When Games Go Small: 4 Mobile Learning Game Design Principles

Mobile Learning Game Design

The education game market continues to grow rapidly, and mobile learning games are the dominant force in this market. Newzoo provides the insights for the generic games market; the Serious Play Conference released its annual report showcasing the huge growth specific to the education and corporate training sector. The compound annual growth rate in the U.S for corporate learning games will be over 20% between 2017 – 2022 and about 35% globally with the U.S. and India being the top two markets for serious gameplay. Newzoo predicts the overall mobile game market across all game types will grow 40% between now and 2020, a significant growth increase.

Want to learn more about mobile learning games? Access our webinar recording of When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts.

So it makes sense for L&D personnel to consider what space a mobile learning game (aka one intended for play on a smartphone) might occupy in their company’s learning and development portfolio. A smartphone game is not just a shrunken version of a PC game –  just as a limo is not just a bigger mode of transport than a unicycle.

The user experience and design aspects one expects from a limo, and the intended use of the limo, differs widely from that of the unicycle – even though both are modes of transportation. So it is with a learning game. The use case for a smartphone game differs from that of a PC game, and the user experience should be different, too. L&D people need to think about this. When learning games go small there are four quadrants of design skills involved.

It’s highly unlikely that a single individual will possess skills in all four quadrants. It’s also very likely that if you opt to go the route of a mobile learning game, you will need to pull together a team to create that learning game. Understanding each quadrant helps you assemble the right team and do a good job evaluating the game design the team evolves.

Here’s a quick definition of each quadrant followed by a checklist of factors to consider within each quadrant:

  • User Experience (UX) Design – the framework and navigation design of your game; this framework makes it easy to learn, easy to use, and easy to add/build onto it if you need to roll out future enhancements.
  • User Interface (UI) Design – the graphical “look and feel” of the game; it provides the aesthetics and helps create a mood or “feel” to your game (light-hearted, scary, humorous, intense, etc.). Lots of people think UX and UI mean the same thing. They don’t.
  • Instructional design – the design and structure of the experience to meet specific learning needs for a specific audience or audiences.
  • Game design – the design of the play experience; it includes the core dynamics of your game, rules, and game elements that all work together to enable players to achieve a game goal and have fun doing it.

Instructional Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Have a clear learning goal and measurable learning objectives focused on a specific learner?
  • Tap into learner motivation?
  • Manage cognitive load by eliminating irrelevant or extraneous content?
  • Provide relevant practice?
  • Give specific, timely feedback?
  • Trigger emotion that can help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Provide spaced repetition to help with long-term retention of learning content?
  • Use story(ies) (again, for help with long-term retention of learning content as well as involvement during learning experience)?

Game Design Checklist

Does your game:

  • Provide players with an intriguing goal or challenge?
  • Match the interests or player types of your target players?
  • Stick with one or two core dynamics?
  • Provide clear rules?
  • Use appropriate game elements from ones such as chance, strategy, cooperation, competition, aesthetics, theme, story, resources, rewards, levels?
  • Make the scoring relevant, motivating, and understandable?
  • Balance game complexity and difficulty for your player and the time you anticipate them playing it; not too easy or too little complexity, but not too hard or too much complexity either.

UX Design Checklist

UX best practice is that you design to the smallest screen. This means that your design supports these attributes on the smallest phone size players are likely to use. We draw the line at the iPhone 5, which is 1136 x 640 pixels or 4-inches diagonally. Good UX means you:

  • Have legible text.
  • Have touchable targets that a typical adult finger can easily succeed at using.
  • Cut the clutter.
  • Focus on one key action or use per screen.
  • Make the navigation intuitive.
  • Make the experience seamless if intended for multiple devices.
  • Cater to contrast.
  • Design for how people hold/use their phone.
  • Minimize the need to type.

Attend to the small things to make a big difference.

UI Design Checklist

This checklist is the smallest, yet the aesthetics or “look/feel” of your game has a major impact on uptake and continued gameplay (which translates into best learning assuming you executed well on the instructional design checklist items). When creating your UI design, make sure your UI is:

  • Consistent. Treat every button of the same type in the exact same fashion. Treat all screens of a single “type” the same way, etc. Use fonts and text labels for things consistently.
  • Designed to your user – and not to your personal preferences. Example: While you may love anime art, your corporate user may find it insulting or trivial.
  • Not reinventing standards; use what’s common and comfortable. There is a thing called “heuristics” for a reason. (Note: UX/UI heuristics are often bundled into a single list.)
  • An enhancement of the focus and not the focus of your game experience.
  • Forgiving of user mistakes with lots of prompts and helpful guides.
  • Clear on giving users feedback about what to do and where to go.

