[How should game creators build titles to appeal to wider audiences? Gamasutra held a kid-infested focus group and came away with 10 key points that will help games better reach the mainstream.]
Game designers are best placed to know what people need from play mechanics and game structure. But the best of our experience and craft is no match for face time with the demographic at whom the game is aimed.
This is particularly true in the emerging markets of casual, social and family gamers. Sit down to play a game with a young family and you are immediately aware of the successes or shortcomings in the games they are playing.
In this, the first of a series of focus group sessions where we at Gamasutra consider what a particular group of gamers really want from their games, we have some hands on time with some family gamers. We ask: What is it that families with young children want from the games they play?
What we did
In an attempt to discover how family-friendly our consoles and games really are, we collected together a selection of families, games, and liberal helpings of soft drinks.
By the end of the session we had notes as long as our arm, quotes by the bucket load, and a head spinning with feedback. All this distilled down to the ten issues that top these (potential) gamers' concerns.
Our controlled laboratory conditions (otherwise known as this journalist's front room) proved ideal for replicating the sorts of sessions seen in shared family spaces across the globe. Each of our families had children ranging from two to six and so represented the extreme lower end of the gaming spectrum. However, they also each included parents who wanted to play as well, sharing the experiences with their kids.
We had them play a mix of games comprising both those aimed at a younger audience alongside some more general games. This ranged from some film franchises such as Cars and Ratatouille on 360, PS3 and Wii to some more child-specific games such as EA Playground on Wii and a clutch of DS games including Pac 'n Roll and Nintendogs. Into the mix we also threw a healthy helping of driving games (Sega Rally) and a dash of sport (Madden) and some hardcore classics such as Mario Galaxy and Gran Turismo HD.
Warning: Nintendo stock photo. Actual family toothiness may vary.
Before we get into the specifics, let's set the scene with some general observations. The majority of the parents with less exposure to gaming seemed quite fazed by the conventional controllers.
Sarah voiced a common frustration: "By the time I look down and figure out which button to press, it's already too late and I've crashed." "Why do you need so many buttons? All I want to do is steer the car," chimed in Abi, another of the mums in the group. One of the dads ended up just watching for the majority of the time, stating "I just press the wrong buttons and reset the thing" after managing to quit a game and return to the 360's dashboard with a couple of miss-directed presses.
The parents seemed genuinely impressed and surprised by the level of detail on the PS3 and 360 games. "It looks just like the television. Am I controlling that? That's mad! I can't believe you can even see the driver in the car." Dave, one of our dads, was particularly impressed with the engine sounds, "I can hear the Toyota hum as it approaches, I can tell who is behind me without even looking -- now that is very impressive."
The kids were also vocal about their enjoyment. "Look, mum's flying the paper aeroplane", remarked one little boy who was excited to see his mum at the controller. "Nice Bear daddy, nice bear!" was one little girl's response to the "Nice Spare" award in Wii Sports bowling. They all seemed to enjoy repeating the various sounds and words of the games, adding their own cadences and interpretations of the on-screen action.
What we found
Anyone who spends time with a group like this (from any demographic) quickly warms to their concerns. Hurdles to enjoyment are painfully apparent, as they wrestle with ill-conceived design decisions.
But successes too are magnified, justifying all those hours of deliberation over control mechanics. For the group we have today, the following ten issues were observed to be of the most frequent or greatest concern.
1. Quick Start
The energy in the room took a real dive each time we swapped games. Our parents were surprised by the amount of time before they could actually play the games.
Cars, for instance, insisted on a drawn-out tutorial before we could drive ourselves. This was often exacerbated by long or unskippable cutscenes. The children in the room soon started to make their own fun (much to the parents' frustratifon) whilst the games simply missed their window of attention while they were getting started.
2. Safe Saving
Being forced to replay previous sections of games just because they hadn't manually saved was a major irritation. Whilst the younger players seemed less fazed by this repetition, the older folks in the room found this most frustrating.
The linear levels of Ratatouille were in the spotlight here, often forcing family groups to repeat the same ground a good six times before they were able to progress. On more than one occasion this precipitated them walking away from the game altogether.
3. Friendly Controllers
Complex button combinations also led to much aggravation. The controllers which in experienced hands seem the very symbol of accessibility, in the hands of our families became strange and multifaceted artifacts -- alien and unwieldy in the hands of these novice players.
The children in the group had the added challenge of stretching their smaller hands around controllers to reach the triggers and buttons. To them the joypads looked much like the ill-advised and massive original Xbox controllers, before Microsoft saw sense and produced the smaller version.
We have children's pens, scissors and cutlery; why not have smaller child-friendly versions of controllers too? The Wii-mote was easier to handle, although its badly-labeled buttons were initially confusing to our players.
4. Safe Controls
Most games took only a few misguided presses to dump the player unceremoniously back to the title screen. Our gamers all seemed able to hit these combinations with surprising regularity.
