I started playing video games when I was nine. It wasn’t in the Cathode ray tube home version of Pong.
After Pong I owned some other video game consoles and computers and played a lot of games. Some of them I loved, some of them I hated, the others are those I can’t remember very well. After I started working at the video game industry, I started trying to understand what makes someone enjoy a game. At the same time, my son Lucas started playing on the PS3 when he was only three years old.
By playing with him, observing him playing or just being interrupted by him asking for help, I started to make a list of what makes my son like and dislike a game. I’m posting here my findings, running the risk of being superficial, stating the obvious or just being plain wrong. I’m doing this in a attempt to deal better with one of my fears, the fear of showing off my ignorance on a subject. Yeah, we’re not supposed to know everything about everything… Any psychologists reading this?
You Must Know What To Do
I believe this is the main factor that makes Lucas give up on a game. When he doesn’t know what to do he wanders about for a bit and then comes to me for help. When I’m not immediately available he usually changes the game for another one or turns the console off.
The main reason for him to not understand the objective is, well, because he can’t. Either the interface gives too much subtle clues about it or the objective is written on the screen or spelled out. Although he already studies English he can’t read anything besides the most basic phrases.
As an example, he liked Okami because the loveable player character, the paint-like graphics and the gestures, but gave up very early in the story because the objectives are given in text so he didn’t know what to do. And a good example is Star Wars: Battlefront. The interface always points the places where he should go in the on-screen map, and once he gets there it’s pretty much obvious what must be done.
You Must Do What You Must
Once Lucas knows what to do comes the second problem: actually doing it. There are a number of factors that prevents him from completing the objective:
- Huge world with lots of places to go, most unrelated to the objective. Although Lucas knows he must fight all bosses in Prince of Persia, it’s sometimes difficult to find them.
- Difficulty. Lucas could handle any close combat in Heavenly Sword, but the levels that require using the accelerometer were difficult to him. He couldn’t advance the story unless I or my wife were available to beat the level for him. Motor Storm was also bad for him and although we had good laughs at the cars falling off the pits he soon lost interested, tired of always being the last to cross the line.
- Lack of practicality. There’s no point in telling a child that weapon A is better against enemy B. The best weapon is always the one with the coolest effect. Lucas loved to run to the enemies in Resistance using a sniper, and looking through the telescope!
- Pressure. On Transformers, whenever there’s a level with limited time Lucas calls me to play it for him. I don’t know, maybe it’s too much adrenaline and it makes him loose focus. Sometimes I finish the level confident that he could finish it himself but no matter how much I insist, he won’t play it. It may also be related to frustration because many times the time limit is not enough for him.
You Must Stay Interested
So Lucas knows what to do, knows where he must go and has the necessary dexterity to overcome the obstacles. Now he’ll play the game to the end, right? Wrong. The game must provide some space for experimenting. He likes to have different weapons to try out, but they really have to be different. For him, and also for me in some cases, there’s no difference between machine gun models foo and bar.
Lucas also like variety in the scenarios. If all levels look the same he looses interest pretty fast. I think it’s not related only to his curiosity about what’s coming next, but it also makes him feel his advancing towards the objective. I was surprised when he started playing Peggle, he was really enjoying it. Sure, the game is full of cuteness, but he was always curious to see the next level, its background and the disposition of the blocks and pegs. The Ratchet & Clank series is awesome in this regard, with its many different and unique planets each one having new life forms, and so is Super Mario Galaxy.
Playing with characters he likes also keeps him interested. He played Soulcalibur IV a lot, most times with Darth Vader just so he could hear him say “you are weak” and “suffer.” He also likes to play Toy Story 3 because he liked the movies so much. Even if the character is not from an well-known IP, Lucas can become increasingly attached to it because of its power or just because it’s cute.
You Must Ignore Things
I also noticed of things that don’t appear to make any difference for Lucas while he’s playing. One thing is graphics. He plays Smurf (on an Atari 2600 emulator!) with the same joy as recent games on the PS3. On the same line he seems to completely ignore the background music of most games, the exceptions being musics he knows like themes from Star Wars and Indiana Jones.
But I think music has some effect on him, he seems to insist more on games with cheerful background musics than on games with sad ones. One particular game where he showed great interest in the background music was de Blob, because the music starts at a low pace and becomes increasingly faster and cheerful as you save citizens throughout the city and towards your objective.
You Must Have Company
Among all things what really makes Lucas enjoy a game is having company. When he’s with his friends any game is fun. They play Little Big Planet, Rag Doll Kung Fu, any LEGO game and even one player games where one plays while the others try to help him pointing the right direction.
The best local multiplayer for Lucas and his friends is where all players are on the screen at the same time without constraints. The newer LEGO engine implements this nicely, dividing the screen only when the players are far from each other. The old one was terrible because if players are going in opposite directions they’d either get stuck or one player would drag the other, probably making him die at some point.
Interesting enough, Lucas doesn’t like Internet multiplayer very much. I think this is because he can’t coordinate things properly with online players. When he plays Little Big Planet with online friends, he usually call them names they have different ways to approach the game and he can’t make everybody agree on what to do. I think competition also plays a role here, young children always want to win.
You Must Conclude
Now I’ll try to write a list of things you should keep in mind when making games for the pre-teen audience.
- State the current objective in a way they can understand. Don’t write in on the screen nor tell it to the player, have UI elements that are easy to grasp instead. Panning the camera throughout the world to show the players where they should go and what they’re supposed to do may also be effective.
- Don’t let the players get lost, always point them to the right direction specially if your game provides some room for exploration which it should anyway. An arrow at the screen borders seem to be the best way to let them know the right place to go specially when combined with an on-screen map.
- Don’t make the game too hard and implement a forgiven gameplay. Provide tips for puzzles if players are wandering too much, it’s an indication that they don’t know how to solve them. Have the game adapt itself to the players’ skills.
- Don’t overwhelm players with one zillion different weapons and power-ups. Make them unique and have them upgrade with use to make players motivated to use them all and see the increased destruction power and cool effects of the fully upgraded weapons.
- Don’t put time limits on your levels, let the players finish them at their own pace. If a level has some event going on that must be dealt with, script the event evolution as the players get near the place where they will have to deal with it instead of having a count down timer.
- Provide room for exploration and reward players that explore, but don’t let them get lost. Provide a variety of scenarios and have NPCs specific to each scenario even if they share the same AI.
- If you can’t/don’t want to license a known IP, make a likeable player character. It can be likeable because it’s loveable like the Sack Boy or because it’s a bad ass like the monsters from Rampage.
- Don’t spend all your processing power with nextgen effects. Instead, implement monitoring systems that learn how the players play the game and modify it on-the-fly to provide them a better experience.
- Implement dynamic musics that change their paces according to the player actions or locations. If that’s not possible, add cheerful background musics and not sad ones.
- Add local multiplayer to your game and don’t constraint players if possible.
- Add online multiplayer to your game but implement levels in a way where players have to cooperate to finish them. There’s no point in playing with others if everyone rushes to the exit when you like to explore the level or vice-versa.
I hope to see comments that help me learn and improve this list. I’ll also be able to improve it when my other son Matheus starts playing video games. It’s only a matter of time.