New audiences demand new considerations, and at the Vancouver Film School's recent Game Design Expo, Dave McCarthy, executive producer of Electronic Arts' Fusion business unit, used two examples from his company's experience -- EA Sports' Family Play game modes and the development of the family-friendly EA Playground
, to illustrate how new control schemes and a shift in development focus can help developers build games for everyone.
EA's Philosophical Shift
McCarthy highlighted some emerging segments and trends in gaming: The rise of the casual gamer is often discussed, as well as the fact that it's opened up gaming's demographics for a larger portion of female players. Another big trend is the idea of multi-generational gaming. Baby boomers are aging, notes McCarthy, and explains the significance: "When you’re retired, you get bored, and I guarantee you they’ll be gaming."
Like many, McCarthy places a healthy share of the credit on Nintendo for the shift. He says, "Nintendo threw the industry a curve ball by appealing to the non-traditional audience. It was risky, but it paid off."
As a result, he explains, there have been some "philosophical shifts" within EA, with a renewed emphasis on accessibility and more platform-specific design, what McCarthy calls "a return to our roots."
McCarthy explains that the Team Fusion group was formed for the launch of the PSP. The group put out almost five games on launch, and is now looking for new challenges "It’s a team that gets really jazzed by new challenges and driving into new audiences and new platforms," he says.
How Wii Changed Things
In 1994, McCarthy explains, EA's NFL
series was more of a mass market product. “It was a pretty simple game, a couple button presses, a bit of blood, a few guaranteed results," he says. "Our most recent title [NHL '08
] has earned awards -- but it’s hard to play.”
According to McCarthy, Wii presented a radical approach to traditional controls, and the EA team created the Family Play concept it previously announced
in July of last year. With Family Play, there are two distinct control schemes, one of which reduces complexity by focusing on key moments. McCarthy calls it "training wheels" for new players.
He says, “The design strategy with Madden NFL '07
was a good strategy at the time to focus on the hardcore players -- but then we later realized, based on testing, the differences in the core audience of the Wii. Right before finalization, we had to change course and add Family Play mode. We wanted to get across that anyone can play Madden
And, he adds, accessibility has been the result -- and then some. “Our campaign for this was extremely successful, and our partnership with Nintendo came out with a great commercial. But now my five year-old walks around the house going, ‘This is my house now!’”
The take-away, says McCarthy, is that the Family Play mode creates instant engagement, and then evolves users through the experience by first offering them the basic control requirements, giving them options to experiment, and then having depth options available for long term play.
Hitting The Playground
Next, McCarthy discussed EA's recent EA Playground
for Wii. It offers family-oriented multiplayer games, and an item-collecting and level-exploring single-player mode. He explains, "It was a game for kids and the kid inside all of us."
Dodgeball, tetherball and other playground sports were developed with a focus on "intuitive, straightforward controls." According to McCarthy, the initial idea was little more than a box design. "What if we made a bunch of games that were easy because they were familiar and we get to monitor our status on the playground? Our final version really wasn’t very far from this."
Continues McCarthy, "We weren’t really great at prototyping quickly and cheaply... We hadn’t really had kids in the office for focus testing before. It was a much different experience for us. There were a couple of injuries as we played.” The iteration process was refined about a year into development in the spring, he adds.
Kids Will Tell You If You Suck: The Design Process
So what are the issues for a designer in addressing this new audience? For one thing, McCarthy says, "I think women play games differently than we do, and we have a lot of men making games that are pretty complex. The Madden
control scheme... is very different [in] our Wii version. That’s fine for our hardcore audience, but do we really have to do that?"
With that question in mind, McCarthy has some advice. "I’d really encourage you to, if you end up making products for this audience, you’ve got to avoid going into a focus test, bringing the test back, listening to the results, and [putting] the hard features back in."
He explains the approach they used: "What we did is put [the designers] in the room with the kids in the focus group so they could see just how hard their choices made the game. Just because you have children, it doesn’t make you a children’s game designer. If there are too many barriers of entry, they’ll just shove it aside. Kids have a hard time telling you their favorite game, but they will tell you if you suck.”
What's Next For Family Play
“In a lot of ways, EA has been risk-averse," says McCarthy. "That’s not a bad thing, but we got into a comfort zone we needed to break.”
His further advice? Show conviction in your solution and make it the sole focus. The safe route doesn’t move the needle. "In great multiplayer games, everyone should be a star. Without cheating other users, you can find a winner in everyone."
The focus now, he says, should be helping players celebrate winning without rubbing in losing. Creating too much of a sense of competition kills the buzz. "We made a big mistake with the ‘You Lose!’ screen," says McCarthy. "We focus tested this. My son got stuck on this in a test version and got very frustrated. Why would we do this? We made this hard and fast rule they couldn’t move past this.”
Finally, McCarthy concluded with some projected future improvements to Family Play -- including more engaging touch points, and true coaching and improvement feedback -- also revealing that the Fusion group is currently developing a game for a specific audience, but couldn't yet reveal any further details.