Before they had twigged what was going on, the game had been quit and they were back at square one. Surprisingly, this was a particular problem with the Wii. Younger players' fingers often seemed to stray to the tempting red and white of the power button at the top left of the Wii-mote, whilst older players' larger digits often hit the home button, unintentionally pausing the action.
5. Play Together
By far the most popular games in our lab were those that sported local multiplayer, particularly if there was a cooperative element. Our class of players found that teaming up together was not only great fun, but also enabled experienced players to guide and protect the novice player.
Local split screen action was notably absent from many of the PS3 and 360 games, with only the Wii consistently sporting this option. Super Mario Galaxy, for example, proved most popular for father-son gaming. Although the dads attested to enjoying helping their kids through the levels, further inspection often told a different story. The kids were often giving their carers essential help and advice -- something they relished.
6. Deep Localization
Game localization is obviously a hot topic these days, with much effort lavished on the likes of Elite Beat Agents or the Phoenix Wright games -- which can lead directly to success. Whilst these are excellent at matching the culture and language of their audience, our gamers were, at times, frustrated by the way the games ignored the finer points of childhood in their locale.
An interesting example was the use of spelling in tutorials. One parent remarked, "I spend all day enunciating letters phonically to help my little girl at school, and then all my hard work is undone by the game joining up all the letters again." These kids are being taught to pronounce letters the way they sound in words rather than (as used to be the case) as abstract concepts. For example, they are taught to pronounce "a" as an "ah" rather than as an "A" sound.
Admittedly, it's a technical point, but this is a key nuance of her children's education. It may seem like nit-picking, but as games court a wider audience, these are the concerns they face. Localization becomes a multifaceted problem, rather than just trying to make jokes funny in another language.
7. Simple Handicapping
Our families included players with different levels of experience. The gap between gamers and those who hadn't previously touched a controller was a real problem when trying to setup balanced multiplayer games.
Some of our games, such as Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games, had a handicap setting that made the job of creating a level playing field a lot easier. However, other games only provided characters or vehicles with different stats. Successfully applying these to a field of varying players became an overly complex task.
One dad came up with an interesting suggestion for play leveling -- "Why not make the winners a bit worse each time and the losers a bit better -- that would level the field and make you more likely to play again when you have just been beaten." We have to admit that he seems to be onto something here; dynamic difficulty adjustments would really help games with players of differing ability.
8. Episodic Play
Whilst episodic gameplay is all the rage these days, our gamers were looking for episodes of 15 minutes rather than 15 hours. "When the kids ask to play one more level before lunch, I want to know how long it will take -- if I am going to avoid minor explosions in the living room and refusal to eat."
The games with more predictable play times were more popular for parents with younger kids. This was also helpful when siblings needed to take turns on a game, as they could more easily agree a fair changeover time.
Our players also attested to generally having less free time to play games. What time they did have was often only available in smaller chunks. They all agreed the quick pick-up-and-play games were a much better fit.
9. Performance Feedback
Our lab techs (the Robertson family at large) were often called upon to explain the majority of games. Particularly where they required specific controls, the games often provided only minimal feedback of what the player had done wrong (or right).
"Well, why didn't they tell me I was swinging too early?" was one young girl's reaction after finally getting a hammer throw right -- some words of advice from us proving critical to her success.
The games that provided details not just on the outcome, but on the timeliness of the different presses and triggers of the previous effort were much more popular. It not only enabled our players to improve but made the whole experience more understandable and ultimately enjoyable.
10. Cost Critical
Towards the end of the session we had a few discussions with parents who had enjoyed their time so much they were considering getting a system for themselves. "You're joking -- that's more than my car cost," was one dad's response to the cost of getting set up with a PS3.
It seems for these lifestyle gamers, consoles have to fit in with other competing products such as gym membership, playgroups and after school clubs. Price is a much bigger issue for these family gamers. To that end the Wii was more acceptable, even though paying £40 [or $50] for a game still seemed shocking to many parents. Paul, one of our more enthusiastic dads, commented, "That's the same price as 13 movie rentals! I'd have to get at least 25 hours play out of that!"
As we closed down the various consoles and cleared up the snack wrappers, drink cans and coffee cups, we reflected on the day's discoveries. Whilst some of the issues could have been predicted beforehand, there were quite a few unexpected comments and ideas that arose.
It seems that games still have a long way to go before they are really ready to break into the mainstream. Nintendo's Wii has shown that the market is there for the taking.
But it won't be until we have age or ability specific controllers, and games that are really casual-gamer centered, that the masses will be able to easily opt for some gaming rather than picking up the latest movie.
Quick start times, automatic saving, friendly controllers (and control options), cross-ability multiplayer, deeper localization, simple handicapping, short episodes, performance advice and low cost will all play their part in opening up our favorite pastime -- and vocation -- to a wider audience. This may sound like a tough list, but build it right and they will come.