Kicking off the Serious Games Summit, members of Square Enix's newly established serious games unit discussed why the company decided to get into the space and gave an exclusive look at its serious DS game intended to teach the joy of game development.
Square Enix's serious games chief strategist Ichiro Otobe led the talk by saying the that though the game market has grown in size, it hasn't had the same success in social recognition.
The game market carries the same burden of all new media, he said -- games are judged based on the value of old media, there's a generation gap between young and old -- but, he admitted, games now stand at the crossroads.
"There's a huge huge potential that games can become mainstream media," said Ichiro, "but without active involvement from the developer community, it will stay niche."
To make that leap, Square Enix decided to enter the serious games space both to show that games can be "taken seriously by society," as well as make money. Many people believe serious games are like non-profit organizations, Otobe said, but Square Enix knows it can also knows it can be a profitable business.
Otobe underscored this belief by giving the audience a glance of Japan's top selling games of 2006, with "serious" like Brain Training, English Training, Common Sense Training, and DS cookbook Cooking Navi occupying a number of the top slots.
Otobe admitted that working with serious games offered a number of new challenges for developers -- the market addresses different customers, commonly with little interest in games, and little in common, with highly specific regional and cultural differences.
The market requires understanding of different and highly specialized skills as well, be they medical or educational, moving games from a work of art into more of a set of tools.
Also, serious games require a different business model -- business to business versus business to consumer -- with its own set of cost incompatibilities. "Clients in serious games have very different budgets," said Otobe.
And finally, internal politics within development studios becomes a problem when management has to compete for resources with big money making games like Final Fantasy, Otobe noted.
To lead the new business, Square Enix, as earlier reported, has partnered with publisher Gakken to create SGLabs. Though Otobe couldn't speak specifically about many of the projects underway at SGLabs, the partnership was a noteworthy one, with Gakken being responsible for a "serious" comic book revolution in the 70s with its Himitsu, or 'Secrets' series, which educated on the secret lives of insects, ninjas and life itself.
The series, said Otobe, apart from inspiring him personally, established comic books as mainstream media, and sold over 20 million copies. "We can do that with games, too," Otobe added, "if we really push serious gaming content."
Structurally, the partnership with Gakken provides Square Enix with the publisher's extensive network of over 24,000 elementary and high schools, and 2,7000 public libraries.
Currently, SGLabs is experimenting with a business-to-business model, working with corporate clients to create specific customized content to create games around, and delivering it through Gakken's network.
Looking beyond working for external content arrangements, Otobe revealed that Square Enix has decided to lead a new Nintendo DS serious game project internally, tentatively titled Project GB.
Led by former Vagrant Story and PlayOnline programmer Tadashi Tsushima and comprised of a small team of only 10 people, Project GB hopes to teach its audience "what [Square Enix is] good at," that is, the fun of game development itself.
Though the company is still unsure when or even if the project will see mass market release, Project GB gives players the skills of game development -- programming, graphic design, music composition, and writing -- all through hands-on play, hoping, in the end to "nurture a true 'game brain,'" the project's namesake, specifically chosen to counteract media reports of a popular Japanese university professor's term for the damaging effects of games on the brain.
The short demo of Project GB, still very early in development, showed a fascinating set of tutorials allowing players to directly edit sprites, compose animations, and change gameplay parameters to test balance of a simple Space Invaders type game, and promised to allow players who wanted more depth access to both direct logic and framework, and even low level code.
Tsushima said that throughout serious game making, developers should never use the game simply to sugarcoat the learning process, that learning isn't something bitter players must swallow, but instead games should be directly and effectively communicating the fun of learning itself.
That's why serious game development is difficult, Otobe concluded. "Without understanding the fun of learning, you can't create a game, you can only sugarcoat. You have to access yourself the core-fun of what you're trying to educate, and communicate that through gaming."
That, Otobe said, is the most important message to be taken away from Square Enix's serious efforts, and something serious game developers should always be thinking about.