Long journey for Oregon Trail game

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

By Corey Paul

Perhaps our post earlier today about Oregon Trail launching on Facebook inspired you to test the game. Then you saw more elaborate graphics and an option to buy oxen and wagon parts with real money. Maybe you noticed the opportunities to travel with friends, slay bears and get dysentery. Or maybe you just felt nostalgia for that old game you played in the library of your elementary school.

But a closer look at the story behind the Oregon Trail game is worth your while, as it has, well, everything to do with Oregon, and it offers insight for the oodles of iPhone and Facebook users and for all those raised in an age of educational computer games. There's also something of a parable for game developers here in the Silicon Forest about a man with a clever idea and brilliant approach, actualized with the help of state support and outside business investment, who eventually took control of his vision.

"For many people not only was The Oregon Trail their first experience with computer gaming, it was also their first experience with computers," said Jon-Paul Dyson, the director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Oregon Trail was fun, and it encouraged children to imagine themselves as a historical protagonist, Dyson said, thus a great way to introduce the subject of Western Migration.

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Oregon Trail has sold 65 million copies under its rotating cast of owners and through 10 iterations. "That's very significant," Dyson said. "Most designers would gnaw off their left leg to [sell] 65 million." In 2008, the current owner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released an iPhone application. And now that's been downloaded 2.9 million times.

Oddly enough, Oregon Trail began in Minnesota in 1971. There, student-teacher and computer geek Dan Rawitsch invented the game to help him engage  children.

Originally, students played Oregon Trail on a teletype machine, an electronic typewriter connected to a mainframe and telephone; students had to type "BANG" to shoot a buffalo and received printouts of their results. Rawitsch researched thoroughly, reading pioneer journals so he could estimate the probability, for example, of running into a Native American who could offer you trade or medicine.

"We were doing something new," he told City Pages for a recent profile. "We had a mission, which was to improve educational opportunities for children."

The idea of using games to educate precedes even the actual Oregon Trail. John Locke, for example, suggested in the 17th century that instructors might have more success teaching with dice covered by letters than with beatings. Over the centuries there was a card game that taught literature, a board game teaching morality, and more recently, Texas Instrument's Speak & Spell. But the computer brought the opportunity to reach far more children. And, with a mix of state support and corporate investment, that's exactly what Oregon Trail did.

Healthy with cash in 1973, the Minnesota legislature developed the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium to boost education with computers. After his teaching stint, Rawitsch got a job at the MECC and introduced his game for further development. It became a hit.

Then came Apple. In 1978 the company won a bid to distribute its machines in MECC schools. It marked a pairing between Apple and education that continues today, and Oregon Trail was released on diskettes around the country. Business boomed over the next decade. People were buying P.C.'s for the homes. They were advancing. Meanwhile, increased competition built up the computer games business.

So Oregon Trail advanced with the technology, adding elements in 1990's like point-and-shoot hunting. The approach changed, even if the game's mission hadn't. Newer iterations focused more on game play.

The company went private, changed hands a few times and absorbed into the The Learning Company, which eventually sold to Mattel for $3.5 billion. That investment, at the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999, proved disastrous for Mattel, dragging Mattel to a loss of $1.5 million a day. The market was changing. Casual, free games floated around the Internet, and there was already a market glut. Dyson's museum has an archive of more than 5,000, and a lot of them, says the PhD historian, "are kind of crappy."

After the Mattel fiasco, The Learning Company "sort of went dark" for a while, and sales of the Oregon Trail tapered off before the company's current owner, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, acquired and retooled it, said Houghton spokesman Josef Blumenfeld. With the advent of smart phones came a return of demand and a lower market entry into educational games. The Learning Company moved in.

The iPhone version of Oregon Trail further tempered accuracy for amusement.

Pioneers, for example, probably didn't stop to shoot eagles trying to scoop up their daughters.

And Abraham Lincoln, almost certainly, didn't race people to Skull Valley.

But that's not the point, says Dyson. It's inspiring an interest in the subject that players might pursue elsewhere. And it's fun: easy to use mechanics, with strong characters and a clean, clever design. A model, that when combined with a brand like the Oregon Trail, means success, says Jake Brownson, who co-owns Brainium, a small game-developing startup in Portland.

But opportunities to re-work a classic brand are sparse, Brownson said, and they aren't as likely to create the kind of profit that creating a completely new game can lead to. Take Angry Birds, for example, which turned a few guys based in Finland into millionaires.

Introducing something new also carries risk — "It's really hard to market when people decide based on the icon and the name" — so Brownson and his partner plan to build their company by releasing versions of common games, such as sudoku, before branching out.

Oregon Trail's decline in the early 2000s coincided with the shuttering of several Portland game studios. Since then there's been a resurgence as the barrier to entry lowers and technology improves with the iPhone, Flash games and Facebook applications, said Dmitri Salcedo, organizer of the Portland-Area Game Development Interest Group, a support and advocacy group.

There have been some notable success stories in modern Oregon. One of those is RAMPS, a $2.99 physics puzzler for the iPhone that challenges players to roll frightened cartoon balls down a series of ramps. Founders Tim Sears and Tyler Sticka based RAMPS on a web game Sticka created in college that drew about 1 million players. Since its release in December, the game is catching on twice as fast as the original version, he said.

Few if any developers in Portland focus on education-oriented games, and lines between them and just-for-fun games are blurring anyway. RAMPS for example, is a puzzle game, and puzzles are brain-food, but the purpose of RAMPS is fun.

"Educational games and profitability is a bit of a 'chicken and egg' scenario," says Sticka. "If every educational game was as novel, fun and appealing as Oregon Trail, I'm sure they'd have no trouble recouping their cost. But because most educational games are a bit stodgy, focusing less on playability and more on communicating information, they can't ever aim to compete with titles that aim to be fun first and foremost."

And it seems that fun is the goal of the newest Oregon Trail. Check it out if you get a minute, but be prepared for a spat of obnoxious trail-inspired Facebook statuses. This reporter, by the way, just died of frostbite.

Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.

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