This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Lindsey Tropf, CEO and founder of Immersed Games, is working with her team to create a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that is as entertaining as World of Warcraft and as educational as school.
Their core product is Tyto Online, is expected to launch soon. One module of the game, Tyto Ecology, is available for sale and has generated $140,000 of revenue to date. This module is a single-player game that has sold 18,000 units.
The Immersed Games team includes 13 full-time staff members plus others working from a “local labor grant.” The startup isn’t yet profitable, but does generate 70 percent gross margins on sales today and expects to ramp that up with volume.
Tropft isn’t just playing around; she’s serious about education. In fact, she’s a doctoral candidate in the School Psychology at the University of Florida.
She says, “We aren’t just creating a video game, we’re creating a learning and inspiration platform. As we grow our content, the long-term vision means that students from eight years old and up can explore a game world with access to learning almost anything they want. They might stumble across some physics quests that spark a passion for the subject.”
She hopes to create something of a bridge from the game to the real world. “Then we suggest an activity on our Learning Dashboard that helps them apply that in the real world and realize that all these skills they’ve been learning actually generalize. This is why I think of us as having the potential to be a learning and inspiration platform for a generation of gamers.”
Tropf sites some interesting statistics. She says, “Young children spend 78% of their screen time doing educational content, but as they get older, that drops drastically. Children eight to 10 only spend 27% of their time in content that parents consider at least somewhat educational.”
She says the reason is pretty simple. Older kids say educational games aren’t fun.
“We’re creating a game that teaches but also plays like a real game– because it is! Tyto Online is an MMORPG, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, which is a game like World of Warcraft,” she says. “Instead of killing boars and collecting hides for quests, you’re doing things like looking for evidence about if something is an invasive species that you can then transplant out and save the local ecosystem.”
She notes the design of the game is different from most educational content in two ways. “First, we’re social! As an online game, we can enable unique and emergent types of gameplay that wouldn’t be possible in a single game. For example, we’re planning on teaching entrepreneurship and enabling players to sell to other players in the game, purchase kiosks and advertising, etc. in a real marketplace in the game with live people.”
“Second,” she says, “we’re unified. We’re putting all our content into one single game so that we can retain a player for a long period of time and lead to many learning opportunities (and recurring revenue for a sustainable business model).”
Immersed Games participated in Intel’s Education Accelerator, a four-month, in-residence program for EdTech start-ups that is run jointly by Intel Education and Intel Capital. The selective program draws promising candidates from a “large worldwide” applicant pool, according to Elizabeth Broers, Director, Public Sector Thought Leadership & Intel Education Accelerator.
Broers says, “By applying the foundational concepts of engaging gameplay with 21st-century learning skills, Immersed Games have created worlds where kids can dive in and start creating. The team at Immersed Games created a platform where the learners are treated as gamers but learning as if they were in the classroom.”
She adds, “The learners are creating biomes, learning the concepts of ecology in a fun, game-like environment. Additionally, Immersed Games is also incorporating Next Generation Science Standards and creative problem solving into all their products.”
Tropf says that funding has been one of the greatest challenges so far. Game development happens before the revenue starts, she points out. “In order to build just our first module of content, we had to build the entire networking infrastructure, most of the main game systems, and an entire toolset for content development.”
Today, she worries more about what’s coming. “I’m most concerned about optimizing our tools and workflow so we can create content as quickly as possible to make sure we have a large set of learning opportunities in the game world. And of course making sure those experiences generate a really engaging gameplay experience.”
She also worries about user acquisition. “Our first game sold pretty well on Steam, but that’s mainly ‘core’ gamers — 18-35-year-old men, and isn’t the right fit for Tyto Online, so we’re pursuing testing new channels and messaging with parents and kids themselves.”
There are limitations to how far the game can go in approaching the learning environment in school. Tropf explains, that in the game, players may be challenged to figure out why some jackrabbits are getting sick and propose a solution. “An excellent teacher can make this completely open-ended where students can present an unlimited amount of solutions and work through it, while in the game setting, we do have to pre-design this and code it in, so we naturally have a more limited amount of solutions.”
Tropf acknowledges another limitation is that the game can’t put students into the real world. “There’s the risk that students may not generalize their learning and realize they can apply these outside of the game world if they only learn in a game. We’re working to address this with our web-based Learning Dashboard.”
“Our long-term goal is to think of this as an inspiration platform. Students can play for years as they learn across many areas of content, being exposed to new subjects and digging deep into complex systems for their favorites, like mastering building ecosystems,” Tropf says.
Broers is optimistic about the company’s prospects. “Immersed Games has a huge opportunity in front of them and we look forward to watching them grow and expand Tyto Online into additional STEAM areas. As with any start-up, it’s all about how quickly they can execute but they have a talented group with a clear mission and the momentum is with them.”
On Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 1:00 Eastern, Tropf will join me here for a live discussion about the startup’s game development and strategies for distribution. Tune in here (at the top of this article) then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.