How it feels to design a serious game

by Risto Haljas @ 31.07.2017

How it feels to design a serious game

Designing a serious game is the hardest thing I have ever done but also the most rewarding. This post is about what I have learned during the process.

While we have several domain experts in the team who contribute from the theoretical perspective and gather information from parents and children, I am the one who is trying to make this serious issue an engaging and fun game. I have tried to use tips and tricks from entertainment games to make it as cool as possible for users while creating the imaginary world and designing the game. As others are contributing to the content, I have had freedom to work solo on how it all looks and feels for a user. I have learned so much during the process and I think it is worth sharing the knowledge.

I have been part of the team almost from the very beginning and although initially I had other duties and while we completed a 3-month acceleration program, we all had to do a lot of other supportive things. Only after that the real product development started. We have learned throughout the process that coming up with an idea does not cost anything and mapping the customer need and initial prototyping are quick processes and the real work starts after the pre-production phase. Still it all took us a while to accomplish our goals set for the pre-production phase. Mainly because we are all new to this making-the-world-a-better-place business.

Being part of the team pretty much from the beginning means that I mainly gained domain expertise in the beginning. The team of experts shared their progress and it was possible to learn a lot from them. But from the other hand it meant that I took the issue also incredibly seriously and got submerged in the theoretical background and the applicability of it. It was constantly ticking in my head that serious games are intended to affect human learning, health and wellbeing in a goal‐oriented manner; serious games are serious as the topic is serious.

I have learned now that as a game designer, you should still look at the process from that perspective – from a game perspective. And also overall, the term serious game is not the best term in the world as it indicates that the game has to be all serious and heavyweight. I think that actually serious issues need to be made even more cool to actually make a difference. Serious games should differ from entertainment games from their informative component and from being goal-oriented but they both should still be games: fun and enjoyable. Let’s just consider the fear of hospitals. Our game environment involves magic city that also includes a hospital (would be kind of weird any other way as the game is supporting the goals of treatment). In the hospital you can collect points for treatment and unlock achievements. Although the aim of our game is not to reduce the fear of hospital, I do think that these kinds of things make a difference, as in the imaginary game world, the hospital is a positive place. It’s fun and enjoyable and can make a difference for a user even without it being our goal.

Serious games are heavy in content. And the key here is that if you want to create something that users like, you really can’t use static content. Everything has to be designed from the beginning in a way that content can be changed easily without altering the code. This brings me to the next topic that is feedback. Not using static content allows you to be lean and take feedback into account. You should always learn from the feedback, don’t be afraid of it. Feedback will only make the product better. Although you might think you have already created something awesome, the users or domain experts might disagree. Sometimes the feedback is not positive, but you are not the best person to judge the product you have created yourself.

Time to wrap up this post. Has it been easy to design a serious game? No! Already the documentation is different from entertainment games, I am not even going into other topics.