Want More Information?

If you want to know more, here are some great resources:

  • Attend my May 2018 session at ATD ICE: When Games Go Small on Monday, May 7th. I’ll share numerous examples and you’ll have a chance to practice using the checklist.
  • View a recording of a companion webinar to this post – When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts.
  • Download a handy checklist for each quadrant of design.
  • Check out my book, coauthored with Dr. Karl Kapp – Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games, published by ATD Press 2017.
  • And/or reach out to us if you have any additional questions.

How to Use Games to Create Microlearning Moments with Lasting Impact

I grew up playing lots of games. My siblings and I played (and fought over) Aggravation, Clue, Monopoly, Canasta, Tripoli, Old Maid, Spoons, and Euchre. Outdoors we played hide-and-seek, croquet, sardines, and Marco Polo. My passion for games stems from great memories of how much fun I had playing them as a kid.

But not everyone loves playing games. When I ask non-gamers what they don’t like games, the response I get most often is, “I just don’t see the point. Games are a waste of time.” This is unfortunate because games have the power to create a shared “ah-ha” for learners in a way that other tactics cannot. They teach without the preach.

Introducing a New Game

Last week I asked a group of teammates in the office to play a game I recently learned called “Kunja.” Kunja is an energizer game played by Boys and Girls Clubs by older kids and teens. You can see from the video that I enjoyed this game way more than my teammates. (I’m the one in red.) It involves chanting different phrases (Kun-ja, Bunny-Bunny, and Tokey-Tokey) in a specified order, depending on who is doing what. It gets silly fast.

My teammates humored me, but they were definitely not fans. They – without saying it in so many words – were in the “this is a waste of time” camp or the “this game is silly” camp.

Teachable Microlearning Moments

With a small amount of advanced thinking, I could have flipped this game into an ah-ha experience. I could have used those very attitudes (this is silly; this is a waste of time) to my advantage from a learning standpoint. Here’s the reflection I could have done to convert this from a simple distraction into a powerful ah-ha and microlearning moment:

  • “How many of you secretly worried about looking silly in front of your teammates?” Wait for responses and then point out, “Fear holds us back from lots of things. It might have held you back from simply letting go and having fun with others here. Other times it might hold you back from speaking up, sharing an idea, or doing something new that scares you.”
  • “How many of you felt silly – or thought this was a time waster that kept you from work?” Wait for responses and point out, “Laughter and shared silliness can build relationships. Strong relationships make for better teamwork. Better teamwork means better work product. Taking a break and cultivating laughter is often one of the most productive things you can do.”
  • “How many of you felt downright uncomfortable?” Wait for responses and make the point, “The more we put ourselves in uncomfortable situations the more confidence we gain that we can survive and thrive while being uncomfortable. You don’t grow when you are comfortable; you grow by deliberately making yourself UNcomfortable.”

Set up correctly, a game like this flips from “time waster” to powerful microlearning experience (for those who love the phrase). It takes five minutes to play. A good post-game reflection takes another 2-3 minutes, and the overall impact and retention of the learning points can be long-lasting.

Create Your Own Game

Don’t need a game of risk-taking? Then take the concepts from this game and alter the content to turn it into a learning game about something else. By swapping the chants in this game with ones such as “deadlines, emails, IMs” and shifting the game element from one of competition to cooperation, I could turn this into a great microlearning lesson on multi-tasking and its negative impact on productivity.

You get my point, here. Games can function as frames with you inputting content to reflect the learning need you have. Simple games. Powerful results. Minimal time required.

More on Kunja

Send me an email at sharon@bottomlineperformance if you want detailed directions on how to play Kunja. Try playing it with some co-workers and talk about the hidden lessons within it. Then expand your horizons and swap the game content to achieve a different learning goal. Or – challenge employees to do the same for a different kind of learning experience with a game.

BLP Partners with TE Connectivity to Win Two Brandon Hall Awards

Bottom-Line Performance (BLP) and its client, TE Connectivity (TE), a global leader in connectivity and sensors, partnered to win two 2017 Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Awards. The winning project for both awards was an innovative training and sales enablement program that helps distributors understand the needs of different customer types and position a wide range of products with these customers to meet their needs.

