Dan Scherlis

Executive Producer: Health Games

I’m a Health Games Guy, These Days

Posted by scherlis on March 2, 2015

I’m writing this as I arrive at the Game Developers Conference. For me, this is an annual reunion with some people I admire, respect, and enjoy. (I also hope to go to some sessions.) As happens with our annual milestones, I instinctively compare myself to my last-year iteration. I’ve a different business card and self-identity. And I’m part of three projects and teams that I enjoy:

I’m starting with a personal note, but I’ve some thoughts on a new medium:  During the last year, I’ve happily transitioned from “game executive who’s looking into different areas” into an enthusiastic “health games executive producer”.  I had been advising a couple projects, and as they gained momentum, I gained insight into the peculiar needs and opportunities of this space.  It reminds me of the first years of we later called massively-multiplayer games: it’s the frontier. Me, and my fellow expatriates from traditional games, don’t yet agree on the best creative approaches or business models, but we share a confidence that this stuff will work. I mean: These can work out nicely for the companies deploying these games, and can work for the people playing these games.  (Our players, or should I say “patients”? Or maybe “customers”? During our testing they are “subjects”. But I suggest we avoid the game-industry’s “users”, shall we?)

And, as with MMOs, we’re grappling with a new context that makes new demands. The only reason for health games to exist, indeed the only motivation that justifies developing any “serious game”, is the opportunity to provide superior results from a clinical, behavioral, or educational perspective. I don’t remember the word “efficacy” being uttered ever, let alone regularly, in traditional-game product-planning meetings. I call myself an executive producer, which means I am likely to identify and contract the development team, to ensure a convergence between an engaging game design and an efficacious intervention strategy, and to manage and support the funder/developer relationship. As E.P., I am certainly focused on delivering a successful product, and on forming the partnerships or relationships necessary to success. For my current projects, “success” mean revenues and commercial leadership.

Heath games have not included very many commercial successes, with important exceptions in a couple sectors. Specifically: fitness, and mind-training or “brain games”. I think there are reasons for the limited successes: Few health games have started from a clear understanding of why a *game* should be the best delivery mechanism. Few well-motivated projects include experienced, proven game designers, without which any game is unlikely to be fun. And few of these are conceived and initiated with a clear understanding of how they will go to market, and of who will pay for them, and of why the payors should be expected to do so.

The odds appear to be long, which is only a problem if you are making a fair bet on a level playing field.  I don’t play roulette. I will happily enter any contest with a rich, long-shot-style, payout, but only if I’m playing with a team of ringers.

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My column for DMW: Don’t clone my indie game, bro

Posted by scherlis on May 18, 2012


Soon after arriving at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) I was struck by the complaints — both in conversations and in rant-style conference sessions — about a rampant and increasingly practice of large game companies ripping off the work of smaller, independent developers.

When I spotted a clever little badge ribbon, one that clearly was not authorized by conference management, I wrote this column for Digital Media Wire.

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Panel at Boston Post Mortem: Analytics & Metrics

Posted by scherlis on November 8, 2011

I’ve assembled a panel for tomorrow night’s regular monthly meeting of Boston Post Mortem, aka the Boston Chapter of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association).  I’ve a business trip, so I’ll miss the session.  That’s a shame, because the panelists bring a wide range of perspectives on the use of analytics and metrics for game development:

I do enjoy putting together a panel.  But I also enjoy moderating, as well.  But, aside from my being out of town, Darius is flat-out better-qualified for this one.  Plus, I’ve been working for Sonamine, and thus didn’t really belong up there as his moderator.

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Panel at Harvard: Evolutionary Biology Looks at Videogames (Who Plays Games and Why)

Posted by scherlis on June 1, 2010

[Update: Added more links based on our discussion. More will follow this weekend.]

For a few years now, I’ve wanted to get a game designer (or two) into a serious discussion with an evolutionary behavioral biologist (or two).  Obviously we find games — specifically videogames —  fun,compelling, and sometimes badly addictive. But just what is it about those activities that is so rewarding?

I’ve finally rounded up the venue, the right scientists (Harvard’s Richard Wrangham and his colleague Joyce Benenson of Emmanuel College), and a couple esteemed colleagues (Kent and Noah). We’re on!

The event is Wednesday night.  It’s at Harvard, and walk-ins are welcome.  Below are the details for the event, from the Harvard page, and links to some supplementary materials.  I fully expect to add more links, based on our discussion.

I can’t resist noting: as I type this, there are no google hits for “evolutionary ludology.”  Here’s the vitals for the event:

Who Plays Games and Why: Evolutionary Biology Looks at Videogames

A discussion with Harvard Human Evolutionary Biology Professor Richard Wrangham, Emmanuel College Psychology Professor Joyce Benenson, and game developers Noah Falstein and Kent Quirk.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010.   5:30 -7:30 p.m. (registration begins at 5:00 p.m.)

