Simcoach Games makes training games that show people how to do certain kinds of jobs, and those games can sometimes lead people to adopt new careers. That ability to change lives is why CEO Jessica Trybus and vice president Eben Myers have made more than 150 titles over 12 years.
Their company is one of Pittsburgh’s many tech and gaming startups, and it is a spinoff from the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, where Trybus is a professor in practice. Her company addresses the issues we’re writing about in our new VentureBeat channel Heartland Tech and the topics we’ll discuss at our upcoming Blueprint conference in Reno, Nevada, on September 11-13.
I met Trybus at her company’s headquarters in the fashionable riverside Strip District neighborhood. She is bullish on Pittsburgh’s transformation from a Rust Belt city to a modern economy with tech and game jobs, and she feels Simcoach Games, which makes games that simulate real-life jobs, is part of that transformation.
Simcoach’s games such as Booeys teach players how to get into a tech career, or show them how to do construction jobs. Sometimes, players conclude that’s not what they want to do. And to Trybus, that’s a good thing, as it prequalifies people to be job candidates at the companies which sponsor the games.
The simple mobile games have paid the bills, and Simcoach Games employs 20 people. And it gives new meaning to the once-fashionable word, “gamification,” or using game mechanics in non-game applications to engage people through fun. I interviewed Trybus and Myers about these subjects.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Jessica Trybus: We’re over 12 years as a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon and the Entertainment Technology Center. I was involved with the ETC early on, and like Jesse Schell I’ve been on the faculty there for a long time.
GamesBeat: How many years have you been teaching?
Trybus: Thirteen. I got my graduate degree at Carnegie Mellon, and almost immediately became faculty. Then I also spun off the company about six months after that. We’re about 20 people now. Some Carnegie Mellon folks. Jesse has a lot of ETC grads.
Simcoach Games was originally called EtCetera Edutainment. That was a nod to the ETC. 2002, 2004, my work was around using game technologies and techniques for things other than entertainment: marketing, training, learning. I spent a lot of my graduate time thinking about those things. Then, of course, we all know that you can use games for other things, so when I started the company, the vision was similar. I was building great games for workforce development, training, and learning.
We started off by going to large companies in Pittsburgh, like Alcoa and Westinghouse and US Steel. UPMC is our big health system here. We said, “How would you use this for training? How are you training today? How are you talking to the next generation of your work force?” That’s how we got started. We built many, many games for training, learning, safety, you name it.
Things have evolved. We’re able to develop games much more quickly. Almost all of them are mobile. A lot of the workforce development games we focus on now are free in the app stores. We’re focused on licensing the data around who plays these games and what skills they want to pick up because of the games. A lot of our games are about industry awareness, career awareness, specific jobs. They’re assessing an aptitude, like if you have an aptitude toward a tech career, if you think like a technical person.
There are virtual experiences for specific jobs. Things to engage and attract and almost pre-qualify people for jobs – people who may not know that in, say, construction, there are all of these different trades and they’re great careers. You don’t need a four-year degree, but you need an apprenticeship. A lot of people don’t know how to get involved. We use this arcade of games to attract people and connect them, with the data, to training programs and employers.
GamesBeat: Did you ever consider yourselves part of the gamification trend, guys like Gabe Zichermann?
Trybus: I’ve been to some of those places. Bunchball in particular, I went out to see their CEO. I think internally we did not consider ourselves part of that, because when we started, earlier on, out of Carnegie Mellon, we were really focused on solving real problems with games that were using the concept of simulation to train. How could you do a better, faster, cheaper flight simulation, but for all these other occupations? Not so much adding incentives and rewards around a structure that was already there, like sales.
We also acknowledge that as part of a larger wave in the market, though, for people to understand—people would say, “Oh, you’re a gamification company?” And we’d say, “Okay, sure.” The reason we changed the name of the company—there were a couple of reasons, but the reason we finally changed it to Simcoach Games was because we were using game design as a differentiator from passive learning to active learning. Everything we do is a game, if that makes sense, in order to up your ability to retain the information or be immersed through the interactivity. But we saw ourselves as something different from the trend in gamification.
GamesBeat: How many games have you made so far?
Trybus: We’ve done about 150 games – projects, products, games. We don’t have 150 games on the app stores, although we do have a lot. The first couple of years we did one or two games a year, and now we’re doing dozens and dozens, because they’re short, they’re mobile, they’re easier to develop. They’re not as deep. They’re not around compliance training, so it’s not truly game-based simulation. One thing we realized is that it works better to make shorter games to focus on one or two critical skills, rather than throw in everything on a topic.
