The toughest crowd: How little kids pose big problems for game makers

Jump to

Designing games for a young crowd means designing games for a tough crowd, and three veteran developers tell us just how tricky it is.

Adults have a tendency to underestimate children. As we watch them tumble over themselves and find ways to be perpetually grubby, many assumptions are made: They're simpler than us, they're easy to please, and they just don't know any better. By that reasoning, designing video games for children should be, well, simple. And it would be, if the assumptions and reasonings of adults weren't often wrong.

In the San Francisco studio of Double Fine Productions, Programmer Nathan Martz puts his hand up to lead a new project. "This will be a simple game," he thinks to himself. Fresh from completing Double Fine's ambitious genre-bending action-adventure game, Brütal Legend, Martz is convinced that anything will be easier than the game he's just finished.

It will be a game for children - the simplest of creatures! - and will feature the colorful characters from the world of Sesame Street. It will use Kinect, Microsoft's motion-sensing hardware. There will be no complicated controls required to maneuver heavy metal demons, and certainly no finicky triggers, buttons or analog sticks. Players will simply move their bodies and the game will understand exactly what they want. Simple.

It will be set in a brand new, original world. That should also be simple enough.

"And then I realized that I'd signed up to do a multiplayer Kinect game for parents and children with a Sesame Street license based on an original world that no one has ever seen before and that this game was the intersection of all those things," Martz says.

Not so simple.



Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure

Further north in the California city of Novato, a game development studio called Toys for Bob has signed on to create Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, a game based on the popular purple dragon that inspired previous adventure games. The team huddles around a screen to watch a play-testing session taking place in Activision's southern California office. The screen shows a room full of children clutching their game controllers as their little purple dragon soars through the air and onto its next mission. Cameras focus on the children's hands and faces while the team back in Novato jots down every reaction they see.

With the exception of a few licensed titles, Toys for Bob's back catalogue mostly consists of games for older players. There's Star Control, a science-fiction space shooter, The Horde, an action-strategy game, and Unholy War, a PlayStation fighting game using melee and projectile attacks. Players of their previous games have all been able to articulate what they do and don't like. With Skylanders, things are a bit different.

"What we find with kids is that we have to watch what they do and try very hard to elicit information from them in a way that isn't like a kid talking to an adult," says Paul Reiche, founder and CEO of Toys for Bob.

"There are very few kids who are comfortable speaking completely honestly about things that they don't like."

Hence the hand and face watching.

On the other side of the world in the Australian city of Sydney, the developers at Bubble Gum Interactive are working on a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game for children. There will be missions and minigames, stories and online chat, costumes and characters - but first, they'll need to find out what their audience wants.

"With kids, it can be challenging because none of us are kids," says Paul Gray, director of community management at Bubble Gum Interactive.

"You can talk to kids as much as you want, but they're a classic audience in that they often know what they don't like, but they might find it very hard to define what they do like."

Speaking with a focus group of children, a developer from the team asks: "If you could make any kind of game, what would you make?"

"Umm ..." says one kid, scratching his head.

"Well, maybe ..." another child begins, but never completes her sentence.

After minutes of umms and ahhs, the children shrug.

For these developers around the world, making games for kids, it seems, is anything but child's play.

The child gamer


When it comes to entertaining children, it's easy for adults to make assumptions about what makes a child tick. A quick scan of shopping mall aisles or a glimpse of a McDonald's advertisement tells us that anything - no matter how plastic, flimsy or silly - is able to set off the switch in a child's brain that makes demands and results in parents all around the world shaking their wallets vigorously over cash registers.

The assumption is that children are easy to entertain - that, unlike experienced adults with knowledge, understanding and taste, children don't know any better. So the second assumption is that it must be easy to create entertainment for them. Game developers should just be able to make a McHappy Video Game for the children of the world and wait as those brain switches simultaneously flick. Unfortunately for the hamburger game makers of the world, assumptions can often be wrong.

"Targeting kids can really mean a lot of different things," says Nathan Martz, project lead on Once Upon A Monster.

"Kids change a lot from year to year. A four-year-old could not be more different from a five-year-old, especially in their own minds."

To make a game targeted at an under-six audience, Martz and his whole team needed to get their heads around what children liked, what they didn't like, how they behaved, and how they perceived themselves. A childhood development expert was eventually brought on board to help the team understand what works with kids at different ages; first, however, the team was built to include as many parents as possible.

"We really tried to pick people who were first qualified in terms of their actual skill-set, but also had children and were excited about making a game their young kids could play," Martz says. "That gave us a lot of micro-detail to inform our decisions and we were steered by these people's daily experience raising children."

The early months of the project challenged Martz's own assumptions about young gamers every day. The game he thought would be simple to make proved particularly tricky when he realized he had assumed all the wrong things about his audience. 

One of the first things he learned was that not all children are the same.

"I know this one is a bit obvious, but every kid is different. Even developmentally you have some kids whose ability to follow rules may be above grade level but their physical coordination might be below.

