Masters of the Game: Ronin Studios creates computer games that make training fun

“There’s a huge gap between what we think we’re accomplishing in terms of learning versus what’s actually happening in a classroom setting,” said Scott Kohl, formerly with Activision at Raven and Filament Games. “Training can be really boring, and sometimes insulting.” 

During corporate training sessions, Kohl, 40, often observed disengaged attendees checking Facebook or email from their seats, and he began questioning the methods. “Usually, the first thing you’re told is to shut off your device. Why don’t they tell you to keep it on and use it? We use it for everything else! Why is it not part of learning?”

An LED suddenly went off in his head: Could games be used to enhance corporate training? “I thought, there’s got to be some gold in those hills,” he said.

The name “Ronin” had always resonated with Kohl, who likes being his own boss. In Japanese history, ronin were rogue samurai who answered to nobody and were the masters of their own destiny.

In March 2012, he launched Ronin Studios & Consulting, LLC, which creates browser-based, results-oriented learning tools that also inject a measure of fun. In a nutshell, the company makes games that are optimized for phones, tablets, and computers and are designed to solve specific business objectives and challenges.

“When we describe a game, [training] can be fun,” Kohl said. “And often, fun is not allowed in the workplace.

“We’re not advocating turning spreadsheets into Guitar Hero or Angry Birds, but there are products we can build that bring a playfulness – an open-mind state – where you’re willing and able to make meaningful choices.”

Dr. Moses Wolfenstein, 36, Ronin’s creative director, describes fun as the F-word in business. “Playful has longer legs,” he said, noting that animals engage in playful behaviors as part of learning.

Ronin is currently working on three games for clients. A leadership development game uses an island-survival theme where a main character has been shipwrecked and must use leadership capabilities to support the other survivors through a number of challenges as they make their way across the island. 

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Another, using the company’s “Kaizen” platform, is an intuitive card-based interface that can be used to influence or change employee behavior. 

Games can also be used to gauge management potential, to pre-screen job applicants, or for on-the-job training. “It’s totally fine to fail in a game,” Wolfenstein explained. “The costs of failing in real life are much more expensive.”

Developing a unique game from scratch might take up to six months and cost at least $75,000, but individual 30- or 90-day seat licenses for popular formats will cost significantly less.

Kohl funded Ronin on his own with the help of a client who fronted some early expenses. Employee-owned, the company – with an eight-person staff – has a couple of big deals pending. “If they come through, it will be a game-changer,” Kohl promised, with an unintentional play on words. Meanwhile, the island game will be launched in early June.

Kohl sees growth ahead and promises to always remain unconventional. “Once we get out of this early stage, get our sea legs, and have recurring revenue, I’d like to see us branch into quirky products that may have nothing to do with paying the bills.” 

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