Location: Harvard Science Center, One Oxford Street, Cambridge

Electronic games are competing with television for that essential resource: consumer attention.  But exactly who is playing these games? And what is their appeal? Indeed, why do people find games “fun” at all, from simple board games to immersive 3D fantasy worlds? Is there a biological reason that males and females play dramatically different kinds of games?

The many genres and formats of games will be surveyed in a brief multimedia overview, with a look at the different populations that play these different games. Then, human-behavioral scientists will collaborate with game-design professionals to explore the biological roots of our attraction to these experiences.

Please join this discussion, with:

Alumni and friends of the Harvard community: $10.    Undergraduate Students: complimentary

Supplementary materials for this session:

Articles and other online resources, general background:

Items mentioned during the discussion: [more to follow]

Books mentioned during the session: [more to follow when I can review the session’s recording]

  • Bowling Alone, by Harvard’s Robert Putnam, shows the decline in America’s “Social Capital” — by many measures — over recent decades. (I think this decline motivates our hunger for social engagement via online games, social media, etc.)
  • What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2007) by James Paul Gee.  His short opinion piece in Wired speaks to educators and to game designers.
  • Rainbow’s End, a novel byVernor Vinge. (Recommended by Noah and Kent as a vision of augmented reality.)
  • Snow Crash, a novel by Neil Stephenson. (Mandatory reading for social-media industry participants. An early vision of virtual reality, with insight into our relationships with our avatars.)

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Tomorrow: Speaking at Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium

Posted by scherlis on November 20, 2009

Hey! I have a blog. ( I wonder if this thing still works?)  I’ll (re-)start with a personal note: I’m moderating a panel tomorrow (Saturday) at Harvard Business School’s Cyberposium 15 conference.

I’m delighted with our session’s focus: Where Gaming and Social Identity Collide. We’ll look at social games (and what I still call “community-based games”), how they overlap with other social media, and the implications for other industries. The panelists are a great balance, bringing backgrounds in product-development, academic, marketing, publishing (digital and old-school), and creative.

Cyberposium draws an interesting mix of industry and finance executives, along with the predictable MBA-student crowd. The conference’s annual themes have addressed different aspects of digital (generally Internet) technology.

I’ll use this space to publish some links that we wind up promising the crowd.  That will surely include some industry references and news sources, especially for social games.

Linguistically, I’ll acknowledge that the name does have a distinctly mid-1990’s ring to it. That’s only fair: this is Cyberposium 15, after all; it started in 1995. But “cyber” does seem increasingly marked, if only to judge by the increasingly snarky reactions it seems to draw.  That said, it remains productive. Arnold Zwicky, in a recent roundup of portmanteau words, cited cyberchrondria, and cyberteria. I’ve no idea how he missed cyberposium.

Adding: Of course I was joking.  There’s no reason why any linguist, not to mention a Stanford linguist, would be aware of a small (if excellent) high-tech conference at Harvard’s Business School.

And by the way, anyone curious of language should enjoy this favorite of mine: Prof. Zwicky’s 1980 booklet, Mistakes. Although intended for his linguistics class, the assumptions it makes about your preparation are, as he says, “modest.”  And how many academic notes draw their examples from Grouch, cummings, Perlman, and railway graffiti?  (I’m using note in the HBS sense:  a supplementary teaching document that might run to 40 or 60 pages.)

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Celebrity Calamity: game that actually teaches financial literacy

Posted by scherlis on February 18, 2009

Today sees the release of Celebrity Calamity, a browser-based game that has already been shown to improve financial-literacy skills. The game comes from the Doorways to Dreams Fund (D2D), and is inspired by the research of D2D’s founder, Harvard Business School Professor Peter Tufano. D2D plans other games to target an endemic lack of financial skills and knowledge, particularly among low-income single mothers.

Here’s the best part: it seems to work. Preliminary testing results by D2D show:

  • financial skills & confidence up 15% to 30%
  • financial knowledge up 55% to 70%

I’m pleased to have had a small role in the Celebrity Calamity team. At the request of Prof. Tufano and D2D’s Nick Maynard, I assembled a few local game designers into a small brainstorming group.  Nick and I had hoped to conclude with a few high concepts and general principles, but the team exceeded all our hopes, and quickly converged on a core vision. After a huge amount of work by Nick and his development teams: it’s a game! From that initial brainstorming team, Jason Booth stayed with the project as advisor and designer.

Celebrity Calamity got a write-up by Anya Kamenetz on Fast Company’s blog. You can see the press release, or view the trailer on Youtube, or check out interviews with the test users.

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Nerdly sub-cultures and their humor

Posted by scherlis on February 17, 2009

One joy of the internet is that, no matter how narrow your niche, you can surely find blogs to support it, comics to self-parody it, and communities to squabble about it.  These examples crossed my desk (er, desktop) this morning:

(1)  For philosophy nerds: Advanced Dungeons & Discourse

Bayesian Empirimancy: prior spell-efficacy

The rewarding Mind Hacks blog highlights this philosophy-themed D&D role-playing quest.

