From the late 1980s through the 1990s, as console games and computer games remained two very separate markets, a handful of studios built a blockbuster empire atop the burgeoning personal computing market: the educational video game.
Broderbund, The Learning Company, and The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium were selling millions of copies of games including The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and The Oregon Trail.
While many game series from that era went on to be massive blockbusters, not many could claim the same value these titles did: that they were widely accepted as providing a clear and arguable social good, capable of teaching students about math, history, geography, and the arts. Depending on your age, you might remember playing some of these games on your classroom’s Apple II. If you had kids in that era, you may remember shelling out between $200 to $300 a year for these $40 games on your home PC in the hope yourself that it might help your child’s grades.
But after 1999, it all just suddenly stopped.
Broderbund TimeLab exhibit (credit: The Strong)
Though some of these brands limped along for a few more years under new development teams, the educational game boom of the 90s slowed to a halt after CD-ROM publisher Softkey purchased The Learning Company and adopted its name, then acquired Broderbund in a similar fashion. The new giant known as The Learning Company was bought up by Mattel, but after posting losses even as the sale was ongoing, The Learning Company was sold to Gores Technology Group, then splintered between Ubisoft and Riverdeep, all the while laying off and forcing out the employees who made the secret combination of fun gameplay and quality education possible.
These games had a huge impact on an entire generation. Their lessons inspired students not just to dig deeper into lessons about math, geography, or history, but in some cases to take up programming or game development themselves. With these students now becoming part of the game industry, and titles like Zoombinis making a successful return on Kickstarter, what lessons from the era still apply to the game industry today?
To those working to carry on this era’s legacy, the fracturing of Broderbund and The Learning Company represented a huge loss for the potential of educational video games. Designer James Portnow, who writes for Extra Credits and runs the nonprofit Games for Good, has been championing the educational possibilities for modern games. He notes that this era was the one time that experts in education and experts in game design worked together and produced games that weren’t just re-skinned textbooks. He argues without that connection, educational games can’t reach the same potential they did at their incredible heights.
“Now we think of educational games and entertainment games as two different industries," he says. "We go to different conventions, read different websites, and work with different publishers. This needs to change if we ever want to see educational games grow into their true potential.”
Going back to speak with developers and executives from this period though, there are other lessons from that time period that drove this cottage industry’s success. The first: the edutainment genre was one that operated at its finest when its developers had both the opportunity to push their creative limits, and a healthy environment in which to do so.
Peter Freese, one of Unity’s current research and development engineers, was a programmer at Edmark, an educational software company specifically developing games for classrooms.
Thinkin’ Things, the first game he was hired to work on, is still his favorite from the era. To Freese, that game stood out from the other titles because it was an experimental project filled with new designers where input from all team members held more value than on a more hierarchical project. “We bonded really well, but we also had a lot of freedom to decide what we were doing in the game,” Freese says.
Laurie Pedersen, known as Laurie Strand during her time with Broderbund as head of development for the education division, recalls that in a 12- to 14-month development cycle, three to six months of that time would be spent building a prototype. And on critically acclaimed titles like The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, that meant working with their development partner, a Cambridge think tank called TERC, to take feedback from children---often children of company employees---and use it to improve those prototypes.
“TERC was also very very involved in testing on their side as well,” Pedersen explains, “and then we would come together, and say ‘well this didn't work,’ and they would test different gameplay, our animation team would fine-tune the look of the characters.”
“It was a long process," she adds. "It's not something possible in today's world where you might need to do an app in as little as 30 days.”
Pedersen also echoed to Portnow’s comments about mutual conference attendance, recalling Broderbund’s participation in the National Educational Computing Conference and other educational conferences in Boston and San Francisco being essential both for driving sales and sharing knowledge about the design at hand.
All this took place in a utopian work environment many would consider a work of fiction if it hadn’t actually existed. Michelle Bushneff, who rose from artist to art director to vice president during her time with Broderbund, describes the office as one that “kind of spoiled me over what life would look like, because it was just for the family-owned run company at the time. Dogs were allowed at the office, we had on-site life drawing classes for the animators, and in the early days of Pixar we even had some of the guys from Pixar come in and talk to us.”
Crunch was limited. The mission was something everyone believed in. And with assets like an entire sales force filled with former teachers working with school districts to get millions of copies of Broderbund games into the classrooms, those luxuries were ones the company could afford. It was an environment so positive it didn't just spoil Bushneff for the rest of her career, but also her fellow Broderbund employees. They’re still close, gathering at the founder’s house every couple of years and keeping in touch even after going their separate ways.
