The Education Plan
Slitherine's Marco Minoli on the company's strategy to blend culture and learning with entertainment
Slitherine Software is a UK developer that's focused on historical strategy titles - both videogames and tabletop gaming - for a number of years, but until its license deals with The History Channel, and now the BBC too, appealed to a relatively niche market.
Here marketing manager Marco Minoli talks about the company's attempts to get people "learning by stealth" as it tries to blend education and culture with entertainment.
Q: For people who may not know Slitherine, explain briefly what your trademark is.
Marco Minoli: Well, it's very simple - we make history-based games. That's our core, and I think while there are other companies who make a variety of products, we have a very clear idea of what we want to do. That's what's important for us - our licenses and the types of games we create.
It has to be cultural and entertaining - history is culture, and we don't want people to notice that they're actually learning something while they're playing, that's the goal. Because retail hates edutainment and culture, they just don't like it. As soon as you say "culture" they tell you they won't sell it.
The goal for us has always been to get people to learn by stealth, and movies like Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan - they're entertainment, but they're also giving some educational learning content too.
That's what we want to with games, really, and it's why we're partnered with The History Channel - they're creating documentaries which are entertainment, but you learn something while watching them.
Q: How did the History Channel deal come about?
Marco Minoli: The deal came about for the same reason - because we knew we could create this brand of historical entertainment in games, but we had a big stumbling block with retail. So we looked at putting a license on the game, together with a TV advertising campaign... you go to retail with that and it's easier.
But not all retailers got it, although HMV was a good partner for us in the beginning. We had a PlayStation 2 game that was in the top ten for five weeks in a row, because they trusted what we were doing. I think that opened up a big route into other ways of facing the thing.
Our first game, Great Battles of Rome, was a strategy game on the PC, PlayStation Portable and PS2, and now we're doing an RPG with The History Channel, so we're branching into different directions.
Q: What did you learn from the Great Battles of Rome game, in terms of putting together a strategy game in an environment where there are already a lot of strategy games?
Marco Minoli: I think we were starting from a very good position, which was a huge fanbase of Slitherine products. We've got a forum that's packed with passionate people, and we' listen to them a lot - that's why we start our marketing (apart from the Horrible Histories games) from there, asking what they'd like in the next game.
The challenge in the PC games market is huge now, but it wasn't that big a challenge four years ago when we started developing the game, and three years ago when we released the first version of it.
To be honest, the PC version of the History Channel game was the least-performing one, because we already had our core audience from previous games, and if I look now at the success of the game itself, the PSP version gave us the best results. That's why we really keep pushing the PSP now, it's perfect for us, for our strategy of history and strategy.
To be very honest nobody's looking at the PSP as a huge opportunity at the moment, and I really think there is a huge opportunity there. I've seen sales charts for some territories now and a top ten PSP game sells more than a top ten Nintendo DS game.
Q: The PSP platform has been around for a long time now, yet the software offerings from major third party publishers isn't extensive. Does that help you, with the market place being less crowded?
Marco Minoli: I think it helps having the right console for the right product - that always helps. The DS at the moment is less for us, but it doesn't mean that it's not for us - it has such a big installed base that there will be strategy fans out there waiting for a DS strategy game.
But I think the PSP is more of a suitable platform right now, and I think at the moment it's the console has the most potential to target new consumers.
Q: Do you mean consumers new to the Slitherine brand, rather than consumers new to gaming?
Marco Minoli: Well, I think that's a task for Sony and other big publishers. What we really want is to target our audience, and it really starts in our forums, with people asking why don't we do a DS or PSP version of a game, it would be great. It starts with a strategy game which is niche, but then we go into the BBC one which is much more mainstream.
Q: Talk a bit more about the BBC deal, and what that will yield.
Marco Minoli: The BBC game is our big game for next Christmas. It's our huge, big release. The BBC deal has been probably the hardest thing we've ever done, because you have to go through a number of stumbling blocks.
It's not a TV product, first of all, so we didn't walk in and ask to make a game about the Teletubbies or anything like that. And we sort of used the back door to approach the BBC, because we started from a Flash game they had online called Battlefield Academy, built in 2004 for the Battlefield Britain TV series.
So we asked them if we could do something for portable and consoles, then revolutionised the whole concept of the game - so it's sort of a transfer to console, but really changing the whole thing, because you can't bring Flash games to console.
But we've got so much support now from their content team, which is really great - they're really looking at this game, as far as I can see, from a point of view feeling that this could be really big.
If you compare it to other licensed properties that we've got, they're very much into the content of the game, the gameplay and so on - because they're not just licensing the badge on the box, they're selling more, which is the proposition itself.
Q: When will you start talking about that game?
Marco Minoli: We started hinting about the game's content at a recent London event. It's a World War II tactical game. We kept the Battlefield Academy title, because we wanted to make it a very approachable game. It's in the style of X-COM meets Commandos, based on a stylistic design, with comic-style characters and so on.
That's our key thing, to approach a new market with this - male teens, which is a big challenge.
Q: Microsoft's Neil Thompson recently stated that it was impossible to make money from educational games - I guess you'd disagree?
Marco Minoli: I think there are two different points here. Firstly we're trying to replicate something that other media already do - The History Channel does entertainment and culture together, and it's profitable. And at Scholastic, that's what they do, they put together entertainment and culture, publish it and make a whole lot of money.
It's the same with TV - look at The Tudors, or Band of Brothers, it's entertainment and it's culture.
Q: You can't call that edutainment, can you?
Marco Minoli: But that's a word thing, not a concept thing.
Q: So is Neil Thompson wrong?
Marco Minoli: I don't think we can make money out of the word "edutainment," but we can make money out of the thing that we're doing. On the other side I think that we need to raise the profile of the industry - we are an entertainment industry, there's no doubt about it - but raise its profile towards educators and politicians... we need it.
Q: Last year Lord Puttnam claimed that the games industry didn't "stand a snowball's chance in Hell" of getting tax breaks if it didn't add educational elements to its products - is this something that you have in mind?
Marco Minoli: That's really a long term idea, but it's definitely something that we're looking at.
Marco Minoli is marketing manager at Slitherine. Interview by Phil Elliott.