GamesBeat: What’s your favorite format? Have you moved into VR much at all?
Trybus: Not so much, primarily because our customers haven’t adopted it. The hardware implementation is still a big question. People think there’s a cool factor in VR, and certainly it’s affordable to set up now, but what does that mean as far as workflow, when you train people, when you put it on? As opposed to being able to do it anywhere, even on your own device. That said, we’re ready when our customers are.
GamesBeat: Owlchemy had the big hit with Job Simulator.
Trybus: We’ve developed in VR. All of us that trained at CMU have experience designing and developing VR, and we do, but not for commercial products.
GamesBeat: Have you found that this is a good place to be, or have you veered off at any point into other directions, like commercial games?
Trybus: No, our focus has always been around workforce development and training. How do you engage people to know what they’re getting into with respect to a task or job, and the importance of solving those problems for employers and for industry? Problems of low retention on something, or turnover is a big issue, or not being pre-qualified or interested in a job. Is there training you can get before you’re hired that makes sense?
We’re focused on the skills gap issue in this country. So many people don’t know what they want to do, but there are so many jobs available – and in growing numbers – that will not be filled. And when they are filled there’s too much turnover. How can we balance that out? There are always people out of work who don’t know what they want to do. Maybe one subset of that goes on to a four-year college, but really shouldn’t. Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at. We like to build great games that engage, but that’s the space we’re trying to solve problems in for industry.
GamesBeat: What kind of jobs need this kind of help?
Trybus: It turns out that a lot of occupations can benefit on the recruiting side from just getting people aware of what that occupation and industry is about. Getting people aware about what their path might be from training to a career, and some of the skills. Do you have an aptitude or a proclivity toward those skills? A big one, huge, is construction. There are 20-plus different trades, and in this country primarily—if your dad wasn’t a carpenter you don’t think about being a carpenter, let alone other trades. So how do you recruit a diverse new generation of construction workers?
Advanced manufacturing. Health care. Everything from nurses — we have a shortage of high quality nurses – to all different kinds of tech roles, environmental service roles. Those are the ones that we’re generally focused on, because we have those needs here, and then we’re building out across the country. Also retail, retail grocery, and technology. How do you find a high-school dropout or someone from a low-income, disadvantaged environment that might have the wiring to do a technical job, but has never been encouraged in that way and doesn’t really know? Can you use games to get their attention and have them solve puzzles, like in an entertainment game? Then you feel out at the end that they have that proclivity and ramp them into a training program. Those are the kinds of jobs we’re looking at right now, but I know we can use games in different areas beyond that.
GamesBeat: So the game is meant to give you an idea of what the job is like, visually?
Trybus: There are maybe three, four, five categories of games that we’re building today. One might be career awareness in general. One might be life skills, soft skills. We hear this from employers — a lot of folks don’t know it’s important to show up on time, to plan time management. How to interact with other people. Basic stuff to be successful at a job that has nothing to do with the skills of a job. Also, the aptitude assessment, the types of games I mentioned for things like tech aptitude, as well as maybe safety skills, particular skills for a particular occupation.
The idea is, can you play all this so that when you’re recruited, or you want to go into a training program, so you have an idea of what you’re going into? You play a crane game to be attracted to being an operating engineer. It doesn’t mean you’re certified to operate a crane, but it means you know what it’s like to operate a crane. You understand the physics, the controls, the safety and variables that play into it, how much money you can make, and all in a fun way.
GamesBeat: Can you make the game really fun and let you knock a bunch of buildings down?
Trybus: Sure you can. That’s a big part of what we learned from the day we started the company. We want to give them a taste, but we want to make the game in and of itself fun and motivate them to find out more. Or maybe you’re motivated to not find out more. You talk about—I don’t want to work at heights on a tower crane. I don’t want to work in a lot of snow here. If that’s a way for them to find out and explore different options, that’s positive.
GamesBeat: It seems like they should teach these games in schools, at least in vocational schools.
Trybus: We’re distributing through there. The games are free. That’s the model. Schools, from middle schools to high schools to tech schools, are interested in using these to reinforce their curriculum and their messaging. The schools, at least in Pennsylvania, have to create opportunities for career awareness and career exploration. That’s built into our law. How they do that is a bit broader, but these games are starting to fit in – both the soft skills games I mentioned and the career-specific ones.
GamesBeat: How do you make money? Is it on a project basis with companies?
Trybus: Traditionally we’ve taken on games with development partners that know the problem we’re solving, know the content. They’ve paid for the games to be developed. Our core focus, our core model, is the licensing of a data dashboard to a training organization or industry association or an employer.
