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Conflicting Views: Designing Multiplayer In Children's Games

WayForward designer Stephan Frost combines experience and literature to delineate two schools of thought on how children's games handle multiplayer, and on approaching a young audience for testing and implementation of design ideas.

Stephan Frost, Blogger

June 2, 2010

12 Min Read

[WayForward designer Stephan Frost combines experience and literature to delineate two schools of thought on how children's games handle multiplayer, and on approaching a young audience for testing and implementation of design ideas.]

The three major consoles out right now have numerous differences. However, one rather interesting commonality they all share lies in their top-selling games -- the majority of them are competitive multiplayer. There are completely different demographics between them, but it is an interesting fact that people who play games like interacting with others while playing. This is also a common feature among children's games.

There seem to be two types of competitive multiplayer themes prevalent in children's video game design that I have noticed in my tenure working in games: accommodating vs. empowering. These themes come from two schools of thought in game design. One is to create an "interactive experience", while the other is to stick to a more traditional definition of a competitive game experience.

In this analysis, I will use examples I have encountered in my career with developers and publishers as well as my personal gaming experiences.

More specifically, I'll look at how game designers approach children's competitive multiplayer games. I will also delve into why I believe we have two forms of competitive gaming from a child psychology perspective.

My goal is ultimately to provide effective tips for reading what children are looking for in games to better modify the gaming experience.

The Competitive Game Experience

The game defines rules but ultimately it is up to the player to win the game. Their choices and skill level determine a win or loss. Games of this nature are aimed at ages seven to seventy.

I worked as a production assistant at Disney Interactive Studios and worked on the multi-SKU game Cars: Mater-National Championship. This was a game that allowed players to explore Radiator Springs openly (which kids love doing in games, by the way), and also allowed them to race head to head if they wanted.

The designers and programmers at THQ had implemented numerous moves that more experienced players could use in the race to succeed but were not crucial to victory. Boosts, slides, and knowing the short cuts were the tools to gain a win.

The only helping hand that was given to losing players was a higher top speed while trailing the leading player. However, this could still be counterbalanced if the leading player knew all the moves and shortcuts; it was just a slight bonus to make things a bit more competitive.

Cars: Mater-National Championship

The competitive game experience relies mostly on the players skill. There are winners and losers and it is typically the players who practice more that win.

A great example of this can be seen in the Kung Fu Panda multiplayer mini games. These are easy to play, difficult to master games. Anyone can play the game and understand it, but those who practice more will likely win. All of the games offer a clear distinction of a winner vs. a loser. There is also direct competition, because all players are on screen at the same time. This means a choice by the player can affect another player immediately.

The Interactive Experience

This form of gameplay is more of what I would describe as a "ride", wherein victory is not largely dependent on skill. This is typically for a much younger audience, usually for the five to seven year old range -- but anyone could play it.

There was a cancelled game I had worked on that was a family-themed Wii Balance Board game, similar to Wii Sports Resort. There were numerous activities that players could compete in for the best time or highest score.

One such activity was skateboarding. The goal was to cross the finish line at another in the fastest time possible. That was the extent of the competition.

The publisher had requested that if the player were to step off the balance board, they would eventually cross the finish line. Even if they did nothing whatsoever, they would eventually finish.

The focus of the game was the visual aesthetics of the level; it was the player's experience of the environment. The thought behind this design choice was that this was a game that the whole family could enjoy; it was like a movie that the player could interact with slightly.

These games are the antithesis of hardcore. A great example of this design philosophy can be seen in the game Happy Feet, where games are significantly easy for any (and I mean any) player to win.

Wii Music is another example; there is little focus on competition, despite some of it being a points-based game. Unlike Guitar Hero or Rock Band, there are limited penalties for playing the game "incorrectly". In fact, the player can play the game in whatever way they please, and will still complete a level. IGN said in its review that it was "a noise maker tied to a series of gestures" and that is the gist. Anyone can play without the fear of defeat.

These games also tend to be more turn-based games. There is no direct competition because only one person is on screen at a time which reduces the sense of urgency in the competition based games.

The Mix

With the success of the Wii console, it's become clear to the broad public that the console is not just for gamers. Children, senior citizens, and other non-gamers have been highlighted as target demographics for the Wii in the mainstream press. When I worked on the WiiWare title Major League Eating: The Game, this new audience was the publisher's target demographic, described succinctly as "everybody".

We -- developer Sensory Sweep -- were asked by the publishers to make a game that drew influences from Dance Dance Revolution, Mario Kart, and Street Fighter Alpha. Working with those influences in mind, we created a two player fighting game with power-ups which required timing and management skills to win.

From a design standpoint, the power-ups and motion control seemed to be the largest points of contention between us getting approval or not.

There was a balanced set of power-ups that could counteract each other to provide a level playing field. However the publisher felt it necessary to include what became known as the "Catchup Dog".

This was a hot dog the losing player could eat and it would bring their points up, even with the winner's score; it was essentially the blue shell from Mario Kart.

The inclusion of this Catchup Dog was the publisher's way of regulating the more efficient player's chance of winning, even though this was mainly a skill based game. Reviewers of the game generally viewed the power-up as broken.