The TE Town Mobile Learning Game earned a Silver designation in Best Use of Mobile Learning and a Bronze designation in the Best Use of Games and Simulations for the Learning category. The app was created as part of TE’s new comprehensive training and sales enablement program. Players are elected as mayor of TE Town and must build their town by completing a variety of mini-games. They must identify the correct customer type, learn about relevant products and ask the right questions to help the customer. Learn more about TE and TE Town here.

“TE is continually looking for creative ways to equip our sales team and distributors to serve our customers,” said Maria Cannon, vice president, marketing and Americas sales at TE. “TE’s vision for an interactive game together with BLP’s design expertise created a tool that serves our team in a way that is different from standard training tools. TE Town demonstrates our commitment to innovation.”

“TE Town is an innovative solution to the tough challenge of engaging independent distributor reps. How do you get and keep mindshare when a rep is selling products for many companies and not just your own?” said Sharon Boller, President of BLP. “TE’s decision to use a casual mobile game puts them on the leading edge of what’s possible. I am extremely pleased that TE’s innovation is being recognized. I am also extremely proud of the BLP team that has guided them in designing, building, and implementing this award-winning learning game.”

About BottomLine Performance

Bottom-Line Performance is an award-winning learning design firm serving a wide range of corporate clients. Since 1995, we’ve helped clients choose the right learning solutions for their learners, while also helping them to design and develop learning tools effectively. Areas of focus include product launches, customer training, internal process training, safety & compliance and more.

Bottom-Line Performance is also the creator of Knowledge Guru®, a game-based learning platform linked to the science of learning and remembering. The platform has received five Brandon Hall awards, including a gold distinction for “Best Advance in Gaming or Simulation Technology.”

About TE Connectivity

About TE Connectivity

TE Connectivity (NYSE: TEL) is a $12 billion global technology leader. Our commitment to innovation enables advancements in transportation, industrial applications, medical technology, energy, data communications, and the home. TE’s unmatched breadth of connectivity and sensor solutions, proven in the harshest of environments, helps build a safer, greener, smarter and more connected world. With 75,000 people – including more than 7,000 engineers – working alongside customers in nearly 150 countries, we help ensure that EVERY CONNECTION COUNTS – www.TE.com
TE Connectivity, TE and EVERY CONNECTION COUNTS are trademarks.

Want to learn more about mobile learning games? Join us for our upcoming webinar When Games Go Small: Mobile Learning Game Design Do’s & Don’ts on Tuesday, October 10th at 1:00 PM ET.

5 Ways Pokémon Go Shows Us What Learning Games Could Be


If you haven’t heard about Pokémon Go yet, then you haven’t been paying attention. My passion for all things learning games always leads me to try new games and genres so I downloaded Pokémon Go mostly to see what the fuss was about and to see what, if anything transferred well to a learning game application.

There’s a lot to like about this app, and a lot of ideas to be gained from it. Here are five things I noticed and appreciated:

1. It fosters social connections and gets people interacting with one another.

Pokémon Go has created an experience that gets people talking to each other. In my office, we are sharing strategies. We are comparing our Pokédexes. We are discussing teams, gym locations, and Pokéstops. This mobile app has found a way to connect people in the real world. Good games should get people talking about the experience with each other even when they aren’t playing the game itself. This conversation fosters a feeling of belonging, which is a powerful positive in any work setting.

In a recent post, “Why IT Leaders Should Pay Attention to Augmented Reality,” Gartner Group analysts say “device mesh” helps people make these social connections.

2. It’s super simple to learn to play.

In my experience, the biggest barrier to getting employees within an organization to play a game is getting them over the hump of learning how to play the game. People who consider themselves part of the gamer subculture tend to gravitate toward complex games as a sort of badge of honor. They may enjoy complex rules and there is a jargon with some of these games that someone who only plays occasionally will not understand. Pokémon Go keeps it pretty simple. You can figure out the logistics as you go along. Even better, you can chat with a friend or coworker who is playing. And chances are, you’ll get a tip that helps you advance. I’ve learned that simple tends to work best with learning games as it keeps the barrier of resistance low for those who don’t typically play games.

3. It has a clear non-game goal (get people to exercise more).

That’s what learning games do as well; they use a game approach to help people with a non-game topic or learning need. Pokémon Go does a nice job of illustrating how this is possible and how effective it is.