I mentioned that crane game. If you’re looking to recruit operating engineers, you might pick out five of the games we have that are applicatble to your trade. Essentially, that organization would pay for data per game, per zip code, to see who in that zip code has played these games, has done well, and expressed more interest. That’s the connection. The games have, and will have, a direct—they’ll be localized. If you’re interested, it’ll you send you to a local organization that provides training or an onramp to find out about getting into those careers. That’ll be different here than it is in, say, northern California. We call it regional target messaging. The clients pay on a software service model.
GamesBeat: It’s like using mobile game analytics and user acquisition for job recruits.
Trybus: Right. All of our games are free. The idea is, if you play these games, you sign up and create a digital profile in our—the thing is called the Simcoach Skill Arcade. It’s the games, the digital profile, and the data dashboard. You acknowledge that if you play these games, you’re going to accrue badges, achievements, and that data can be shared with potential employers. The skillers, as I call them—we’re building the number of skillers on our platform.
GamesBeat: Do you have to weed out the 10-year-olds? “Come back in eight year or so.”
Trybus: Well, some of the games are of great interest at the middle school level, because that’s where—they’re not making decisions yet about college or jobs, but they’re starting to want to think through the types of things that interest them, the types of things they’re good at, in a little more abstract ways. Exposing them to careers that are available without getting too into the weeds on when they have to start training. But that’s when they say it’s important to start this exposure, in middle school, so they can think through it over the next couple of years.
GamesBeat: How were you inspired to create the company in the beginning?
Trybus: Personally, I was working on the question of whether we could build games for training. I was doing that at the ETC. I thought, “Well, instead of going back out west to create games, I’ll go to industry and start to learn about their needs.” I think it just started itself really fast, because back then — 2004, when I started to talk to companies – I was surprised by how much they thought this made sense, even when I was talking about special graphics cards and high-powered computers to run the games. We weren’t running 3D games in browsers in 2005.
GamesBeat: Is that what some companies wanted? The equivalent of Uncharted 4?
Trybus: Yeah, but we work through that. The budgets were—we were building games for a couple hundred thousand dollars, or a couple million. Now that cost is much lower, but of course we’re making a much shorter game that focuses on specific critical skills. We have a pretty tried and true process that’s evolved, a method for creating these, how we do them and how we integrate the content experts. But yeah, I think up front—we had to focus on, what’s the learning objective? How does this feature or that feature benefit the learning, as opposed to just being cool?
GamesBeat: Your company seems to fit here more than it would in, say, Hollywood.
Trybus: For sure. I really think it’s a great Pittsburgh story, because of Pittsburgh’s history. It feels like Pittsburgh to be applying the techniques and technologies of game design and development to solve industry problems. Especially for a lot of the industries here. We’re excited about where it’s evolved to and where we’re going.
GamesBeat: What does your client list look like? Is it spread around the country, or is it concentrated here?
Trybus: A lot of our clients have always been national, and even international, because our games apply to industries regardless of whether you’re making steel or ketchup. We’ve worked with companies all over the world, or at least that have a global presence.
Right now we are focused on the regional targeted messaging in a big way in Pennsylvania. That’s primarily as we’re building out the platform, building out the games, and building out the state partners, as well as the local partners and companies we’re working with. We’re targeting a lot of our skillers to be from this region. That said, we’re already inadvertently pulling in a lot of interest from other parts of the country. Southern California is one area. It’s because the story of construction around the country is the same. The story of nursing shortages is the same. The story of soft skills is the same. But as far as proving it out, we’re focused here.
GamesBeat: It seems like a lot of people in the game-centric areas might not chase after that. They wouldn’t spot this kind of opportunity. When you teach about this subject at the ETC, do you talk about it in a different way with students?
Trybus: The ETC is primarily project-based. My title actually has “Professor of Practice” in it. The idea is, I’m in industry making a lot of games with a lot of different clients, focusing on the problem we’re solving. I bring that back in and focus on process with the students. I try my best to ask questions that they can think about and explore, but at the end of the day the students will work on interdisciplinary teams, which is a big deal. They’ll have a client and they’ll go through the process of concepting, prototyping, playtesting, iteration, publishing to the app stores—it’s a soup to nuts experience in 16 weeks, with a real client.
I bring what I see as best practices, I hope, back in. But it’s similar. It’s very similar to what we do here. It’s just that these teams have 12 years of experience through many iterations.
GamesBeat: Is the ETC graduating anyone with this kind of specialization, like training simulation?