The motion controls were also heavily pushed because they wanted the game to be an interactive experience of Major League Eating as it is shown on television -- frenetic, fast-paced, and similar to the motions the competitors make on screen. This, however, meant taking a hit on controls being accurate, because the motions were not always one-to-one with the results on screen.

This mix of design ideologies was too jarring. The publishers wanted an interactive experience while at the same time offering highly competitive gameplay. The resulting game was not effective, because by trying to please everyone, it alienated the audiences for both types of game.

Time and Competition

This can be broken down very simply. The greater the amount of time spent in a game, the more important victory becomes. If I play a game where victory can be determined in a span of 10 seconds, I don't invest much in the game.

I will therefore likely be a little less motivated to win. However, if I spend five minutes in a three lap race winning, I don't want to waste my time by messing up my chance for a win on the last lap.

This can be applied to the two types of competitive children's games. Typically, the interactive experiences are less time-consuming, while the competitive games usually take longer. This is especially the case when both players are interacting at the same time on screen.

In the context of these children's games, a game that requires players to take turns limits the amount of competition because there is no immediate or pressing threat to a victory condition. However if there is someone on screen that is closer to taking the win away from a player in a longer period of time, the winning desire increases.

The Self Esteem Movement in Video Games

Originally started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the "self esteem" movement in child psychology sought to empower children. The idea was to give children the value of self worth so they could feel good about themselves and would thereby tackle problems in a self-assured manner.

The movement advocated the idea that children should be rewarded despite not really earning the reward. Kids' sports is a common example of the Self Esteem Movement in children's lives. Children often receive trophies -- even for finishing last place.

In 2006, the Boston Globe ran an article describing this phenomenon. It essentially argued that children lose the ability to cope with losses when we reward them constantly, even for failure.

Leonard Zaichkowsky, a professor at Boston University and director of its sport and exercise psychology training program, had this to say: "'We also have to teach kids to be mentally tough, to take criticism, to experience failure, to learn that somebody wins and somebody loses. We have to take teachable moments to reach kids and explain that there are going to be setbacks and losses, and to be able to cope with that."

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. maintains a blog on the website Psychology Today. He also states that children form a sense of entitlement when we placate them by not allowing them to experience loss. Writes Seltzer, "When almost all your energy is indiscriminately devoted to fulfilling your child's desires, it's no wonder that they'll come to see the world as revolving around them."

The tenets of the Self Esteem Movement most typically enter game design via the interactive experience. There are competitive moments, but ultimately these games feed the idea of entitlement -- because we as publishers and developers are worried that children will lose the game, and be dissatisfied.

Defenders of the competitive game experience often do so in reaction to the Self Esteem Movement. And it's not just game developers or reviewers who feel that way; the aformentioned articles are examples of that reaction in the world outside game design. There are developers out there who believe kids should lose. They believe that the loss is what drives kids to try again -- and attain a victory.

Playtesting is Critical

Sometimes, designers get entrenched in their games and start to make them for themselves. This is why playtesting, especially for a demographic that the designer is not part of, is so important. The designer needs to supply the core ideas and create the base of a fun project, but also -- in the context of the games we're discussing -- take in feedback from children.

In the Major League Eating game, we originally wanted to have power-ups be rather limited. We had thought that players would value the power-ups more because of their scarcity.

What we realized after trying out the game with multiple kids, is that they wanted more of them. In fact, they thought that power-ups were the best part of the game. The Belch Attack was one that kids enjoyed using, and it was satisfying in its affect on other players. As a result we increased the amount of power ups -- and the game became a power-up fight. Both players could feel empowered, and that resulted in more thumbs up.

We also worked with what we had available to improve the game's replay value. Children can provide great feedback, but often you have to filter out the "wouldn't it be cool if...?" suggestions. This will make better use of the info collected from the target demographic.

Watching kids play is also important. Sometimes kids don't always feel comfortable saying negative, or even positive, things about the game. Watching their reactions at certain events in the game is a great way to figure out what they love and hate.

Discerning between a challenge and a struggle is also important. When kids have to get used to a mechanic, there is always a moment of uneasiness because they may not get the idea. Accommodating can be a knee jerk reaction for some -- but is not always the answer.

If a mechanic is vital to gameplay progression and the child does not understand it after numerous attempts, it should probably be tweaked. However, if a mechanic is something for more advanced players that need to invest more time to perfect the technique, the child just may need more time with the game.

Understanding the goal and progression of the game is what the designer needs to analyze and apply to the game.

Conclusions on Designing Multiplayer Games for Kids

In short, designing a clear direction as to where a game is heading is vital to success in a children's multiplayer game. Understanding game types, listening to the demographic, knowing how to analyze and implement that knowledge is paramount in this genre of development.

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About the Author(s)

Stephan Frost


Stephan Frost has worked in game design, game production and is the writer/creator of the comic Mortifera. He presently works at Wayforward Technologies as a level designer on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Stephan lives in Hollywood California with his wife Amanda and dog Eugene.

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