4. The scoring and rewards hit the sweet spot.

They don’t happen so frequently that you cease to care, but occur frequently enough that you feel a clear sense of progress and accomplishment. In learning games, figuring out scoring and rewards is often one of the toughest things to do well. It’s critical that you reward people for performance and not just completion. Pokémon Go does a nice job of showing how you might do this.

5. The augmented reality is brilliant.

I’ve wanted to do something with augmented reality for a long while. I think it has tremendous application for learning. Pokémon Go even helps people understand what augmented reality IS… and it enables us to see how we could use it in a work setting. I imagine a game for new-hires where they play a scavenger hunt-style game while acquiring basic info on policies, procedures, functional areas, industry knowledge, etc. They might be trying to spot and snare a character of some sort at various locales within a business or by engaging specific people in conversation. If played simultaneously with other new-hires, you can foster community, deepen knowledge, and allow people to ramp up on the basics without sitting at a desk reading piles of stuff.

If you haven’t yet downloaded the game, I encourage you to do so. Spend a few weeks playing it and see what possibilities you can imagine. What kind of learning game does Pokémon Go open your eyes to creating?

4 Steps to Sales Training Success Using Games

Sales training professionals play a critical role in their organizations. Whether an organization has highly educated reps selling complex products or sales representatives helping customers in a high turnover retail environment, sales enablement is the key to a healthy sales pipeline.

We find that many organizations have similar challenges when it comes to sales enablement. They need their reps to communicate value, not features and benefits, through asking the right questions and telling a compelling story. They need to avoid competing on price, which is what customers use to make decisions when they can’t tell any real difference in value. And they need to quickly ramp up on new products after they are launched.

These challenges are amplified in the competitive, highly regulated life science and medical device space. If you come from an organization in this space, you are faced with providing excellent sales enablement plus navigating issues such as the healthcare shift from volume to value, a more complex sales process and a shift from 1:1 selling to physicians to strategic account management and selling to the C-suite.

It all comes down to this: Preparing sales reps and account managers for success in an increasingly challenging environment.

It takes a blend of learning solutions to meet most sales enablement objectives, but game-based learning is often part of the mix. For example, a sales enablement curriculum for a new product might include gamified online learning as prework, games and roleplay activities at the launch event and a mobile reinforcement game available post-launch.

If you think a game will work well with your reps, consider the following:

1. What is my business objective?

This should come before anything else!

2. Who are my learners?

Learner Personas, similar to Buyer Personas, provide a semi-fictionalized representation of your target learners. Take the time to create rock-solid personas before designing the training itself.

3. What are my learning objectives?

As with any learning solution, you must have a clear picture of what reps should know/do/believe/avoid doing after the training. This will impact the design of your game.

4. What game mechanics/elements best link to my learning objectives?

Once you know your learning objectives, match them to the game mechanics and game elements that best support those objectives. You should also use your learner persona(s) to decide what type of game your target learners will most benefit from.

Access our recorded webinar to learn more about sales training

We cover this information and more in our Sales Enablement and Beyond webinar. It’s part of our ongoing Lessons on Learning Webinar Series.

Once Is Not Enough: How to Playtest Custom Learning Games

Once is Not Enough

I believe playtesting is a crucial, and often overlooked, part of learning game design. It takes multiple iterations to determine the right combination of game mechanics and game elements for your target learners. Whether you are an experienced game designer or an instructional designer trying to design a game for the first time, your game will benefit from multiple rounds of playtesting.

Of course, if we are going to tell everyone else to playtest their games, we have to do so as well! The following is the step-by-step story of how we created and play-tested a recent learning game for a client.

Example: Serious Game for Healthcare Workers

We recently created a game called “Five Star Facility,” targeted towards environmental technicians who work in healthcare settings. These technicians clean the patients’ rooms and other areas of a hospital or long-term care facility. It took us four iterations to get the game we wanted and players could most learn from.

We reached a great game in the end, but it took good playtesting and iteration to get us there. Our stellar design team of Amanda Gentry, Matt Kroeger, Kristen Hewett, and Erika Bartlett did a terrific job!

