CHAMPAIGN — The newest generations of alumni don’t send much cash back to their alma maters.
What if donating was as simple as purchasing a power-up for their favorite mobile games?
Two employees of the University of Illinois advancement team are piloting a new platform to explore just that: a suite of virtual, campus-themed mini-games for alumni and students to play with, guided by the motto “Orange. Blue. Fun.”
The beta version of their first game is out — some tricky Illini Trivia hosted by a rendering of campus’ own Alma statue.
Next up is a basketball-themed diversion, set for release early next year, and an Illinois puzzle game sometime in the spring.
“We’re big believers in delight — if it’s fun, people will come back and enjoy it and share it with people,” said co-founder Ella van Wyk. “With this alumni base, there’s all the nostalgia, all the cool, quirky cultural things to play on. It’s just ripe for that kind of stuff.”
Perhaps just as novel as the game concept is the business model that’s made it possible.
The IlliniNGAGE platform is run through an independent LLC — co-founded by Nancy Rampson, the College of Media’s senior director of advancement, and van Wyk, associate director of advancement for the Gies College of Business.
They both have big dreams for their fledgling platform and how it might extend — and fund — the UI Foundation’s mission. Now is just about seeing what sticks.
“Everything we’re doing is the first time anyone’s doing it,” van Wyk said. “We’re going to launch games over the course of this year, build an audience, and get data on the back end to show this theory has merit and can grow.”
After that, perhaps alumni-affiliated corporate partners can help bring bigger, broader games to life.
Van Wyk has mulled the idea of a game-centered alumni outreach tool since she saw her children get swept up in the “Pokémon Go” craze a few years back.
“I kept thinking, what if we could skin this for alumni?” van Wyk said. “That’s still the long, long-term goal of this business.”
Each game promises to be packed full of campus-specific novelties. The current trivia game certainly tests the bounds of users’ campus knowledge. (Do you know when football legend “Red” Grange enrolled at the university? Do you know his real first name?)
One of Rampson and van Wyk’s dream projects is a game where users can grow corn on the Morrow Plots.
The corn would feed the fearless squirrels that roam between UI buildings, while in-game purchases that provide corn-growing boosts could.
“I’ll be holding onto that idea until my last breath,” she said.
For now, the beta games will be simple and quick to pick up, reminiscent of the classic browser diversions many millennials (ages 25 to 39, generally) grew up with.
In the UI’s case, that generation produces about 2,000 to 2,500 donors per year, or around 8 to 9 percent of the Urbana campus’ total donor base, according to Sue Johnson of the UI Foundation.
IlliniNGAGE has enlisted the help of local web and software company Pixo to program the games to life. Van Wyk provides the artwork chops, while Rampson works primarily on the business side of the platform.
And the founding pair went through several rounds of the university’s own resources for accelerating start-ups, receiving grant money along the way.
The first step began with the UI’s own “UIDEA” program, a 12-week start-up boot camp for students, faculty and staff to build a pitch for a new innovation in the advancement space. The UI Foundation has provided $60,000 in seed funding to get the project going.
The pair received a $1,500 grant from AWARE, a Research Park startup support program for tech founders who are women or come from other underrepresented identities, and completed coursework in NSF I-Corps, which teaches curriculum centered around entrepreneurship.
Through the three university accelerators, the founders received feedback from industry professionals and university staff who’ve worked in the field.
“Since we’re still employees, we’ve been working a lot with the conflict-of-interest office here,” van Wyk said. “We’re a weird, unicorn kind of situation.”
Both said the distance of their company will be effective and intentional. They hope independence — flying just outside of the public university orbit — will breed creativity and agility.
They’ve received permission to use university marks, which was “huge,” Rampson said, and have even made some merchandise designs for users to vote on.
The first game went up on Oct. 4, the same date that Facebook and several of its services went down. Tough luck.
So far, their site, illiningage.com, has garnered about three visitors per day, with the average user staying on the page for about 4 minutes — “very encouraging” for their unique audience, the founders said.
Alumni from 10 out of the 16 major academic units have taken a stab.
“For better or worse, you and Nancy are the guinea pigs,” van Wyk recalled from a conversation with Gies Dean Jeffrey Brown. “That’s our role from day one.”
If there’s one thing these guinea pigs can provide, it’s ideas. The steam tunnels under campus? Campus cow-tipping? The Boneyard Creek? Zombie squirrels on the Quad? All potential fodder for a future game.
They’ll continue to look for next ways to engage new generations of alums.
But for now, “play, share, we’re always very interested in the feedback of user experiences, and Ella’s art is on many of the merchandise, and we’re testing that out to see what appeals to people,” Rampson said.
“We’re hoping to continue to deepen our relationship with the university beyond just the games.”