There was a time when children’s learning software was critical to the growth of home computing. Dozens of titles were released every year. And yet, this year there are almost no new learning titles on the PC (aimed at consumers) and precious few on other gaming platforms.
So, who killed the home educational software market and what lessons can be applied to other software markets like gaming and Web 2.0? Like a CSI team, let's examine the corpse for clues – and see if the killer is still on the loose
Victim’s Background File: Who was Children’s Software
Children’s edutainment software, was used to break the resistance to the home computer purchase. It was something dads could use to convince moms that the computer wasn’t just for playing games, but essential to the education of Junior. Parents didn’t know how to turn one on, but they were certain that if they didn’t buy their child a computer their offspring would be left behind, unprepared for the 21st century.
The educational market flourished. IBM and Apple touted their educational line-up. Microsoft used educational and reference titles to showcase new technologies like hyper linking, multimedia, and even artificial intelligence. Broderbund, Knowledge Adventure, The Learning Company, Tom Snyder and others produced innovative software.
So what did kill children's software?
Lack of Sales - Manufacturers I talked to as the market was declining claimed that they just couldn’t sell enough children’s software to justify the cost. Bill Gates once told me he blamed it all on Walmart not giving educational software enough shelf space. Perhaps. But there was a time when companies were making good money with children’s software. I believe that declining profits that led to the death of the children’s software market were largely the result of self-inflicted wounds, wounds that threaten the entertainment software market to this day.
Predatory Pricing: In an effort to counter new players coming to market The Learning Company, Knowledge Adventure and Microsoft entered into a staggering price war, sometimes resulting in software being “sold” for nothing after rebates were applied. No one could make a profit giving software away. Maybe this had as much to do with failure to profit as lack of sales.
Macromediocrity: The rapid proliferation of mediocre edutainment software was made possible by the overuse of five or six games easily recreated over and over again with Macromedia’s toolkits like Director and, later, Flash; hence, we labeled them works of Macromediorcity.
Virtually every so-called “edutainment” title had the same activities (concentration, jigsaw puzzle, coloring book, tick-tac-toe) re-skinned to fit whatever marketing license had been acquired. If a “match game” one year featured Mickey, the next year there would be a “new” title, with the same game, this time featuring Minnie. Sometimes a company would have five new titles in a year, that really were essentially the same with only cosmetic differences. Only the surface had been changed.
The software industry kept betting that consumers wouldn’t notice. But they did. And, parents also noticed that a lot of these mediocre games offered little open ended play value, entertainment or education. And, they stopped buying. It wasn’t declining sales that killed Children’s Software, it was Macromediocrity.
The Book to Cartoon Paradigm Shift – Early educational and reference family titles were based on the structure of books. Broderbund built a small empire on animating books by famous authors. Knowledge Adventure’s Space, History and Dinosaur titles were, likewise, like hyperlinked e-books. They were content driven, often stressing ideas, information, and concepts. Both the Windows and Mac operating systems, however, gave programmers the tools to create animated and even 3D environments. Suddenly animated books looked more like Saturday morning cartoons. Knowledge Adventure’s e-books became “virtual museums” with less emphasis on information and more on “flash”. The editorial content took second place to the graphic surfaces. The beauty was only skin deep and parents knew it. They stopped buying.
Bloated budgets and the Reliance on 3D technology – Just as early computers were essentially home-brewed, children’s software was originally created by educators for kids using tools that anyone with a pc and some determination could master. The emphasis, for these educators, was content first, graphics second. Soon we went from 8 bit graphics to 16 to 256. Windows 95 and XP begat video cards with thousands and even millions of colors. A graphics war broke out among the manufacturers.
No longer could a program be written by a guy in his basement. Soon you needed a team of 3D modelers and animators. The programs became more expensive to produce, began to look and feel less like “education” and more like Saturday morning cartoons. The cost of production made children’s software less viable – but this was largely the result of a misplaced paradigm shift from book to cartoon.
Consolidation and Mergers – About five years ago the Educational market went through a series of contractions as companies were gobbled up by other companies looking to become bigger fish or others who saw mergers and acquisitions the best way to enter the educational market. IBM bought Edmark and World Book. Sierra bought Knowledge Adventure before being passed back and forth between conglomerates like Vivendi and others. The Learning Company bought just about everyone else (Comptons, The Adventure Company, Broderbund, and others) before being bought by Mattel.
Consolidation brought several unexpected disasters to the children’s software market. First, it meant that titles that had earned a respectable sum of money for smaller companies now paled in comparison to the superstar software titles being marketed by the same conglomerates to teens and adults. Suddenly, software titles that had been successful for small companies with modest sales goals, looked like a drag on the the bottom line of mega-companies looking for mega-hits. The corporate culture of these conglomerates didn’t always sit well with the educators who were initially drawn to creating educational software. Industry innovators became disillusioned, underfunded, and/or marginalized.