Version One – Let’s create something “sort of like Clue”

This version has similarity to a commercial game called Clue. The design team felt the target learners would be pretty familiar with Clue’s  rules and core dynamics (exploration, collection), and they wanted a game that learners could quickly learn to play. Gameplay was competitive. The game goal was to be the first person to collect all the room tokens, which represented all the categories of information players needed to learn and remember. Players rolled a die to determine how many spaces they moved on the board. Each space corresponded to a different category of environmental protection/cleaning. Players had to answer questions related to whatever category they landed on. Similar to Clue, they had to go into each room on the board. Answering a question in the room earned them a token for that room. The first player to earn all the tokens won the game.

First version of five star facility game.

First version of five star facility game.

It wasn’t a terrible game design… but it was just okay.

Problems With the First Design:

  1. The game could get sort of long if people were rolling lots of low numbers.
  2. The designers made the game competitive. In the real-world, environmental technicians should behave cooperatively with each other and with the healthcare team as a whole.
  3. This first rendition ignored the “why” of the environmental tech’s job and didn’t help them see the connection between what they do and how the healthcare facility gets dollars to stay in business. Survey ratings determine the reimbursements healthcare facilities receive from Medicare. If your facility’s aggregate survey ratings are only three stars, you do not receive the same dollars as a facility who received five star ratings.

Version Two – Scrap the Clue idea. Let’s race to the finish.

The icons are gone, the die is gone, and we have a path we’re traveling and monetary targets to reach. This version stunk. It was boring and tedious to play. Players simply took turns drawing cards to try to reach the target dollar amount. They worked together to answer the questions, but when the designers switched from competition to cooperation, they failed to include game mechanics that created any conflict or tension within the players. There was no “Lose” state or no really bad things that could happen. This version was quickly ditched.

Version Two: Lots and lots of dots.

Version Two: Lots and lots of dots.

Version Three – Bring back the game icons. Add in a progress tracker.

Version three was much better! The team latched on to the realization that five star ratings led to better reimbursements. Now players had to secure at least $70K in reimbursements to win… and mistakes would push their survey ratings downward. This was better, but there was still a serious flaw. Players’ dollars didn’t go down when they made mistakes; only their survey ratings did. In the real world, these are tied together. We also discovered as we played that we needed to better write our questions to eliminate ambiguity of responses. On the plus side, the discussion team members did before deciding on a correct response was phenomenal. Lots of learning happened in these discussions.

Version 3: We’re getting closer to the final product.

Version 3: We’re getting closer to the final product.

 Version Four – We have a winner!

The final version of the game was the winner. Look at how we tied together survey ratings and reimbursement dollars. Players start with a 1.5 star rating and $30K in reimbursement dollars. To move to the right and earn more dollars, they have to enter a room and respond correctly to that category’s question. They still roll a die to move a team token around the board. If they land on a space outside of a room, they have to answer a question that corresponds to the icon they land on. A correct response allows play to progress to the next player with no adverse event. An incorrect response forces players to move to a lower survey rating. If they hit the zero starts spot on the game board, the game is over and the team loses. If they earn $10K from every “room” on the game board and achieve at least $70K in reimbursement, they win.

Version four: By George, we’ve got it!

Version four: By George, we’ve got it!

Lessons for learning game designers:

  1. Make sure your choice of a competitive game or a cooperative game mirrors the real-world environment. Do not have people competing in a learning game if their real-world context requires cooperation or collaboration to be successful.
  2. Be aware that competitive games do not tend to be as influential of learning experiences as cooperative ones do. In competitive games, only one person or team wins. The “losers” can disengage from the experience entirely if it is not managed well.
  3. Make sure the game mechanics (rules) and game goal complement – or at least do not detract – from your real-world situation.
  4. Make sure your game includes enough “tension” in it to keep things interesting. Interesting translates into “fun.” If there are not realistically significant odds of losing the game, it becomes boring to play.
  5. Don’t be content with the first version of your game; it will not be the best version.
  6. Don’t playtest once; identify changes to make, and then fail to playtest to verify those changes improve the game play and learning experience. You have to test every time you make a change.

Building Skill and Knowledge, iEV, and Storytelling Tips: This Week on #BLPLearn

blp-learn-banner#BLPLearn is our way of saving all of the great content our team curates… and sharing it with the wider community. We’ll take the best articles shared by our Learning Services, Multimedia, and Product Development teams in their weekly meetings and include them in the weekly #BLPLearn blog. We’ll usually include some commentary from the original team member who found the article, too.

Our goal is to make the weekly #BLPLearn blog a dependable source for quality, curated L&D content. Check back every Thursday.


