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 at #Trg14

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.

Visit Us at ASTD Techknowledge!

2014TK-Sponsors_SilverThere are several ways to see the BLP team at ASTD TechKnowledge:

1. In the Expo: We’ll be showcasing our Knowledge Guru game engine, and releasing the new Enterprise Edition, in Booth 303 of the Expo. Learn more.

2. In my session: I will give Lessons from the Trenches of Digital Game Design on Wednesday, January 22nd from 1:15 – 2:15 pm. Learn more.

3. In a hands-on demo: I will partner with Steven Boller to give Powerful Learning Games You Can Build in a Day on Thursday, January 23rd from 12:55 – 1:25 pm. Learn more.

4. In Leanne Batchelder’s session: Leanne will deliver Gamify Online Safety Compliance Training: A Roche Case Study, on Thursday, January 23rd from 3:15 – 4:15 pm. Learn more.


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.

New Learning Game Design White Paper by Sharon Boller (Free Download)

Many of our readers are instructional designers looking to pick up some game design tips for their next project. Others are already avid game designers just looking for extra tips and advice. Wherever you are as a learning game designer, we are excited to release another free resource to help you hone your skills.

BLP president Sharon Boller has written a new white paper titled Using Game Mechanics and Game Elements in Learning Games. It explains, in clear terms, how to design games that will support your desired learning outcomes. Best of all, it uses real-life examples to show how game mechanics and game elements can be used in a practical setting.

Learning Game Design White Paper

You’ll Learn About:

  • Game mechanics, which are rules players follow in a game, and rules the game itself follows.
  • How to closely tie game mechanics to mirror the cognitive tasks learners will need to perform on the job.
  • Twelve common game elements, which are found in most commercial games and learning games.
  • How to choose the right game elements to include in a game based on players’ job type and characteristics.
  • Questions you can ask as a learning game designer to get the most out of your game.
  • Why it’s important to test the balance of game mechanics and game elements with play-testing.
  • Case studies from our work designing games for corporate clients

Download the White Paper

The white paper is available as a free download on the Knowledge Guru website. Click here to download… or just click the image above.

Learning Game Design: a Blog Series by Sharon Boller

In early May we launched our Learning Game Design Blog on the Knowledge Guru website. The blog has become a great source of information for anyone interested in game based learning and gamification—thanks in large part to an incredibly in-depth blog series by Sharon Boller.

learning game design blog

The Learning Game Design Series

The Learning Game Design Series is designed to take you through the 5-step process we use for designing games. The 5-step process is:

  1. Play games; evaluate what works and what doesn’t work in terms of “fun.”
  2. Get familiar with game elements and how to use them.
  3. Think about the learning first—and then the game.
  4. Dump ADDIE. Go agile instead.
  5. Play test. Play test. Did I say play test?

The series will take a deep dive into each step, sometimes taking several posts to cover one step, and offer real world examples from our own game development.

It’s safe to say Sharon knows a thing or two about games. On top of creating the Knowledge Guru game engine, she has worked extensively with Dr. Karl Kapp, author and Assistant Director of Bloomsburg University’s Institute for Interactive Technologies. Together they run a game design workshop called Play to Learn—which you can attend at the Devlearn conference in October—that has already helped many people build their first game prototype.

An example of a prototype being built and playtested at the Play to Learn workshop.

An example of a prototype being built and playtested at the Play to Learn workshop.

Where We Are So Far

So if you’re interested in games, you should take some time to check out this blog series. I’ll give you a quick recap of where we are now…

Learning Game Design Series, Part 1: Play and Evaluate Games

If you’re going to design a game, then you need to play a lot of games—and play a lot of different types of games. You can’t design a game if you don’t play them. You won’t have the play experiences you need to draw off of throughout the design process. You want to make a FUN game. Why? Because the fun in a game helps the learning happen—it is not frivolous; it is an integral piece.

You’re not only playing games for fun, though. You’re also playing games to evaluate them. Playing games for enjoyment is different than playing games to evaluate the quality and efficacy of the game design. This post will go over some best practices and questions to ask when evaluating games.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 2: Game Goals and Game Dynamics

Before you can design a good game you need to be able to craft game goals, select game dynamics, create strong game mechanics, and choose appropriate game elements.  This post focuses on two of those things: game goals and game dynamics—as well as how they link together.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 3: Game Mechanics

A game’s mechanics are the rules and procedures that guide the player and the game response to the player’s moves or actions. Through the mechanics you create, you define how the game is going to work for the people who play it. This post breaks down examples of rules for players and rules for the game itself. It also analyzes the direct link between the game mechanics you choose and how the learning occurs.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 4, Part5, and Part 6: Game Elements

The next three posts all deal with one huge topic: Game Elements. Elements are the different features of a game that keep people engaged. The 12 core game elements are: Conflict, Collaboration, Competition, Strategy, Chance, Aesthetics, Theme, Story, Resources, Time, Rewards/Scoring, and Levels. You’ll need to make calculated decisions on which elements to include and to what degree.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 7: Thinking About the Learning and Then the Game

If your intention is to create a learning game that achieves specific learning outcomes for the players, then you have to think about the learning before you begin crafting the game design. It’s critical to have a strong understanding of the previous steps—but that understanding doesn’t guarantee you a learning game if you don’t also have solid instructional design skills. Why? Because an effective learning game requires a solid instructional goal and learning objectives.