Overreliance on Brand Names and Licensing: Marketing hype helped push the children’s market over the cliff. Companies appeared to spend more money acquiring licenses and brands, and designing glossy boxes, than they did developing creative content. This was one of the primary ways “bad” software pushed out “good” from the retail shelves: Parents, looking to make a fast, easy purchase, went with the familiar license, even though it was often inferior to a less well known, but educationally superior product.
Age Inappropriate Learning Content: Software that purported to teach reading was pushed to a younger and younger market – with the ultimate ridiculous idea of software for babies. Likewise, kids were being pushed to do things in software that were less and less appropriate. They were being “taught” to read too early, to learn letters and numbers before they were ready. Why?
Misleadingly Rated Game Content: Games for kids were being developed by people with no background in education or child development. In fact, some designers seemed to have an outright disdain for children, and a disregard for values. Disney brought out a game where the Goofy’s object was to knock over all the trash cans in a park! This was not appropriate content for kids gaming, though it easily received an E rating.
As children’s software companies were acquired by mainstream gaming houses, their programmers had access to a whole new class of game engines to use. Instead of just having the five games that made up the Macromediocrity suite, software developers started using the tools of adult/teen titles in children’s software. We started to see combat racing sims. Instead of landmines, they would drop exploding penguins. Mickey would throw baseballs at the heads of Donald (instead of bullets) to knock him off the track. The mechanics of first person shooters were adapted to a game that purported to teach math. Because the games had no blood, they were “E” rated, but they were not appropriate for the age group on a values or educational basis.
Competition From Newer Technologies: New platforms, at a lower price point, challenged the PC as a learning platform. Leapfrog and Fischer-Price brought out high-tech electronic toys that reproduced much of the functionality of the old edutainment PC packages, in some cases packing in more functionality and value. The old industry failed to keep up, failed to make use of its natural ability to do some things better than any dedicated platform could do. The industry never competed with those learning platforms; never tried to come up with better, more capable programs for children. It just gave up, looking instead for the next mega-blockbuster hit.
Virtually all of the same mistakes that killed the software industry are at work in today’s game market.
Online Edutainment Software still relies on Macromediocrity’s toolkit. Disney and Knowledge Adventure have both launched web-based virtual worlds that still feel very evolutionary to their disk-based ancestors. Neither gets beyond “drill and kill” type lessons; teaching as opposed to repetitive practicing is beyond their goals. They are dressed up versions of mimeographed worksheets we had as kids. This kind of program has its place, but it shouldn’t be the entire universe of informational, educational software for kids.
Retail shelving space is at a premium with fewer slots available all the time. Yet, fewer and fewer games (particularly on the pc) are worthy of purchase. Many – if not most - are sold buggy requiring patches to run successfully. My experience with most games is that if I don’t wait until those first patches come out before investing in a game, I’m in for hours of lost time with technical support. After a while, the whole process of upgrading drivers, patching games, and dealing with new operating systems discourages purchases. Can the industry, particularly the PC gaming industry, remain viable while putting so many obstacles in the way of fun?
Sales may be gangbuster for a few titles at the top, but after the cream is lifted, is there enough to keep the industry afloat? This is a critical question not just for the software manufacturers, but also the PC industry. Take out the gaming market and there are precious few that really need to constantly upgrade their machines. You don’t need much to run a browser and word processor. Gaming continues to help push the development of new technology.
Cookie cutter programs reuse the same tired ideas over and over. RTS, first person shooters, racing games are all being recycled. Sometimes the enemies are Nazi’s, sometimes they’re aliens or orcs, but underneath they’re all the same. Introductory skirmishes lead to bigger battles, lead to boss levels. Been there done that.
Reliance on graphics over game play. As production costs for making video games approach that of moviemaking, small programming houses are forced to merge or go out of business. This has lead to …
Consolidation and Mergers: But, this hasn’t saved the industry. Large companies adverse to risking millions of dollars on new ideas replay the same ideas over and over, relying on “brand names”, licenses, and sequels – while not advancing game play or new ideas. So, have improved graphics come at a cost that creativity has been largely sapped?
The Verdict: The Children’s Software Market wasn’t Murdered…it was Industry Suicide. Predatory pricing, failure to think creatively and design new kinds of programs, overreliance on graphics and over-used genres, killed the industry.
There is a case to be made that it is happening again, now on a wider scale to the rest of the boxed software industry. In launching their next-gen platforms Sony and Microsoft stressed graphic performance over innovative game design.
Consumers are smarter than the industry had given credit: The Nintendo DS and Wii broke the paradigm of the gaming industry. It rejected the idea that graphics were the key to the next-generation of gaming machines. Instead, Nintendo focused on new kinds of games, new ways to interact with the gaming machine (whether by keystroke, speech, whisper, or gesture), and a range of gaming options that goes beyond the merely violent. Nintendo designed outside of the box, and consumers have voted with their checkbooks. Its time that the rest of the computer industry took heed.