Rather than restricting the social media conversation to a 30 minute window, we’re inviting everyone inside and outside BLP to share interesting links, thoughts, and articles with the #BLPLearn hashtag on Twitter. We’ll check the feed once a week and include the best articles submitted via Twitter in the post, too.


Now that introductions are out of the way, let’s dive in to this week’s articles:

Games That Build Skill and Knowledge
Submitted by Sharon Boller, President and Chief Product Officer 

One of the reasons we created the Quest game type was to develop a game type that allowed for both knowledge acquisition AND skill building. We enabled people to create “performance challenges” that could be skill-based as opposed to knowledge-based while still retaining the knowledge component. Because Guru is a game engine that includes an authoring tool, we needed to make it very, very easy for people to develop a game quickly and with minimal to no game design skill.

We know that one of the primary needs our client base has is to help people build process knowledge and skill. Imagine you have the freedom and $$ to develop a 100% custom game. It’s important for people to perform the process quickly and without errors. Asking questions about it won’t be enough. They have to practice DOING it – over and over again. A game is an ideal tool for this frequent practice. An eLearning company in the UK developed an intriguing game for the UI division of McDonald’s Corporation’s. The game teaches people how to operate the “till,” (you have to love British English) and also incorporates a knowledge component in the form of Q&As. The business results were impressive, as was the implementation technique – merely embedding the game within an employee website/portal and letting employees discover it for themselves.

They designed achievements that linked effectiveley to what they wanted employees producing on the job (perfection, happy camper, etc),and, in general, modeled lots of the traits of effective learning game design.

You can read about it here:

Example of Game that builds knowledge AND skill

Submitted by Brandon Penticuff, Technology Director 

Pop quiz: What’s the #1 concern that someone usually has when considering an electric vehicle?

It turns out that it’s something called “Range Anxiety”, essentially the concern about the range of electric vehicles and whether or not your needs would be sufficiently covered by an electric powered car.

The link/app that I want to share with everyone today is designed to address this anxiety as well as provide additional information on what your driving patterns would look like if you had an electric vehicle. So this is a very targeted learning app really.


  • What do you think, would this information address anxieties you might share?
  • This is a pretty unique way of problem solving, using essentially a data collection app to compare results with a different model in the same environment, any thoughts on how that could be applied to other learning?
  • One neat feature of the app is that if you agree to share anonymous data about your drives, it unlocks additional features. I thought this was a novel way to approach “pro features” instead of making the user pay for them.


4 Storytelling Tips From the Co-Creator of Blockbuster Mystery Podcast “Serial
Submitted by Jennifer Bertram, Director of Instructional Design

I am obsessed with this podcast. I listen to it religiously every week – it’s my favorite “show”. There are some great storytelling tips in this article that I think we could translate to the stories we tell in our courses. How can we weave stories throughout the learning experience? How can we do a better job of parceling out details over time?

  • The idea of spreading it out over multiple weeks due to the amount of content. This could really apply to a “bite sized” learning solution. Helps with the goal of leaving the learner wanting more.
  • The narrator has a perspective and you can see her feelings/questions as you go. This helps you engage in the story. By taking this approach, you can really see the different perspectives of all of the people in the story.
  • Holding back some of the details of the stories is a great way to engage the audience and keep them in the story/learning.
  • Think about what questions you want the story to answer, worry about that more than the ending.

4 Storytelling Tips

Game or Mini-Game: Which Should You Choose for Your Training Solution?

You are all in. You want to incorporate games into your learning experience. Do you go with one large game as THE learning solution or do you incorporate several smaller games… what we call “mini-games?”

A large-scale game can provide learners with a powerful, immersive learning experience. However, such games can be complex to design and develop, and they typically require lots of personnel hours to produce.  If you are new to the learning game design arena, they can be an intimidating task.

Sometimes, a small “mini-game” can provide you with the level of engagement you want while not requiring as much time and effort to produce.  Consider using a mini-game if these things are true:

  • You want to teach or reinforce a single learning objective (e.g. Compare 5 products, Distinguish between 3 things, Classify 4 personality types, Recommend the right settings, etc.). If you have more than a single objective in mind, a mini-game is not a realistic choice.
  • You want total playing time to range between 5 and 15 minutes of time and no more. It’s not a “mini-game” if it takes an hour for people to play.
  • You are not seeking a game that people will play over and over again. Most mini-games are structured as matching activities, puzzles, or quick scenarios. Once the problem is solved, people typically don’t want or need to replay the game, particularly if you design it so they cannot complete the game without getting things right.
  • The game functions with other components in your curriculum and is not the only way you are teaching something. Mini-games tend to be a one-and-done activity so they function best when combined with other things. A mini-game might be a great pre-work activity or a good activity to include in an online learning event or eLearning course.