Learning Game Design Series, Part 8: Dump ADDIE; Iterate Instead

Designing a game is a VERY iterative process. If you’ve been using the ADDIE model your entire career, then you’re going to need to get familiar with Agile. ADDIE and Agile each have their benefits, but for game design you need to go with the latter; there is too much evolving in the game design process. This post goes through an actual example of iterating while prototyping a new game.

Training Needs Analysis Worksheet (Free Download)

Training Needs Analysis Worksheet banner

A soundly conducted Needs Analysis should always be the first step when you need to improve performance or change behaviors. Regardless of the type of learning solution you plan to create, taking the time to properly assess the situation and gather appropriate information will go a long way towards assuring the success of a new project.

Below, you will find a five step process for conducting a Training Needs Analysis. When we help organizations with their analysis, we recommend they follow these steps, or a similar variation. To help you through these five steps, we have created a 10-question Needs Analysis Worksheet you can fill out and use as a starting point for new project. You may fill out the form below and download it for free.

And now, the five steps of a standard Training Needs Analysis.

1. Receive Training Request

Whether you receive a formal request for training or a more vague indication that there is a problem you are expected to solve, now is the time to start gathering some basic information. In this step, you will formulate an initial instructional goal (which can be revised later) and clarify your target audience… including their characteristics, background, and current skills. You will also decide if the training can be developed internally, or if you will need an external vendor.

2. Formulate a plan

Chances are you will have quite a bit of content to gather and organize. You’ll also need a plan for refining your instructional goal to make sure it aligns with business objectives. Step 2 is all about figuring out what information to gather, who to get it from, and how to get it. Zero in on your instructional goal, profile your learners, and carefully identify the skills or behaviors you want to impact.

3. Gather the data

In Step 3, it’s time to collect data and refine your plan based on data that emerges. You’ll be collecting data using methods such as stakeholder interviews, locating source content, focus groups, and task analysis.

Interviews, focus groups, and locating source content are all fairly straightforward tasks, but you may or not already be familiar with the task analysis technique. This involves isolating an individual task and identifying the current results, the desired standard, level of importance, frequency of the task, and more. Quite honestly, we could give a full workshop on just the task analysis step alone. For a more in-depth explanation, get in touch with us.

4. Analyze data and conclude the process

Once you’ve gathered all the necessary data, it’s time to analyze the information gathered and formulate findings and recommendations. You should revise your instructional goal based on the data you’ve gathered. You should now have new insights on your learners that will affect the content of the solution, the delivery format, and other constraints.

By the end of this step, you should clearly know what the optimal training solution is… and why. You’ll also know whether you can complete the training internally, or if you need to bring in an outside vendor.

5. Plan next steps

Your final step in the Needs Analysis will be a comprehensive report, which will serve as the road map for your solution design. This report will include the final instructional goal, profile of the target audience, learning objectives, and a summary of the tasks or ideas being taught. You’ll also lay out the constraints to consider in your design… and the potential delivery method. With all five steps of the Needs Analysis process completed, you should be well on your way to developing an effective learning solution.


We have a created a simple, 10-question worksheet to help you kickstart your Training Needs Analysis. Use it to ask the right questions, zero in on the “need to have” information, and make a sound plan for identifying the right learning solution.

To Game or Not to Game? The Best Ways to Use Games for Learning

So, you think you want to use a game to help people learn. You’ve got the “what,” but do you know the “why” and the “how?”

There are many reasons to use games for learning… and also times when you’d be better off picking a different interactive learning experience. The best way to figure out whether or not to create a learning game, and to get the project started, is to ask the right questions. Karl Kapp has two short but sweet blog posts with questions you should ask before creating a learning game. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.


When mapping out a learning game design project, you need to determine the instructional objectives… and how the gameplay will serve those objectives. You’ll identify demonstrable tasks that can be completed through the game, and you’ll also decide whether or not a game can mimic the context where learners really need to apply the skills. I could go on, but Karl covers all of these in his posts.

Once you’ve decided that yes, you want to use a learning game, you have to decide whether it will be the primary learning activity or a reinforcement tool. This decision will influence the game’s content, design, and your internal promotion strategy. Yes… you should promote your game internally to get people to play.