Once_upon_a_monster_2Above and below: Screenshots from Double Fine's Once Upon a Monster. Once_upon_a_monster_4

"You might have kids that are really good at jumping a lot but not as good at paying attention, so we learned that there's really no one-size-fits-all to the way the kids age and grow.

"A lot of our focus testing was to try and flush out areas where we'd assumed that kids were more uniform than they really were and trying to accommodate the developmental strengths and weaknesses of kids at different ages."

Over at Bubble Gum Interactive, the developers' assumptions about kids were also being challenged through playtesting. 

Their MMO was to be set in space. Cartoonish characters with bubble blasters flew around in spaceships blasting asteroids and collecting space gems. This, they thought, was definitely a game for young boys.

"We've had a lot of fascinating revelations," says Gray.

"We had a few girls in the first focus groups, just a few, and they really enjoyed the game. They enjoyed flying their spaceships and blowing up asteroids and shooting their bubble blasters, and it defied the stereotype that girls mostly enjoyed dressing up. It was an example of how adults can make assumptions and when you check them they may not actually be meaningful at all."

They brought in more girls for subsequent playtesting sessions, and the more they talked to and observed the kids who played their game, the more they understood their audience.

"We realized it doesn't really have anything to do with how old they are or what their gender is - the behavior and personality of each child is very different. I've spoken to a lot of kids now and learnt that that's absolutely fact," Gray says.

"You can't say that all seven year old boys will like this feature of the game while 10 year old girls will like that feature. Often it comes down to who they are, so we built our own framework which we call user roles or personas."

Instead of categorizing their young players by gender and age, Bubble Gum categorized them by personality traits, looking at what type of behavior each child gravitates towards. They identified six dominant gaming personality types, like the nurturer, who likes adopting creatures in a game and is likely to enjoy games like Pokémon or Tamagotchis where they can have a pet, look after it, feed it, and teach it tricks. Another persona is the competitor - a child who likes to compete with other kids and is focused on high scores. Then there's the creator and the explorer - kids who spend lots of time looking around rather than completing missions, or those fixated with crafting objects and personalizing costumes and buildings.

By identifying what kind of people their players were, the team was able to narrow down what their players might like. This, says Gray, was far more useful than trying to guess what a seven year old boy would enjoy and hoping that what they came up with would appeal to every seven year old boy in the world.

It ain't easy being young

For many game developers, figuring out what their potential audience will enjoy playing is often the tricky part. Will their players like the horror theme? Will they warm to the quirky shooting mechanic? Will they understand the hidden clues in the cutscenes? Most games are developed with the assumption that players will be able to do what is required of them in order to play the game, but as Martz discovered, when developing for children, sometimes it's necessary to take a step back and ask a different set of questions: Can the audience even handle a horror theme? Can the audience operate a shooting mechanic? Do they have the concentration to sit through a cutscene?

"If you're designing a game for kids six and up, a lot of the mechanics that work on adults work for kids that age," Martz says."

"In classic videogames one of the major kinds of fun is called progression of competence, where basically there's a skill and you're not good enough so you practice and you get better and you beat the boss and go to the next level and the game rewards you. Those progression mechanics work really well once you get into kindergarten/first grade territory and up.

"For Once Upon A Monster, we were targeting children younger than that: three, four, five-year-olds. As an additional layer we were also making a Kinect game that was non-violent."

The challenge, Martz says, was the intersection of all those things. He found that younger children generally enjoy play just for the fun of it - play is experiential. Where an older child will enjoy that progression and competence loop, a younger child will switch off from it. If an older child is frustrated with a game, they might feel more determined to push through to win. A younger child will just give up and quit. The audience for Once Upon A Monster was so young that the developers would not be able to follow the design of even a traditional kid's game.


"A lot of our vocabulary as game designers is built around adding challenges, teaching the player things and then giving them more challenges to demonstrate those abilities. The challenge for us wasn't that we had a creative vocabulary that was wrong, it was we actually didn't have a vocabulary for kids games at all. It was just the wrong language. We knew the language of core development; now we needed to learn the language of kids development."

Martz says it was much like learning a new language - there were similarities that carried over, but a lot of it was new.

"One of the things we realized during development was that we were going to make a no-fail game. In Once Upon A Monster, as long as you're trying, as long as long as you're not sitting on the floor or standing with your arms at your sides, we will do everything possible to make sure you can play through the entire game and enjoy it.

"That was definitely targeted towards those younger players, players for whom just jumping at the right time is a big accomplishment, let alone following the rules of a game and getting everything just right."

The team also had to consider things like a child's proprioperception, which is a word for the body's sense of self. This sense of self - being able to close your eyes and touch your nose and control your body - develops in children over time. For many young children, this sense of self is not fully formed, which can prove tricky, especially for a Kinect game.

"A lot of Kinect gameplay relies on pretty good proprioperception so you can look at a character and copy their pose," says Martz.

"If a character's pose is complicated, you're going to have to have a good sense of how to control your body in order to do that. A three-year-old probably can't do yoga poses, so we tried to understand what the youngest children are be capable of - that's why we chose symmetric gestures, so basically both arms up or both arms down, as opposed to pat your head and rub your tummy."

