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Independent developer Michael Contento of Cora Games talks to 100% Indie about what inspires him - and how he creates, tests, monetizes and markets his games for children.

‘The bigger the smile, the better the game’ measurement model

Keeping it in the family is key when it comes to game development, according to Michael Contento, of CoRa Games. “They’re my testers!” he says. And the measurement system is proudly qualitative: “We operate on a ‘the bigger the smile, the better the game’ model. I don’t have time or the budget to do huge A/B testings with hundreds of users.”

As he’s developing for a young smartphone audience, this is not surprising. 100% Indie, the initiative that’s helping Michael and other developers bring their games to market, is increasingly seeing children’s games being submitted for consideration by developers from all over the world.

A recent study by Kids Industries found that while only nine percent of pre-school children in different countries can tie their shoes, about 20 percent can play an app on a smartphone; and that across the UK and the US, parents download around 27 apps per year on average for their children.

Developers might therefore see children’s games as easy pickings, but you have to think carefully about your content and your commercial approach, Michael advises.

Real life versus smartphone

Michael uses real life games such as ‘spot the difference’, ‘join the dots’ and jigsaws as inspiration, but while some transfer to the digital space, it’s not a given. “I can be inspired in a toy store but in real life, a game can sometimes require haptic feedback (ie you need to feel the structure of something) and the simple rotation in a 3D space,” he says. “Both things are either impossible or really hard to translate to the swipe/touch input of mobile devices. But it's genius how fast even small children can adapt the "grab and move" handling of things in the real world to the "touch, hold and move" gesture on mobile devices.” 

And they don’t have to be ‘educational’ games. As Michael asserts, all games are, in their own unique way, educational. “Angry Birds as an example. You need to understand the slingshot and the basic principle of tension. Fruit Ninja? Gravity, timing and projection of things flying up with gravity rules applied,” he says, and argues that this is the reason there doesn’t need to be a minimum age for children’s games. “Why should there be one? As long as children are capable of understanding the game, and it has appropriate content, it’s a fun and productive activity for them.”

Appealing to two markets

“It’s not just the children, but also the adults that you need to consider,” says Michael. “Most children enjoy games even with the music disabled. But they do like to keep the sounds activated and so it’s important to have music or sounds that aren’t too obtrusive and annoying. Most music loops can be really nice for the first few iterations but become totally annoying for other people after a few more minutes.”

Characters must also be considered, he says. “It’s important to add one or two recognizable and cute mascots if you can, to establish a better connection between the player and the game. I’ve been looking at some games with this simple element; it really aids recognition and loyalty.”

Marketing and monetization

A specific approach needs to be adopted for monetization and marketing in children’s games, especially as an independent developer.

Monetization for CoRa Games is currently provided via ads (“placed very, very, VERY carefully, and they get few impressions per user”) and through an in-app purchase to upgrade to the pro version. “In the free version, some levels are locked and the in-app purchase unlocks them and removes all ads forever,” says Michael. “So the parents can test the game, let their little ones try the free levels and then, if they both like it, simply upgrade with one click. After the upgrade, the parents can give the game to their kids without having to worry about ads or additional in-app purchases, because there are none. In my opinion that's a good model for both sides. The parents can test and decide if the game is worth a few bucks for free, while I get some payment.”

Michael admits he finds the publishing and marketing process complicated and exhausting. “It’s time consuming, expensive and very hard for an indie developer. There are thousands of new games per day and huge companies with huge budgets to compete with. But it's not impossible to get a (very, very small) part of the cake and I simply do my best. Conduits like 100% Indie are great for helping to drive traffic. They promote games on their site, at shows and through their social media, which is great for driving awareness. Spending my own money on posting to review sites, ad campaigns, and "app of the day"s have come with a price tag attached or have, for various reasons, no effect for me at all.

“Because of the monetization and marketing factors, it boils down to three main ingredients to make a children’s game a success:  a great icon, impressive screenshots and a simply awesome game.“

Remember the audience

That ‘awesome game’ is all for the best thing about designing games for children - the audience. Says Michael, “Besides the economic and organizational arguments (my games usually don't require overly complex graphics, story telling or game mechanics), the best thing about selling children’s games is the audience. It’s an incredible pleasure to see little boys and girls tapping around the screen, trying to solve the riddle, and see them enjoying the graphics, the sounds and the reward when they get it right. It’s almost unbelievable that I can build small games, ship them to every corner of the world and receive positive feedback from literally everywhere! 

“I'm not the greatest artist but I've created hours of entertainment for thousand of kids around the globe. What stunning times we live in.”

CoRa Games is an independent studio based in Cologne. It began as a side project in mid-2012 when, while working in the online advertising business, Michael was learning a new programming language named Monkey which he recognized as being a good basis for games. His first game, the simple yet fast puzzle DaffyDrop, went live in various mobile stores and the studio was born. Less than a year, 38 games and 1.9 million app downloads later and CoRa Games shows no sign of slowing.

100% Indie is a collaboration between Chillingo, the leading indie mobile games publisher and division of Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ: EA) and Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd.  The partnership fuels the mobile games developer community and provide unparalleled revenue opportunities.  Spearheaded by Chillingo founders, Chris Byatte and Joe Wee, 100% Indie aims to inspire, foster and support indie developers around the world.


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