Using a game as the Primary Learning Method

Games are most useful as the primary learning method when the content is highly immersive. Context is vital to learning, and a game that mimics the situation where learners will have to recall information or complete a task will aid in retention and performance.

We took this approach when creating A Paycheck Away, a board game that simulates the problem of systemic homelessness. Players play as a profile of a real homeless family and must make realistic decisions to try and get out of homelessness. While the game is a tabletop board game, the situations are realistic and spark real emotions. An issue like homelessness simply must be taught in an immersive experience like this that gives context to the problem. A quiz-style game teaching facts about homelessness simply wouldn’t cut it.

A Paycheck Away - Game as Primary Learning Method

A Paycheck Away game board

Conversely, a gameplay experience that is closely linked to how people learn best can also be useful as the primary learning method. Our Knowledge Guru® game engine is designed to utilized the principles of spaced learning, immediate feedback, and repetition to maximize retention of new information. When players play the quiz-style game as a primary learning method, they learn the information by getting questions wrong, reading the feedback explaining their misstep, and trying again.

Knowledge Guru game as primary learning method

Players learn from the immediate feedback in Knowledge Guru

Using a Game for Reinforcement

Games are also great for reinforcing the learning that happens through an eLearning course or instructor-led session. After people complete the regular training, you can simply send them the link to play a game or invite them to a face-to-face session. The key with using a game for reinforcement is to promote it well and remind players consistently that they should come back and play.

ExactTarget, a digital marketing company, used Knowledge Guru to help employees prepare for a product launch. Since they are a marketing company, they did exceptionally well at promoting the game internally, and saw a high rate of participation as a result.

Take a look at some of the emails and advertisements ExactTarget used to position their game as a reinforcement activitiy:

Internal Advertisement of Learning Games for Reinforcement

Example of a banner ad displayed to employees

Email messages that include a link to play the game are also very effective.Send internal emails to encourage game play for reinforcement

Games are Fun… Which Makes Participation Easier

“Fun” can be pretty intangible, so business types sometimes shy away from citing it as a goal for training. We’ve seen that the “fun” factor of games is a big motivator for getting players to come back and reinforce skills and knowledge. Even giving a basic game eye-catching graphics, a narrative, and a sense of purpose goes a long way.

We use a pre-game narrative to set the stage for Knowledge Guru games. The first page is pictured below with our soon-to-be released Business Theme Package.

Fun, story-driven nature of games can make people want to complete reinforcement

Whether you decide to use games as the primary learning method or as reinforcement, asking the right questions up-front and designing it with “fun” in mind will help set you up for success.

You can use Knowledge Guru® to design learning games around any topic you want. If you’re interested, start a free trial.

How to Pilot Game Based Learning for Free

Convincing a bunch of people in suits that it’s a good idea to spend their company’s training budget on a game can sometimes be tricky. We’ve even dedicated a whole blog post to it. But the corporate environment is constantly evolving and every day more companies are embracing games as a way to not only train their employees, but to engage them. So now that games are becoming a more accepted part of the culture, there’s only one hurdle left: would our employees actually like the game we want them to play?

That’s an important question to ask, and it’s pretty hard to answer without actually trying it out. So that’s what we recommend you do, try it out—with the employees who are going to use it. The learners are the ultimate judge when it comes down to it. They are the ones who need to retain the information and use the game to help them in their day to day work. It only makes sense, then, that they should try the game out before you commit to the initiative.

A Live Trial

We created The Knowledge Guru Game Creation Wizard to let training and development professionals take full control over their content creation process, on top of keeping costs down and making it more affordable to blend games into their training. Since this is a brand new concept, we want to let people demo the product to show them how easy it is to use and how versatile it can be. But like I mentioned earlier, we aren’t only trying to convince the buyers, we’re also trying to convince the learners. That’s why you can make your trial live.

If you’re demoing the Knowledge Guru and building a game, you can set the game to live and have learners sign up to play. It’s really important to take advantage of this option. Make a demo game and sign up a few employees who will have to use the game if you end up purchasing. Have them play through it and give you feedback. That’s the best way to see if it’s a right fit for your organization.

Beyond Knowledge Guru

Piloting game based learning isn’t just about Knowledge Guru; it’s about educating an industry. We understand that games don’t work for every company or every situation. And we realize that despite the buzzwords, we’re still in the early phases of adopting games in the corporate training environment. But hopefully we’ve removed enough of the barriers to entry with this trial for industry professionals to see for themselves how game based learning works.

The studies are trickling in (check out this infographic of some of the research) but what we really need are more people actually trying out games for themselves. Use this opportunity to see if games really can engage your employees more. It’s one thing to read about it, it’s another to actually see it in action. If you do decide to try it out, don’t forget to check out our tutorial on using The Knowledge Guru and writing iterative questions. Game based learning only works if you build it right.

Click here if you want to test it out for yourself—happy gaming!