And there’s the original Dungeons & Discourse, also by Dresden Codak.  (The 8th-level positivist is immune to metaphysics, but has low charisma.)

(2) For language nerds: worst pun ever, with analysis

My own favorite guilty nerdly pleasure, Language Log, reports this appalling pun (an 18-second video). The pun is ‘good’, but it’s the comments below that got my attention, rife with linguistic-style categorization-squabbles, with duly-offered comparables and counterexamples.  (That said, Karen is right: it’s not a mondegreen; it’s not like “Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames.” And I’m always happy to see a Hendrix reference in any thread.)

Of course, I can’t mention nerdly humor without this modern classic:

(3) For comp-sci/math nerds: XKCD

If you’re this kind of nerd, and you didn’t yet know about XKCD, well, then, you’re welcome. This recent favorite captures the full XKCD mandate of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”

The culture of the XKCD forums (excuse me: fora)  are worthy of their own examination.  Later.   The various emergent behaviors include a variety of forum games.

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Metrics: “Online Games is best performing game sector index at -29%”

Posted by scherlis on January 30, 2009

Yes, thirty-percent down is the new up.

I’ll rarely focus on market values, but since I just posted on relative new-media/old-media values I’m quoting (in the title) this month’s Video Game Briefing (PDF) from Paul Heydon at Avista Partners. (You can subscribe.)

Online games (down 29% from Jan 2008 ) narrowly led PC/Console games (-30%) and distributors/accessories (down 34%).  They all outperformed the S&P 500 (-38%), well ahead of retailers and mobile games, (both down about 50%). The low point was Nov 20, ’08, but not by much.

The report also shows regional performance, ranked as you would expect (Asia, S&P, U.S., Europe) but perhaps spread more-broadly than you expect.  And there are many details on M&A and on equity raised. In total:

  • Over $1.8 billion of M&A deals in global sector (LTM)
  • Over $1.6 billion raised in global sector (LTM)>

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Metrics: New media’s mkt value up 102%. Old media lost 32% (’05-’08).

Posted by scherlis on January 30, 2009

The communications, media, and technology (CMT) sector lost 47% of its market value in 2008, worst than most markets overall.  An Oliver Wyman press release, summarizing their 2009 State of the Industry Report (PDF) notes that within that sector, for the the 5-year period:

Traditional media — including media agencies, publishing, and broadcast and entertainment — lost 32% of its market value, or $137 billion, while new media (online content and services) gained 102% or $58 billion.

The top performer in the media segment was China’s Tencent, with a market value of $11.6B.

(The above quote is from the press release.  If you can find that data in the full report — or other analysis of the new-media-subsegment —  then I owe you serious respect.)

The report does discuss sector-specific strategies.  Strategic recommendations include strong focus on emerging markets and on broadening corporate scope, such as broadening from distribution to content. (More on this detail in a later post.)

In support of comScore’s assertion (which I argued against) that free-online game growth comes at the expense of paid content, note that 18% of US consumers “expect to spend significantly less” on “a la carte content purchases (including movie tickets, … downloads, games, etc.)” And 19% expect to spend “a little less.” Only 10% see spending more.  (Oliver Wyman’s November survey: Exh. 8, p. 13, of the full PDF report.)

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Metrics: U.S. online-game growth: visitors up 27%; minutes up 42%.

Posted by scherlis on January 28, 2009

Good news for the online-games biz, specifically the casual (mass-market) online games biz.  Discussion after these highlights from today’s comScore report (Dec. 2008 data):

  • Free online-game-site visitors grew 27% in 2008, to 86m.
  • Aggregate playing time jumped 42%
  • Online games consumed 4.9% of total Internet time (up from 3.7% in Dec. ’07 )
  • Online display-ad views grew 29% to 8.6b (in Nov ’08 )
  • The average player views 127 ads (unchanged year-over-year)
  • Ads per page view (“a measure of ‘ad clutter’“) dropped 17%, to 0.83

The top sites? Make your guess, then check the tables in the press release from comScore, and let me know if you were close. Suffice to say, I’m impressed by WildTangent’s good work. (Regardless of November’s major changes there.)

Why the growth? ComScore says that people have “turned to outlets such as gaming to take their minds off the economy“.  Also, they are “turning to free alternatives.”  A 14% drop in retail sales for PC games is cited as evidence.

I don’t buy it.  As Dean Takahashi notes in VentureBeat, console games grew 19%.  And, even if free-online (casual) and paid-retail games both reach broader demographics than last year, they nonetheless reach different demographics: I don’t see them as clear-cut substitutes.  Maybe this is less a down-turn driven shift in spending habits, than a continuation of casual-game growth, fostered by innovation, and by wider use of social content-sharing. (“I stumbled-upon a great game!”)  By contrasted, we didn’t see an exceptional year for retail-game  innovation.

Footnote for the algebraically obsessive: Yes, 127 avg impressions against 8.6b ad views implies only 68m visitors in Nov ’08. That would be unique visitors to ad-supported sites, versus the 86m online-game-site visitors overall.

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