Decode Global – Building mobile games to change the world

DecodeGlobal

Like many of us, I spend a large chunk of my day staring at my smartphone messaging with family and friends, emailing, using social media or just goofing off playing games.  Turns out according to one study of the estimated more than 200 million new smartphone users in 2012  each spends roughly 10% of their time on the phone playing games.  I had often wondered in the past if there was a way to take advantage of this large and growing mobile gaming market for social good.  Well it turns out one company; Decode Global is doing just that.  The company recently featured in Forbes is an incubator of mobile applications for social change.  Its latest game called Get Water! is starting to capture buzz not only because it won the United Nations UNAOC Challenge and brings the important issue of water, gender and education to our daily lives but also because the game is fun.  

WHAT IS THE BUSINESS ABOUT? 

Decode Global is an Canada-based incubator of mobile games for social impact. It currently is focuses its efforts on english speaking markets of North America, India and the Caribbean.  The company also provides fellowships for programmers and other technologists to learn about social issues around the globe with the hope that they will use that knowledge and their super powers – e.g. app development – to take on social causes in innovative ways.

Its latest project Get Water! is an addictive game that highlights some of the global issues surrounding the most basic and universal human need: water. In the game you take on the role of Maya, a young girl who is pulled out of school to fetch water for her family. Similar to other viral mobile based games it has catchy music, simple but fun graphics and incorporates new challenges such as new skills and levels as you go along.  Most importantly along the way, you learn important facts about water shortages and waste and become a more informed global citizen.

HOW DID IT START?  

In 1999 during her studies in computer science at McGill University, the founder did an internship in Bolivia through NetCorps an organization that sends young IT engineers to developing countries for volunteer projects.  Inspired by this experience the founder was convinced that technology could ne an effective tool for economic empowerment and social change and thus decided to start the organization Decode Global. Then not until 2012 when she got 25K Euro of seed funding from Nokia did she officially found the company and start its formal operations.

WHAT IS THE SOCIAL NEED IT ADDRESSES?

Decode Global and its mobile games are principally aimed at raising awareness about key global issues such as water scarcity, human rights, health, gender and education.  It hopes to use games like Get Water! to bring big important social issues like water into the everyday discourse of our everyday lives.

WHAT IS THE BUSINESS MODEL?

  • The value proposition are fun games to play anywhere and anytime you want via your smartphone
  • The channel is your smartphone and its app store, and the target customer are both youth and adults (Angry Birds and other games have shown that these games are not just for youth).
  • Revenues are made using the well-known freemium model in which consumers download the app for free and then have the option of buying in-app currency or advanced features.  It is a model that seems to be working.
  • Costs are low as all that is needed are a few volunteer programmers, some computers and programming software.  Distribution costs are practically zero and at the beginning marketing and publicity while needed is not an option.
  • For the moment it appears it has no key strategic partners, although it relies heavily on the  distribution channels and software platforms provided for free through larger mobile players

WHAT ARE SOME CONCERNS I SEE WITH THE MODEL?

  • Marketing/awareness – will the game be able to catch on and actually become viral enough so that the eco-system required to make the game big enough so people will want to pay to play with advanced features?  Also without marketing how will the social issues get heard.  How fast the game can get big and known will be key to its success.
  • Superficial – This is on two levels; (1) It seems to me as though the social content for example on water scarcity in Get Water! is a bit light, and I am not sure how much real valuable learning can be done through such a simple game.  On the other hand the tradeoff of adding more informational content and richness would likely make the game less fun.  (2) How are the issues being chosen and why.  It seems to me their should be some clear criteria for social issue selection ideally connected with real world examples otherwise it just seems a bit gimmicky.
  • Repeatability – I am not a mobile games expert but I am not sure how big the marketplace is for similar games with slight social issues modification.  It seems to me that if Get Water! is successful it will be hard for the company to create similar games for other issues.  Thus diminishing its impact.  Perhaps focusing on making Get Water! really good game and water scarcity as its main social issue rather than any social cause would be a better use of the companies limited resources for the time being.  But who knows, overall it seems like a great fun idea and I for one and going to download and play it.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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