Secure cash flow, talented staff, collaborative spaces, flat hierarchies that work well with long prototyping periods--all of these conditions would be ideal for any studio, but they still don’t guarantee constant success.
Freese, who watched the edutainment genre rise and fall as he struck out to work on games like Blood with his fellow Edmark programmers, wasn’t so much surprised with how the genre’s biggest developers fell apart, but he was surprised with the fact that nothing came in to replace them, mostly because he had kids of his own. As the 90s passed, when he went shopping for high-quality educational games, what he found was often either inadequate--or just plain nonexistent.
“Companies changed, they had rise and falls, and successes and failures and that kind of thing,” Freese explains. “That was normal, and we expected that to happen, but there weren't new stars rising to take their place.”
Looking closer at The Learning Company and Broderbund’s collapse, that’s because it wasn’t due to isolated circumstances--it was a symptom of an entire changing market...which changed in part because their purchaser, Softkey. Softkey’s sales model ultimately interfered with the high-cost high-reward model Broderbund and The Learning Company had built their best games on.
Ken Goldstein, now an author and startup consultant, was vice president of entertainment and education at Broderbund and can chart exactly how the pricing models introduced by Softkey, mixed with the huge sales of their games and the CD-ROM boom shifted the entire way Broderbund did business.
“In the 90’s, when CD-ROMs went crazy through the ceiling, the first one who came after us was Price Costco, who asked for a pallet of games for each of their stores," Goldstein says. "We went from producing 100,000 copies on a run, to 1 million copies on a run, and within one year 90 percent of our business was in big box stores.
“We used to stack it all up in our parking lot and pray it wouldn’t rain because our warehouse couldn’t hold all the goods!
“When you went from these kinds of volumes the idea of a retail price point like $49.95 to $59.99 doesn’t work if you want to sell through a million copies. You need to sell at $29.95 at retail to hit that goal, which means selling at $22-$23 wholesale. Then competitive retail dropped to $19.95 and wholesale slipped to $12.”
And with dropping prices came dropping margins. With Broderbund’s board pushing to move all of the company’s business into high volume mass retail, the company found itself competing with other software developers, like Softkey, who were selling CD-ROMs at dramatically lower prices as low as $9.95 thanks to mail-in rebates. That meant only $1-$2 profit margins on every individual copy of every game sold, and on such margins, the ability to fund the long prototype times and high production values of Broderbund’s software slid away with every game.
The new pricing model, driven by both Softkey and every other developer in the business selling CD-ROMs at such low prices, destroyed the economic viability of the edutainment production cycle. Goldstein was obviously frustrated with the merger, but 17 years later, he says it’s water under the bridge. To him, the Broderbund model was built on the philosophy of “people--products--profit,” where talented people created good product that drove profit, but once the merger kicked in, that philosophy seemed to flow in reverse, and Broderbund, now part of The Learning Company, was sold to Mattel.
Portnow notes that in the wake of this dramatic change, Mattel could only think of one way to utilize The Learning Company’s multimillion dollar educational resources--developing licensed Barbie games destined for the dollar bin at Circuit City.
But even if Mattel didn’t know what it was holding on to, with practically an entire genre of gaming in its hands, the rest of the world did.
Whenever Goldstein gives talks about his time at Broderbund, he has a frequent encounter that reminds him why Broderbund’s work was so important: “When someone sees these Broderbund games in my bio and they tell me that these games were what got them into software engineering...what can warm your heart more than that?”
Freese’s work at Edmark was massively influential in the rest of his game development career, and a reminder that some features in modern-day games have strong roots in games meant to teach math and reading.
“I learned a lot about how to present things to users who are not readers," Freese says. "I've always carried with me the idea that when I'm working on a game, how I design the interface? And one of my philosophies is, if you have to explain to someone what to do, you've done it wrong.”
The nonprofit TERC has revived the Zoombinis franchise on Kickstarter to the tune of $101,716, and game developers of Hispanic or African-American backgrounds talk about how Carmen Sandiego and Lynne Thigpen’s character of The Chief were fixtures that helped them stay interested in education--early milestones in the game industry’s quest for diverse representation.
The seeds sown by the 90s educational games have continued to influence the game industry over the years, and their lessons remain relevant both for designers working in the entertainment space. With strong digital distribution models and an informed and nostalgic consumer base now having kids of their own, will we soon see a strong attempt to revive the genre?
And knowing how it all fell apart before, could it be kept from collapsing once again?