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Do you make games for young kids? Would you like to know how you can stop flushing a whole load of cash right down the crapper? The most important point that gets missed is this: the person who buys the game (the parent) only experiences the game through the audio. Assuming that the game installs easily and that the kid can play the game mostly by him- or herself, and that the kid pretty much likes the game, all of the customer satisfaction, everything the buyer experiences, all of the motivation to buy the next product -- comes from the audio. The parents do not see or play the game. They hear it.

May 15, 2001

12 Min Read

Author: by George Alistair Sanger

Do you make games for young kids? Would you like to know how you can stop flushing a whole load of cash right down the crapper? Please, read on.

There is a great and tragic battle that has raged for decades and has taken a drastic toll on our industry. We have been fighting for dollars, but we have been losing business and alienating customers. And, oddly enough, the key soldiers in this battle are the musicians and the "sound guys." While they themselves may have respect for the unique nature of the terrain upon which they shed their blood, often the commanders of their forces do not.

The most important point that gets missed is this: the person who buys the game (the parent) only experiences the game through the audio. This is an important point. History repeats itself, but since I am not yet history, I will paraphrase myself instead: Assuming that the game installs easily and that the kid can play the game mostly by him- or herself, and that the kid pretty much likes the game, all of the customer satisfaction, everything the buyer experiences, all of the motivation to buy the next product -- comes from the audio. The parents do not see or play the game. They hear it.

Yet due to the inability of Command to recognize this fact, never so much as even three percent of resources has ever been directed to the soldiers at the very important musical front. Historians are still trying to figure that one out.

Atomic Weapon: Use with Discretion

Audio, especially game audio, is a powerful weapon. When used properly, it has the power to involve, immerse, elevate, and reward. It has the power to excite. It can make an artificial world appear to be deeper, older, and much more complex and complete than it actually is. But when misused, audio reveals its most awesome and deadly power -- the power to annoy.

The annoyance situation for any game is already potentially dangerous. The game developers budget for an hour of music. That hour is stretched over a 40-hour entertainment experience. This can be likened to driving cross-country with one audio cassette that you didn't choose. Furthermore, the scarcity of disk space requires that the music be played at a low sample rate, or via MIDI, or, God forbid, through some crazy auto-composing routine like DirectMusic Composer. So what you're getting isn't exactly a direct view into the heart of Aaron Copland. Add to that tiny speakers and an audio environment that was never put through QA with anybody who knew what to listen for. Of course, I will be more than happy to send a formal letter of apology to anybody who can show me -- in writing -- that a feedback cycle exists in their development timeline in which the musician, the only one who knows how many times that D-minor section is supposed to repeat, is supposed to listen to the finished game and correct mistakes before it ships.

Putt Putt Saves the Zoo, one of the author's children's-software masterpieces.

Now add to this dire situation the multipliers that are unique to kids' games. For some reason, somebody has decided that any game created for somebody under the age of nine will have the following audio characteristics:

  • The compositions will be more repetitive than those in adults' games.

  • The tones will be pedestrian.

  • The tunes will be shorter and simpler than even normal game music.

  • The tunes will all be in the same key, C major.

  • Half the tunes will be public domain "favorites" such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

  • Characters will yell in high, squeaky voices the following phrases: "GOOD JOB!" "VERY GOOD!" "TRY AGAIN!" "NOT QUITE!" "HEY! YOU'RE GOOD AT THIS!" "GREAT JOB!" "HEY! YOU'RE GOOD AT THIS!" "GREAT JOB!"

Why? Because it's easy. Because people think kids don't notice these things. Because people think kids actually like these things. But that's insane. None of them is necessary or desirable, ever. Kids like good music, just like you and me. They get bored, just like you and me. And even if they didn't, it doesn't matter because you're never going to drive the kid crazy with good audio. But you're sure to drive the parent crazy with that crap you're giving them, and that's the last sale you'll make in that household.

And Again I Say, History Repeats

That is the battle. Repetition is the enemy, so you've got to fight it with everything you've got. The following are some tips:

Don't rely on new technology or clever gimmicks to make things sound better. That is like trying to build a baby-sitting robot instead of being with your kids. Always direct all your audio energy toward making lots and lots and lots of warm, exciting, varying, heartfelt audio. You can do this better with a kazoo and a cassette recorder than with physically modeled 3D interactive vaporware.

Don't use one repeating tune for an entire level of a game. That's old school, there's no excuse, and it will kill the parents. Don't do it. O.K.? Just don't. If any one tune in your game repeats for more than five minutes, you should do one of the following: (1) change to another tune after five minutes, or (2) stick a hot fork into your own eye, you evil moron.

