How to make games kids love

Matthew Warneford
21
April
2013

In over a decade of designing virtual worlds and mobile games for kids games we’ve had our fair share of mistakes – in 2004 we didn’t believe anyone would ever pay for virtual goods, we were wrong! But we like to think we’ve learned from our mistakes over the years, and because we’re not very good at keeping secrets we’re sharing our five rules for kids’ games.

1. Create fans not addicts

Just because 84 million people played FarmVille at its peak doesn’t mean that the game mechanics are appropriate for children. Facebook games often use the same tactics employed by casinos to keep players coming back time and time again. But ultimately we resent that which we’re addicted to – resentful customers are not a recipe for long term success!

Many of Facebook’s ‘click and create’ games (like FarmVille) rely on a small proportion of players contributing the majority of the in-game spending (they’re called Whales, another gambling term) – fine if you’re market is adults. Absolutely not appropriate for children.

Unlike adults, children will be fans of a brand, they want the whole package, the books, the toys, the bed sheets. If they love your brand they’ll spend money in dozens of different ways, there really is no need to use addictive casino style tricks to get the most money from a player. Build a strong brand and a strong narrative and you could have a licensing hit on your hands, just as Mind Candy found with Moshi Monsters. Build an addictive game players resent and they’ll never buy the merchandise – we doubt FarmVille toys will fly off the shelves.

2. Kids are platform progressive

It doesn’t matter where the story originates, children want the it on the most suitable platform; it doesn’t matter if that’s TV, tablet, or a browser. If there is one thing that Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils have shown it’s that the days when new IPs only launch TV or in books is long gone. In fact, they expect to be able to engage with their favourite stories and characters on multiple platforms. This doesn’t mean brands should port the same content to all media in the same way. Children use iPhones in different ways and at different times to a laptop – not just in how the input actions (touch over mouse) impact the game design but also with regards to play time, for example, mobile devices are used for ‘snack gaming’  with only five to ten minute play sessions, while laptops tend to be used for longer periods of gaming.

Our research comparing tablet access from 2011 to 2013 shows just how much the market has moved, and just how many UK & US children have access to tablets. But, the desktop / laptop is still by far the most important platform.

<iframe src="//www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/key/38UFChKfqhnaxs" width="595" height="485" frameborder="0" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" style="border:1px solid #CCC; border-width:1px; margin-bottom:5px; max-width: 100%;" allowfullscreen> </iframe> <div style="margin-bottom:5px"> <strong> <a href="//www.slideshare.net/dubit/childrens-ownership-of-gaming-devices" title="Children&#x27;s ownership of gaming devices" target="_blank">Children&#x27;s ownership of gaming devices</a> </strong> from <strong><a href="https://www.slideshare.net/dubit" target="_blank">Dubit</a></strong> </div>

3. Get the kids involved from the start

We’re not children any more (we’re adults remember) and we don’t watch the same shows or play in the same way. So asking children what they think about an idea is a good start, but it’s not perfect.

Kids often tell adults what they think the adults want to hear. In fact, adults do this too. There’s the famous Sony Walkman story:

During the early planning stages for the then-new Sony Walkman, a focus group was asked, “What color Walkman do you think most people would be more likely to buy: black or yellow?” Overwhelmingly, members of the focus group responded that most consumers would purchase a black Walkman. At the end of the focus group, everyone was allowed to choose a black or a yellow Walkman to take home as a gift for participating. Everyone chose a yellow one.

Whether testing games with kids or adults dont just ask them what they think, and certainly dont ask them what they’d change (they’re not gamed designer), instead watch what they do. Don’t wait until the game is finished to test it, use paper prototyping at the start. We’ve already written about how to paper prototype, so we wont bore you again here!

4. Involve parents

Our research shows that, unsurprisingly, 96% of children aged 7-14 ask their parents before spending money online, so keeping Mum and Dad happy is as important as keeping Johnny happy!

Involve the parents in the game, update them with their child’s progress, or alert them if their child is having problems with the number puzzles (educational content). This can be taken one step further by providing an entire parental dashboard that allows to parents to follow the child’s progress, both educationally and in regards to in-game tasks.

Parents are key for virtal growth too. Children can’t share on social networks, but parents can – we call this “the digital fridge”, the place parents boast about their child’s accomplishments online. If the parents are fans they will also spread the word offline too.

In 2010 we conducted some research into this area, looking at both the time children spent online without parental compared to what parents thought and the level of control parents had over children’s online time.


<iframe src="//www.slideshare.net/slideshow/embed_code/key/38UFChKfqhnaxs" width="595" height="485" frameborder="0" marginwidth="0" marginheight="0" scrolling="no" style="border:1px solid #CCC; border-width:1px; margin-bottom:5px; max-width: 100%;" allowfullscreen> </iframe> <div style="margin-bottom:5px"> <strong> <a href="//www.slideshare.net/dubit/childrens-ownership-of-gaming-devices" title="Children&#x27;s ownership of gaming devices" target="_blank">Children&#x27;s ownership of gaming devices</a> </strong> from <strong><a href="https://www.slideshare.net/dubit" target="_blank">Dubit</a></strong> </div>

5. Be ethical

With the Government and parents rightly concerned about marketing to children and them playing games it’s important that your digital product adheres to rules and legal requirements.

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