Let’s compare a situation where a mini-game was the right learning solution with a situation where a more comprehensive serious game was needed.

1. Incident Investigation

These thumbnail images link to different mini-games. They are meant to be used in one of two ways: as part of a larger endeavor to teach incident investigation and/or as a quick reinforcement of basic concepts related to incident investigation. Each mini-game has a single learning objective. (A full-blown game might have several.)


In The Elevator Game the game goal is for learners to get 11 people to the right location in a building by 3 p.m. The learning goal is for them to accurately identify the activities associated with the five steps of the incident investigation process. Play the mini-game.


In Late for Lunch the game goal is for learners to get to lunch before starvation sets in. The learning goal is for them to accurately identify the information they need to gather regarding a recent accident that occurred at their job site. Play the mini-game.


In Making Gold, the game goal is to escape from the evil alchemist’s laboratory. The learning goal is to accurately distinguish between an incident, an accident, and a near-miss. Play the mini-game.

2. Product Launch

We recently completed a major curriculum design and development project associated with the launch of a product. The curriculum included pre-work components, and a two-day live event. One of the pre-work activities was a mini-challenge called Making Fuel. Learners had to correctly compare 7 competitors. The second game was a full-scale learning game. It used Knowledge Guru’s game engine to create a four-topic game that helped learners master product basics before attending the live launch workshop.


The screen grab above shows a mini-game that has the same functionality as the Making Gold game. The game goal is to get fuel into the car. The learning goal is to match competitor weaknesses to a product.


This screen grab shows a full-blown game that uses Knowledge Guru game engine. In this game, the players gain product knowledge through game play. The game goal is to win the Racing series by completing four different races. The learning goals included: 1) Match the features of the product with related competitive advantages, 2)  Match the competitive advantage with related benefits or savings, 3) Select the differentiating features and benefits of the product versus selected competitor products, and 4) Select differentiating features and benefits of the product versus selected competitor products.

6 Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Learning Game Design

Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design

Bottom-Line Performance has done simulation and learning game design for table-top/live events for many years. However, our foray into digital game design has only been happening for the past three years. When we started, we found lots of books and articles on game design – but not much on learning game design. We leveraged wonderful books from game designers such as Tracy Fullerton and Brenda Brathwaite and gleaned from their experiences designing games, but we didn’t have a ton of peers writing tomes on learning game design. (Exception: Karl Kapp’s book, Gadgets, Games, and Gizmos for Learning came out in 2007. It’s a wonderful book, but it’s not really a how-to guide to creating learning games. His most recent book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook has more how-to guides within it.)

There are some similarities between learning design and learning game design… but even more differences. Here is a summary of six lessons we’ve learned. We’ll present these – with more detail – at sessions we’re doing at ASTD TechKnowledge later this week as well as at Training 2014 in early February. You can get a sneak peak at the slides we’ll use (and the example) on Slideshare.

1. You need game content – even at your first prototype.

This might sound obvious, but if you have done agile design before, you may have designed HOW a learning interaction is going to work while including only placeholder content in it or Greek text. You cannot do this with a game. You have to have realistic content (e.g. an actual scenario and realistic choices for a player to make) or you cannot assess the fun factor and learning efficacy of the game idea. Trust us on this. We made the mistake of trying to design a game interaction with only place-holder content. People played the prototype and then told us, “Well it might be fun but I can’t really tell without seeing the actual game content.” Once we played, it was like the Mr. Obvious show. However, BLP has lots of smart people and we didn’t recognize this issue until we programmed an initial prototype that we called “Story Shuffle.” We got smart and re-did things. Here’s a later view of the same game, now called “Late for Lunch.” For those who are curious – we used a tool called Construct2 to create the game. You can embed games into course authoring tools such as Lectora or Articulate Storyline.

2. Aesthetics and theme dramatically affect desire to play. They literally can be game-changers in terms of people’s interest in what you create.

Again this seems obvious… but aesthetics are HUGELY powerful. They can take content that an ordinary person would NOT find exciting and make you want to play just because the game is so aesthetically cool looking. You might not be excited by the topic of incident investigation but you might be far more excited to go into an evil alchemist’s laboratory and earn your way out by making gold out of iron. Check out this game to see what I mean.

