Since its debut a little more than a month ago on March 4, the Half the Sky game has seen 500,000 players (!), who in total have contributed more than $160,000 in donations directly or through sponsors. Players have already unlocked 83,000 books and $56,000 worth of life-changing surgeries.
While we’re proud of the meaningful impact in such early stages, we know that some of this meaning would be lost if we didn’t share the lessons learned with others who might be interested in embarking on a similar project.
In the next four weeks, the Games for Change staff will share nearly 50 lessons learned across executive production, partnerships and outreach, concepting, and community management. Look for a new post every week.
1. Building a coalition of great funders and partners. Under the umbrella of the “Half the Sky Movement” transmedia project (with its already-established support, a best-selling book and a high-profile TV show), we could bring together a set of leading organizations from the private and public sector to support the game. While challenging to manage at times, this coalition added to the credibility of the project and made sure that multiple voices and perspectives were considered.
2. Producing an engaging commercial-level game for change. By working with one of the world’s leading Facebook developers, Frima Studio (recommended to us by Facebook), and enjoying the generous in-kind support of Zynga’s experts and analytics team, we could aim to make what we feel is a commercial-level game. To cite game designer and University of Southern California professor Richard Lemarchand: “It’s really well put-together—playable, varied and fun, with great characters, a tasteful ambience, and lots of color and nuance.”
3. Securing the sponsored donations. One of our early impact goals has been to convert players into donors or social activists. However, it was clear that only a small percentage of them were going to spend money in-game, especially players from developing countries. The concept and execution of the sponsored donations—a $500,000 guaranteed contribution of books and surgeries that players can trigger for free—enabled a much larger group to participate and feel they are making a difference simply by playing for 30 minutes.
4. Marketing and distribution were always a top priority, as was fundraising. Many games for change or independent games spend most of their efforts on development and reach the finish line with no resources to get the game to their audiences. In this case, we raised marketing and outreach funds from early stages, bringing it to a 40 to 50 percent of the total funds raised.
5. We successfully navigated an incredibly complex web of relationships and agendas. The different agendas involved, the complexity of a game about such sensitive issues and the high visibility of the project, made some stakeholders nervous especially as our public launch drew closer. We aimed to be open, and shared information across the board on a weekly and sometime on a daily basis. Aligning all stakeholders under the same goals and plan was an ongoing effort.
6. We always worked with audience and impact objectives in mind. Keeping an eight-step methodology in mind (developed with E-Line Media), we had a clear plan from the beginning: This is a game that is designed to reach a very wide audience—beyond the people who have heard about Half the Sky or read The New York Times columns from Half the Sky co-author Nick Kristof. We wanted to reach women and girls, we wanted to reach people all over the world, and we wanted to reach people who have limited or no experience with games. On top of that, we wanted to convert some of them to take social actions, trigger donations and engage with the movement at large. This led us to choose Facebook as a platform and informed many of the design decisions moving forward.
7. Transparency. There’s always more we could do here, but many of our efforts such as this series of blog posts, our social media activity and Facebook fan page all try to promote the game but at the same time be very transparent about its impact, who it is going to support, who is playing and what are some of the lessons we’re learning. This is a game produced by the nonprofit Games for Change for the benefit of women and girls worldwide but also for the benefit of the emerging field of games for social impact.
1. Too ambitious on too many fronts. Looking back, we could make have made our lives easier—and probably produced a better product—by reducing the scope and ambition. Instead of seven nonprofit partners, why not working with three? Rather than reinventing a whole new donation model on Facebook, we could rely on existing structures that are proven, and so on. We have more examples of how we pushed the boundaries on too many fronts rather than focus innovation on two or three major goals.
2. We invested too much in development pre-launch, not enough in service post-launch. As much as this was the common wisdom, especially related to Facebook games, we repeated the same mistake we were warned against. In our defense, we did a robust open beta with thousands of players and had Zynga running a company beta for us with detailed results that we were tempted to implement right away. But in the end, we hurt our ability to respond and create additional content post-launch.
3. No sustainable business model. When we made the decision to have all revenue go to charity (80% to NGOs, 17% to sustain the game and 3% to Tides to manage the financial transactions), we created a situation in which the game’s future is dependent on further funding. Adding the numbers on Facebook is not easy, and we couldn’t crack this one—how to make this a do-gooder game that sustains itself, at least to a large degree.
4. Should have aligned and oriented stakeholders from the start. Yes, we played well with our partners. But what would’ve been much smarter was to arrange a summit at the beginning of the process and orient all of them, many who were never involved in a production of a game, on what it entails. Instead, we needed to inform partners after the fact, and we didn’t have them fully invested until later stages.
5. We were late for Facebook. Oh, if this game came out two years ago… Facebook games were more viral and the policies looser. We spent so much time to get the project off the ground that we came late to the platform, arguably over the hill. All the positive outcomes and attention we see now in 2013 could have been amplified.
6. Engaging our own network and community. There was a clear tension between our role as a convener and a community platform, and becoming an executive producer of a game project. It raised a lot of questions for us, and for people in our community, some of them are still in debate. We were very cautious, and tried to be mindful of the consequences, believing it is in our core mission and will certainly contribute to the bigger picture. But I’m not sure we did a good enough job in communicating that or better facilitating that dialogue.
7. We’re not interesting for the gaming community. Making a game for Facebook that is based on social game conventions meant we’re not going to impress a large portion of the industry—not indie developers and not commercial game makers who despise the common practices on the platform. Hence, part of the big statement we wanted to make about the validity of games for social good was simply not heard. Our launch was covered on CNN, featured in the New York Times, and supported by celebs from Barbra Streisand to Ben Affleck. But any mention in a major gaming publication? Forget about it.