Trybus: There’s certainly a specialty—I think Jesse tried to coin the term “transformational games.” There’s a specialty in looking at games for other than entertainment purposes. But the fact of the matter is, nine out of 10 projects we did 10 years ago or more were straight entertainment, whether it was theme parks or 3D/4D movies or console games. Today, arguably, nine out of 10 projects at the ETC are edutainment, or something that is about a way to effectively communicate, whether it’s theme park or game design. So to answer your question, yes, there are people who are very interested in pursuing things like serious games or transformational games, educational games for kids, but it’s naturally leaning toward that anyway.
GamesBeat: Since there is that broader category of serious games, is there competition in the field of what you’re doing?
Trybus: Our competition over the years has primarily been the traditional passive training solutions that were in companies. Now it’s the recruiting, the job boards, anything that has to do with workforce development and training. That’s our major competition. A lot of studios have come and gone or stayed around the country and around the world doing one-off projects using games for learning. That’s all over the place. I guess, in a way, those studios have competed with us.
GamesBeat: There was a company in North Carolina, BreakAway. Is that in the same space?
Trybus: We’ve had some crossover in the past, especially early on. If I remember correctly, they came out of the Department of Defense side of it. Early on, our competitors were mainly funded by Defense or came out of that kind of work.
GamesBeat: Military training?
Trybus: Right, or health care, but with government funding either way. I don’t know of other companies that have been around as long as we have that started by going straight for industry. That’s how we managed all that revenue early on.
GamesBeat: Did that end up being a bigger market compared to government? I’m not sure if anybody really measures that.
Trybus: At the time the government was huge, but the market to use this kind of technology to solve industry problems has certainly grown, and is growing. Especially now that we have the proliferation of mobile devices. It’s all in the cloud. It’s all trackable. That didn’t exist 10 years ago.
GamesBeat: It sounds like it was a big boiling-the-ocean test to get it started.
Trybus: You’re right. Looking back, I agree with you. One of our challenges has always been the potential to lose focus, because we get a lot of people calling and saying, “Hey, can you build me a game for X-Y-Z?” And we have, especially when we bootstrapped the company to get to our core solution, which is the Simcoach Skill Arcade. We built a lot of great games that won’t fit into the Skill Arcade, but that’s what balanced the business and taught us how to build great games.
GamesBeat: You would favor creating something that fits in the Arcade over something that’s just a one-off?
Trybus: Yeah, because we’re focused on a scale solution. We want to collect the data around career readiness so we can license it, because we think that information and the skillers that are signing up will be really valuable to these industries or potential employers. It’s funny. It’s not about the games so much as the data on the people that play them.
GamesBeat: What’s appealing about this to you, as far as specializing in this particular area of game design?
Eben Myers: First and foremost, building games, but also doing something to help people. Early on our games were focused on corporate training, often around safety. To be able to build a video game that we could reasonably say saved lives—that was pretty cool. Now we’re building video games that have changed lives, in the sense of bringing people from underserved populations into places where they have career opportunities. That’s the core thing.
The other piece of it, to me, is just getting to learn new things and interact with lots of different people, and then the challenge of translating all of that into games.
GamesBeat: I’m most familiar with entertainment games, but what makes a good training program?
Myers: The overlap, if you do it right, is really quite large. I subscribe to Raph Koster’s notion that fun is what we experience when our brains are learning. If we build our games right, we end up with a fun game that also happens to be—the core learning happens to be about whatever the topic is. Things that are key to that are the same things that are key to good games: challenge, meaningful interaction, well-defined goals, things like that. You see all those things together in both entertainment games and educational games. In an educational game it all comes around learning objectives that are specified up front.
GamesBeat: What do you think has been your most impactful game, out of all 150 or so?
Myers: Honestly, maybe it’s because I was just in a meeting talking about it, but one of our more recent games is called Booeys. It’s a game intended to serve as a pathway into tech-related careers, STEM-related careers. It’s a little puzzle game where you essentially program a little ghost to achieve little objectives. It encourages you as you go along. If you’re succeeding, the ghost character comes up and tells you nice things and eventually encourages you to reach out to resources where you can potentially get training toward a tech career.
The numbers right now are pretty small, but we have a concrete pipeline from downloading the game to playing the game to reaching out for resources to actually ending up in tech skills boot camps. We have people who’ve gone through that entire pipeline and who are either in a boot camp now or moving into careers that were otherwise not open to them. We’re working on increasing the numbers now, but to me that’s such a tangible story of impacting someone’s life.
