What's more, we ourselves might learn from these consulting firms. Our field could learn that cooperative multiplayer business games can be profitable and fun.
Sure, there are all those Tycoon games - not only Roller Coaster Tycoon and Railroad Tycoon, but Lemonade, Fast Food, Golf Resort, Bass Tournament, Skateboard Park, Caterpillar Construction, Mall of America and Shrine Circus Tycoons, plus three dozen more. (The Wikipedia Tycoon Game project has gone dormant but includes a game list.) We've seen many other economic simulations - Trevor Chan's Capitalism I and II, the SimCity series, Giant games, The Movies, The Corporate Machine, the Settlers series - and, lest we forget, Monopoly. Online, there's Airline, Informatist Open Economics Game and a few others.
But all these games miss an opportunity. Invariably, these god-games put one single player in charge of every detail of his business; multiplayer scenarios, if any, are head-to-head competitions. But solo play doesn't really simulate the topic, and it can be quite hard. The Capitalism games, in particular, have a reputation for ferocious difficulty; the player must micromanage everything from purchasing to factory design.
Our economic games could borrow the business sims' more realistic and sensible approach. Like real businesses, the games could allocate tasks to a team of players. This can play really well. Team games require constant social interaction. Financial returns give clear metrics. The different roles in a business have specialized powers and offer interesting choices, all with the same viscerally understandable consequences: Get rich or go broke.
The natural format would be a team-based massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). A business game doesn't need fancy graphics, so a small team could develop it affordably as a boutique MMOG.
What businesses could you simulate? Many of the published Tycoon games would make good team multiplayer games. So would running a TV network (buying shows, selling advertising, creating promos) and managing sports teams and athletes as a business enterprise (scouting talent, weighing offers, offering or seeking endorsement contracts). If real-world business seems too mundane, you could adapt the team-biz approach to medieval magical guilds or science fiction. (The Jetsons' "Spacely Sprockets" license is probably still available.)
Even if these particular ideas don't excite developers, there are others that should - but they probably won't. Developers may have trouble seeing the lure of business simulations, until they get to play a good one. That's our loss. For better or worse, business is a huge part of our lives, conditioning our attitudes. Games that exploit this can connect with players in a meaningful way - even, in the best case, open a player's mind to new real-world insights.
In this industry, as in the larger business world, the problem is cultural. We really need a game that simulates the gaming market (something better than Game Tycoon, please), and shows how a small developer can profitably appeal to a niche audience. Hey, by playtesting that game and getting good at it, you'd automatically earn the skills you need to make the game succeed! But then you'd have to keep your competitors from playing it, or they'd learn how to steal your business. Wait, my brain hurts.