3. Fantasy has high appeal – even to “corporate” learners. It’s worth fighting for.

Bean counters can be skeptical of fantasy – it can seem frivolous or too fanciful for work. However…that is sort of the point in making someone intrigued enough to want to play a game that would otherwise be rather ho-hum.

Here’s ho-hum.


Here’s pretty fun:


4. Most players need help figuring out how to play – but typically won’t opt for it if given a choice.

This lesson is a critical one. Some learning games – in fact, many learning games – require some “show” on how to play to minimize the learner’s cognitive load. You don’t want them to spend so much mental energy figuring out the mechanics of the game that they fail to learn anything. However, when you design a tutorial level of play, if players get a choice, they will often OPT OUT of completing it…because they don’t want to take the time. We’ve learned not to let players have a choice and to require them to go through the tutorial. No, they won’t want to. Yes, it will end up maximizing their enjoyment of the play experience if they do. Either incorporate a “training level” or an actual tutorial into the game unless the game’s mechanics are very, very easy to understand and intuit.

5. Rules and game complexity need to be proportional to the amount of time people will spend playing the game.

If you are designing a multi-hour play experience, you can incorporate lots of game elements and mechanics (aka game rules). If you are trying to create a 10-minute to 60-minute play experience, you NEED TO KEEP IT SIMPLE. Lots of complexity can create a very fun GAME experience, but it has a negative impact on the LEARNING experience. As you play test your game during development, you need to ask both of these questions:

  • How engaged were you in play?
  • What did you learn by playing?

If the game has lots of clever elements and mechanics, you can get very positive responses to the first question – but poor responses to the second.

6. Scoring is the hardest element to get right – and requires far more time than a novice designer will probably assign to the project plan for it.

I created the game Formulation Type Matters four years ago. It was my first digital game (and a finalist this year in the Serious Games Challenge – hooray!). I allocated 8 hours to define the scoring for this game. We actually spent well over 40 hours figuring out the scoring – mostly because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started. I’ve learned a lot since then, and I am now more careful to think through the scoring to make sure it’s relevant to the skill I’m trying to teach, meaningful to the player, motivating (rather than de-motivating to the player,) and, frankly, easy to understand. I also know that it is probably going to take more than 8 hours to figure out the scoring on a game unless the game is super-simple.

Here are the slides I used when presenting “Lessons from the Trenches” at conferences

BLP Named a Finalist in 2013 Serious Games Showcase and Challenge

Serious Games Showcase and Challenge

Bottom-Line Performance Inc. (BLP) specializes in custom eLearning, game-based learning and mobile solutions. President Sharon Boller strategically emphasized games (which are also her passion) as a viable learning solution for our clients years before they were the latest trend in corporate learning. That dedication paid off last week, as Formulation Type Matters, a game we developed for Dow AgroSciences, was named a finalist in the 2013 Serious Game Showcase and Challenge in the “Business” category.

The game is just one example of the custom learning games we create for our clients.

“We were intrigued by the possibility of an interactive game format as a learning tool,” said Marc Fisher, Global Technology Transfer Leader at Dow AgroSciences. “The finished course resonated with our sales reps and engaged them in the learning experience in a way our other solutions had not yet supplied.”

Formulation Type Matters is a scenario-driven game where sales reps are transported to the Hinterlands, a fictional island where their interactions with customers in their territory positively and negatively impact their sales. Fisher noted that the game intentionally does not control the learner’s path, much like they would encounter in typical customer interactions.

“Formulation type has a major impact on a product’s performance,” said Fisher. “The game provides a fun, engaging and challenging way to learn this highly technical information, and reinforces the availability of downloadable fast facts guides as resources on this topic for new hire sales. We are extremely pleased to have this learning game in our toolbox.”

The Serious Games Showcase & Challenge began in 2005 to “stimulate industry creativity and generate institutional interest towards the use of digital game technology and approaches for training and education.” The Challenge partners with the organizers of the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) and the National Training Systems Association (NTSA). A panel of industry experts select the winners in each category, while participants in the annual I/ITSEC conference will vote for the “People’s Choice Award.”

The BLP team will showcase Formulation Type Matters at the 2013 I/ITSEC conference in Orlando, December 2-5, 2013 in Orlando. The conference is attended by 20,000+ professionals in the serious games/simulations industry annually.