Reality in 1994, you went to work for Bell Labs. Were they doing anything gaming related? and did you tap into your VR degree at all in those early days?

The closest I got there was making real-time graphical maps of computer networks. In some ways this was like coding up a videogame, except nothing interesting ever happened.

GiN: We assume that with your move to Disney, you were able to finally begin to focus on games. What was that like?

My move to Walt Disney Imagineering was a defining moment in my life. It is one of the most incredible organizations on Earth, with talented individuals from just about every field: painters, sculptors, engineers, programmers, vehicle designers, musicians, sound designers, writers, and many more, all working together to create some of the most compelling experiences ever created. The group I joined was the Disney VR Studio, which was experimenting with how to take VR and other interactive technologies and bring them to the Disney parks. We ended up creating something called DisneyQuest, which was Disney’s interactive theme park, and was open at Disney World for almost twenty years before its recent closure.

GiN: Toontown Online was probably the most popular title that you helped to create at Disney. We have an editor here at GiN who was obsessed with the title, and I know there was a legion of fans. What was it like to help make such a unique and transformational game, and see it go live for players?

Making Toontown Online was a wonderful experience. I was a big fan of MMO games, and the idea of creating one expressly for kids and families was a very exciting idea. I had grown up with the world of the Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge comics (younger people will know it as “Duckburg”) and the idea of bringing that to life in an online community was very exciting.

GiN: Unfortunately, Toontown was shuttered, though in those days MMOs were being created and later dying (if they got that far) in droves. What do you think happened with the game, and was there any effort to save it? Do you think it would be more successful if re-launched today?

Two things happened: First, Disney acquired Club Penguin, which was making at least ten times the money that Toontown was, and so Disney decided to move as much energy into Club Penguin as possible, at the expense of games like Toontown Online, Pixie Hollow, and Pirates of the Caribbean Online. Second, all these games were based on monthly subscriptions. When mobile games appeared, online subscriptions to games started to seem expensive and old-fashioned, and this made MMOs much less feasible. In some ways, though, Toontown Online is more successful today than ever! A group of fans resurrected a pirate version of Toontown Online called “Toontown Rewritten”, which they operate for free, out of love for the game, and they have nearly as many players as Toontown Online did in its prime!

GiN: You founded Schell Games in 2002, about the same time you joined the faculty of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Was this your first move into supporting gamification and serious games?

Yes, teaching at Carnegie Mellon was my first exposure to creating educational and transformational games. After working on those at CMU for a few years, we started to get requests at Schell Games to develop those kinds of titles. We gave it a try, and we liked it a lot! As a result, we have developed many educational and transformational games, and it is a significant part of our business.

GiN: You moved into educational games first. What are the challenges and potential of that market?

The challenge of the market is that while the benefits of these games are widely recognized, only a few niches in the market will actually pay money for them. Preschool games, language learning games, and brain training games are a few of these niches, but most mainstream education games, aren’t something that schools, parents, or students usually want to pay for. As a result, you have to find little areas that can actually be successful and profitable. We found one with Happy Atoms, a chemistry game that is sold as a science kit that gives players quests where they build atoms into all kinds of molecules using physical models that interface with augmented reality software. By far, the biggest constraint on making games like these is figuring out how to get people to pay for them.

GiN: Why did you decide to make this shift? What is the market size of serious games?

We started working on games like these because we really believe they make the world a better place, and we realized that most of the studios making serious games weren’t doing a very good job. We realized, if we concentrated on it, we had a shot at becoming the best studio in the world at making educational games, and that if we built that reputation, it could be a steady line of business.

GiN: And now you are into healthcare games? Tell us a little about that move…

See, for us, we don’t differentiate much between educational, serious, and healthcare games. We refer to all of these as “transformational games,” that is, games that are designed to change the player in some way. Games have a lot of power in the healthcare space, both for training medical professionals, and also helping people to change their health habits.

GiN: Do you think that healthcare games is/will be a fast growing market?

I’m not sure about it being a fast growing market, but we see it as a steadily growing market.

GiN: What are the important technologies in the serious games field?

There are two ways to answer that question. On one level, ubiquitous technologies are the most important ones, because they can help the most people. So, that means smart phones and web browsers. But on another level, there are the emerging technologies: VR and AR are going to be incredible important for education and transformation because they let players interact with complex systems in a completely natural way. We are working on a game right now called HoloLAB Champions that teaches chemistry lab skills through VR in a game show format.

GiN: Speaking of VR, you are an expert in this, so how important is VR as a technology today?

VR and AR are very important today, because they are taking shape and emerging right now. In a few years, these will be very widespread technologies. Right now is an incredibly exciting time because we are making powerful VR and AR discoveries every day.

GiN: And, as big as your firm is, you are still teaching at Carnegie Mellon? Are you also teaching serious games?

Yes, I still teach classes in Game Design and Building Virtual World at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center. I consult with many different student teams there that are creating serious games.

GiN: What are some of the advantages of working in the Serious Games field versus founding a traditional videogame company?

The main advantage is that there is much less competition, because creating serious games is much more difficult than creating entertainment games. Making games that are fun is hard, but making games that are fun and helpful is really, really hard. Think of it like learning to ride a unicycle, and learning to play the violin. They are both really hard to learn. Now: do both at once. That’s what making serious games is like. Very few people are up for the challenge.

GiN: What are some of the successes that Schell Games has achieved that has enabled them to employ so many people?

We’ve had a lot of wonderful successes over the years. Everything from the Daniel Tiger games for the Fred Rogers Company to our VR hit “I Expect You To Die.” We’ve created theme park experiences for Disney and Sea World, health games for UPMC and Yale, robot toys, science toys, and even experiences for zoos and museums. Recently we’ve worked on a lot of Star Wars games, such as the Jedi Challenges augmented reality light saber game from Disney and Lenovo that was very popular this past holiday season. One of our principles is “Diversity makes us strong,” and our diversity of games is a big part of that!

GiN: For someone sitting today where you were in 1994, having just graduated with a game-friendly degree, would you recommend they get into Serious Games? Or traditional ones? Where are the jobs? The opportunities?

There are so many opportunities now – pretty much anything that you want to work on, you can find a way to make it happen, if you are patient. So, I always advise people to focus on making the games they care about the most. If you do that, you will make wonderful things that someone is sure to want, and you’ll find a way to make the business side of things work out.

GiN: What are some of the upcoming trends in the Serious Games market, and where do you see the most growth?

Brickheadz Builder VR
Brickheadz Builder VR

I think that there will be the most growth in browser games. HTML5 has made it possible to create fairly rich games that can run on any PC, tablet, or phone without having to install anything. I think we can expect to see richer, more interesting serious games that are really worth playing. I do also think we will see a huge amount of pioneering work in VR and AR for serious games, but these will mostly be focused on niche education markets.

Events like the Serious Play Conference have been helpful in educating people about, and defining the trends in, the serious games market.

GiN: Do you think that Serious Games will continue to evolve and grow? Is a golden era for serious games coming?

Education is incredibly important to the human race, and these technologies will help to foster new and better kinds of education. The golden age of serious games will not appear until we have high quality Artificial Intelligence systems brought into the mix. Once your computer game can have enough intelligence to understand how best to teach you what you need to know in a way it is certain will engage you, then we will truly be at a revolution in the way human beings learn.

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