Reuse your resources in different circumstances. I know you want special "cinematic" pieces, and "payoffs," and a unique piece for the puzzle with the cute duckies and such. But the math is simple. If the game's budget is for 20 minutes of music, and the game is constructed so that music plays for an hour in a given session, the music is going to repeat somewhat. And remember that three repetitions of the music would happen only in the best possible circumstances, meaning all music has the same odds of repeating. But suppose you get greedy about special-case music. The more of your music that goes to special one-time cases, the more the other tunes have to repeat to cover for it. Reuse that "Binky meets the cougar" tune as a "tense puzzle-building" or "will we win the pony race?" background piece. The kids won't mind -- the situation will be different enough that they'll experience it as two different pieces of entertainment. The parents will be grateful for one less repetition of that incessant "riding the pony" music.

Pajama Sam 3: You Are What You Eat from Your Head to Your Feet, to which the author lent his audio design expertise, was well-received by critics.

Do not use musical structures that utilize repetition to build familiarity. This is hard to get away from. Sure, conventional musical theory suggests that we play familiarity against variation to achieve tension. That's why conventional music uses forms such as AABA. But in a game, you're going to get 30 repetitions of the tune at least. Think about that. How many times have you listened to the CDs in your house? Even your favorite CD? In a game, you can concentrate on the variation and relax on the repetition. An hour into the game, the familiarity will be there, I guarantee it.

Don't insult kids with poor tones and yelling, squeaky voices. Elmo and Barney are beloved, but so are the softer, lower-voiced characters such as Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangaroo, and Marvin the Martian. Kids' ears are brand new, and they can probably hear better than you. If you want to delight kids, play a pretty little bell for them. Yes, they respond well to high tones. Yes, they even like those little square waves, by God. But even though some little girls might be inclined towards pink, Crayola has not yet rationalized filling an entire box of crayons with that one color.

Somebody Stop Me!

O.K., the knife is in. Now let's get down to the twisting. Picture this typical scenario: Mom works very hard at the office, then barely has the energy to cook. Somehow she manages. "Dinner! NOW!" shouts Dad, feeling guilty that it wasn't he who cooked it.

"But I'm right in the middle of my game!" comes the kid's answer. Good. The game is interesting. The makers of the game can be proud. But the parents -- the customers -- are getting angry.

"DINNER! Get in here right now or I'll throw that damn thing through the window."

"O.K.! O.K.! O.K.!" answers the kid, if the parents are lucky.

The kid comes to dinner. What do we hear from the other room all through the meal? Music! It's the ice cream truck, parked in our living room, clanking out "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" over and over and over and over and over again. And what's worse, every 45 seconds, a shrill voice yells out, "HEY! ARE YOU THERE? HEY! ARE YOU GONNA PLAY OR WHAT? SNORE!!!"

Oh, yeah, the parents are going to love that. Why isn't there a "fade to silence after two minutes of inactivity" feature? Were the designers never in a human family? Are they designing for kids who don't eat, go to school, or play soccer? Is the target kid one who buys his own software and sets his own bedtime?

And do you know why these games sell as well as any other games for kids? It's because even the greatest games in the world have these design problems, and the parents' choice is either to buy no games for their kids or to buy annoying ones. Can you imagine what would happen to sales of kids' games if some of them stopped being deathly annoying?

Mario Teaches Typing, another magnum opus from the author.

And Another Thing

I should end the article here, but it is my duty as a Texan to go into areas I know nothing about. Here is my non-audio gripe:

Who in the world decided to let this happen: "Mom, I can't come to dinner now! There's no place to save my game until I get out of this battle!" One game even makes you earn a certain object that allows you to save your game more often.

(Long pause, Texas voice, one eyebrow raised.) Now I'm no game designer, but I know financial-suicide-by-greed when I see it. The kid has simply got to be able to save instantly at any time. Whatever the justifications are for having designated places in the game from which the player can save, trash them. If you have to hit your lead designer with a cattle prod until he admits that he screwed up, do it. I'll buy you a new cattle prod. If it's a hardware problem, and you'd have to solder another chip into every last cartridge yourself to rectify the problem, do it. I'll hold the soldering iron. Because that one element of game design has done more damage to our industry than any other.

Parents might say that the problem is the violence, but it's not. It's the fact that games have committed the unthinkable crime. They have made parents' lives even more difficult than they already are. And they have done this by making it impossible to get a kid who is playing a game into a car, into his clothes, to school, to the dinner table, or even out of a burning building if that kid is in the middle of a game with no save screen. And what are the parents' choices? They can say, "O.K., I'll wait for you," which leads to untold misery and a quick undermining of the family dynamic, because now the sister, who was all ready to get into the car, asks if she can start a game too. The parents can say, "Quit without saving," which even parents know is a mortal sin -- besides, it can easily lead to an hour of tears. Or the parents can say, "No more games for you anytime within an hour of when another activity is planned." Which is, when you think about it, exactly what happens, because it's the only option available.

Given the mistakes I've seen and heard, I think it's a damn miracle that games are even allowed in homes with kids. So pay attention to the lessons of your industry's history, and maybe you can make a bundle and save the world and a family or two.

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