Trybus: We also have evidence—the numbers are in the dozens only, but evidence of the success of the game lining up with the success of the boot camp program that sets you up for being successful in a job. That’s pretty significant so far.
GamesBeat: It seems like it’s hard to measure in some ways. Sometimes a person might wind up in a career years from now, but they were exposed through your games.
Myers: Right. They may be predisposed. I don’t necessarily see that as a knock, other than we’re providing another avenue for those people. Another big game – we built version one a couple of years ago, and we’re building a more modern version now – is a game called Future Road Builders that’s intended to help people decide if they’re interested in a career in construction, and then choose a trade within construction.
What’s interesting about that one is that it’s another game designed as a pathway into a career. But in that case, pre-qualifying people is a part of it. We’re happy with someone playing it and deciding they never want to go into construction, because you don’t want to waste everyone’s time if you apply to an apprenticeship, get in, and halfway through your first year you realize you don’t like it. On the other hand, if you go through that and decide you do want to work in construction, ending up in the right trade is the next important choice. If we can help people make that choice, that serves a purpose that makes me feel good.
Trybus: I think, in addition—there’s a lot of different games that I think have had really positive impact for different reasons. We talked about the history of safety. Even related to what we’re building now for some of the trades–when you go down a negative path and talk about knocking stuff over and you see your character blow up or fall or whatever, it’s really because of your choices, or lack of choices, the right choices. Those kinds of things have been impactful as far as taking that seriously and pursuing that further.
GamesBeat: How are you recruiting people into the company? Is there a particular pitch that’s successful at attracting people as employees?
Myers: We have really strong ties to the ETC at CMU. That’s a huge recruiting pipeline. The Art Institute, locally, is another source of artists – both people coming out and folks who are further down the line of their career. On the business side we have other avenues, typically through school communities or programs that arise around education. That’s a big one. The development community — in terms of games, but also tech in general – is just exploding around here. There’s more and more talent available. There’s a lot of competition for jobs.
GamesBeat: When you launch a game, are you the ones doing the best job of drawing the audience, or do the companies you work with serve that purpose? Do they advertise or otherwise pull people into the game?
Trybus: We’ve been talking about the best ways to do that. It’s probably the combination of a bunch of things. Typically we’re trying to work with our development partners and content partners to get it out. We have some other ideas on how to cross-promote. I talked with someone who might be developing a game with a specific audience, but if they put that game on our platform that has all the Skill Arcade users, they’re essentially able to get cross-promotion from other games. You can see that network growing and working to help others. But right now it’s fair to say that we’re leaning on the industries and development partners we work with, building up from there as far as how to promote our games.
GamesBeat: I can see a health care company advertising this on TV, something like that.
Myers: Future Road Builders is a great example. Our organizational partner, the Constructors Association of Western Pennsylvania, literally puts futureroadbuilders.com on all of their materials. They’ve convinced their trade union partners to do the same thing. Whenever we go visit one of the apprenticeship centers, something like that, they always have flyers out. They’re all promoting through their networks. We support that as best we can, and meanwhile we’re working on our own avenues for cross-promotion.
GamesBeat: Are you bullish on Pittsburgh? Is this a good place to have a tech company?
Trybus: I am. I’m from Pittsburgh. I’m a little biased. I spent some time in Silicon Valley, and we came back, and to my surprise we stayed. I credit Carnegie Mellon. I didn’t spend much time at Carnegie Mellon before I took off for college and moved to California, so when I came back, I was thrilled to learn about CMU. Don Marinelli and Randy Pausch, pretty much right when I moved back—they had just started this program. I just thought it was really cool.
I am bullish on Pittsburgh. We’ve certainly gotten a lot of press lately on some of our neighborhoods and our culinary scene. There’s talent moving here. There’s certainly talent out of Carnegie Mellon and Pitt and other schools. We have a lot of colleges around here. The town is great. For the most part, it’s a relationship town. People want to see you succeed. They want to see companies and innovation succeed.
Not every tech company may have made it. A lot of people have issues with the type of money that needs to be raised and whether you can raise it quick enough. I think you figure it out. You can certainly get on a plane.
GamesBeat: Are there venture capitalists present here, or incubators?
Trybus: We have a couple of great incubators here that have been recognized nationally. We have some notable VCs. You don’t hear about too many gaming explosions here, although Duolingo might count as gamification. But this space didn’t even exist here before Schell Games and before Simcoach. There’s capital to be found here if you have a great business, if you’re solving a great problem and there’s a clear scalable strategy. You can raise money.
It’s been a long time since I’ve considered this the Rust Belt. Robotics is another area where we’re strong as far as startup companies solving problems.