Educational Games at the AppStore: some reflections

Note: the following blog was written for the GaLA project by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, CEO at Serious Games Interactive, Copenhagen

Serious Games Interactive have been exploring the brave new world of educational games on the AppStore since the start of the GaLA project. This has happened by refitting a number of small games for this platform, introducing them into the eco-system and from the inside get an understanding of what are the potentials and barriers for entering this space whether it be business models, marketing, development or user expectations.

The AppStore has become a small thriving community of hobby developers looking to bring especially children a bit more than just fun. This has resulted in a complex unique eco-system that is hard to navigate, and have a lot of its own logic. The system is ever-changing with good tricks growing old and useless in just a short time. To provide a proper baseline for approaching the area we introduced a new company name (UpsideDownGames) with a new brand ‘Trunky’ that we had been working a lot on previously but not for the AppStore. Right now we are working on collecting the lessons learned, the statistics gathered and the processes gone through.

Below are a few initial pointers from the upcoming research:

It’s important to understand that in many ways this is a marketplace with a lot grey areas. There are a lot of small (and big) upcoming companies that are pretty much willing to do anything to get ahead of the competition. Because the barriers to entry are so small they have a lot of room to play with compared to, for example, the traditional retail space, Facebook, or online games in general. You can basically propel yourself upwards by buying reviews or one’s own downloads. Historically there have been a lot of examples of people manipulating the rankings in the AppStore, but this has not really been a big thing within the learning space.

The challenge in the business is that the cost to acquire a customer cannot be very high as you are usually selling at $1-2, and the market is extremely price sensitive. This is probably partly because companies will do anything to get in, combined with a good deal of ignorant and/or hasty customers. With the bulk of content it takes very little for a game too fail – a wrong screenshot, a bad AppStore description, a slow loading screen or a disgruntled user review due to some insignificant detail. It’s not uncommon to find users say this game is way too expensive, 1 star even if the game is only $2, and this can have a great impact on sales.

This business environment has a lot of consequences in terms of how development is done and how marketing can be achieved. The development of learning game apps needs to walk a narrow line. On one hand there is a demand for it to have real and significant learning, but on the other hand it’s clear when looking at the successful games on the ranking lists that learning is often not the primary focus. So while there may be an idea that these are learning apps it is often a very particular form of learning typically characterized by building on quite simple learning theory within a very confined space. The space is defined by parents who often navigate on conservative learning assumptions, a completely non-transparent process by which Apple selects which apps to feature, and self-installed reviewers with very mixed backgrounds.

According to studies (link: http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/Reports-33.html & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzYaonRsd5E&feature=youtu.be) the focus is very heavy on pre-school and more simple learning. This is probably a consequence of the marketplace that really allows very little room for differentiating prices. Therefore developers focus on preschool where they can make cheap and simple apps that capture the majority of the audience. As you get into older kids learning becomes more complex, tastes more varied and gameplay expectations higher. All this makes for a bad combination as your app will cost more to develop and have a smaller audience while getting hit double by getting lost in the rankings.

The market seems tilted towards the lowest common denominator and anything else drowns. The development tools used are very varied, and there are still a lot of hobby developers that are not using very advanced tool. Some will almost work directly in X-code, others use 2D cross-platform tools, a lot use Unity3D, and Flash is trying to catch up.

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