Safety first


Back over at Bubble Gum Interactive, making a game with social elements for children presented them with another challenge. The majority of MMOs are designed for older players who understand online safety. In MMOs like World of Warcraft, players can reveal as much or as little about themselves as they wish. Players can establish relationships, their interactions with other individuals or clans go unmoderated, and it is assumed that they can take care of themselves in an online environment. The same assumption does not exist for children.

"Safety for children in our game is fundamental - it's absolutely paramount," says Gray.

"When you're making a game for kids, you actually have two customers: One is the kid and the other is the parent, and both play a pretty important role."

Gray says that while adults generally do not play the game, they are the ones who determine whether or not their children are allowed to play. They will want to know that the game is content appropriate and that it's safe. They will want to know that if they turn their backs for even a minute, their child will not be put at risk as a result of playing a game. So where many MMOs give players free reign to how they wish to communicate and share information, Little Space Heroes has implemented safety measures to ensure that their game remains both fun and safe for its audience.

First, all players remain anonymous. The children are able to create in-game avatars and choose nicknames, but the game does not ask them for any personal information. Second, they use chat filtering tools that don't only target profane words, but also key phrases that children might use.

"We really did read the dictionary multiple times to keep refining this, but even if you take out bad words, it's still very easy for kids to say things like 'I hate you' or 'I hope you don't come back' to each other," Gray says. "We recognize that's totally unacceptable because this is a virtual playground. In a normal playground there's always someone there making sure it's safe, so we're doing the same in our virtual playground."

Bubblegum_6_little_space_heroesAbove and below: Screenshots from Bubble Gum's Little Space Heroes. Bubblegum_7_little_space_heroes

It has to be good

Paul Reiche leads the studio behind one of the biggest kids games currently on the market. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventurehas smashed sales records in almost every country where it is sold. Skylanders merchandise consistently sells out when it hits stores and the physical toys that store game data have become a staple in children's toy collections.

Reiche says that the key to Skylanders' success has been not being cheap with kids, respecting the player, and respecting the license.

"You can go into any toy store and just see a lot of crap toys, and I think there's lots of kids movies that seem really great on the surface, but when you go and see them they're just dreadful. And I think you can say that about a lot of things that are associated with kids because fortunately they're not cynical or suspicious yet," Reiche tells Polygon.

"One of the jobs of parents is protecting kids from being cynical too soon.



"So I think it's a common mistake to think that you can be cheap with kids and get away with it because they'll grow up and move onto something else and a new batch of kids will move in. You can't make a hit that way - a hit has to appeal to a large group of people for a long time, and the word will get around."

Reiche says that when Toys For Bob began buildingSkylanders, they made sure there were multiple layers of interrelating depth in terms of upgrades, experience levels, and branching paths in the game. They approached the game as they would any other game - instead of dumbing things down for their audience, they tweaked the content and the themes to ensure it was age appropriate. But even though their players would be older and slightly more coordinated than those playingOnce Upon A Monster, the fact that they were creating a game for kids still posed problems.

"There are concepts we all have in our head of leveling up or gathering treasures - we all know what these concepts mean, but they may not have been introduced to younger players," he says.

"This could be the first time they've ever levelled up a character, so we actually need to explain what that is and make sure we don't just make assumptions about their involvement. It's not that they don't understand it; they may have just never encountered it before."

Who's the tougher audience?


"Kids are very demanding customers," says Paul Gray. "They'll let you know if they don't like something, but it can be really hard to define what they do like."

Both Nathan Martz and Paul Reiche agree with Gray's sentiments: Child gamers may not take their opinions to message boards or petitions, but if they are unimpressed by a game, they will put down the controller and walk away.

"One of the big things I learned was how quickly three and four-year-olds are to tune out," says Martz.

"One of the things we take for granted with older players is that you can start your game with a long intro cutscene that's unskippable, but it has amazing full-motion video - with young players, you've either got them or you don't," he says.

For Reiche, kids may be a tough crowd, but at least they don't have unreasonable expectations like adult gamers.

"Kids expect that games will be fun, cool and something they want to tell their friends about. Adults on the other hand have all these unreasonable expectations, like 'this will have cutting edge 3D grass rendering,'" he says.

Reiche fires off a list of requirements that many adult gamers force onto games; conditions that games need to meet before they can even be considered worthy of playing. He describes many of these conditions as being unreasonable in their breadth.

"It's very difficult to make a high-quality top tier adult game without really digging a very large hole and then spending a lot of time filling it before you start adding something new and innovative on top of it."

While Nathan Martz won't say that kids are a tougher audience, he admits that making games for them is far from easy. The game he set out to make - the game that was meant to be simple - turned out to be anything but. In many ways it presented challenges that he would not have even encountered had he only worked on blockbuster action games, but he believes that time spent making Once Upon A Monster was incredibly valuable and educational.

"If I were to synthesize it all I would say kids hold you to a higher bar. They won't ever be mean, but they will do what they feel like and if you're not entertaining them they'll go and do something else," he says.

"If you really want to entertain young children, you better bring your A-game."