When Making Games For Kids, Test Games On Kids!

When making games for kids, the old approach was to license a property, then fire and forget. Not so with Marvel Super Hero Squad Online says Gazillion VP Jason Robar.
Marvel Super Hero Squad Online is Gazillion studio The Amazing Society's MMO taken on the Super Hero Squad franchise, which cutes-up many fan favorite characters from the Marvel comics universe and puts them in a relatively open world. The game is geared toward children, but is also intended to be something kids play with their parents. We caught up with vice president and general manager of Gazillion Jason Robar to discuss the unique challenges of making an MMO for -- and with -- children. When you're making an MMO that's oriented toward kids, what are your main considerations? Jason Robar: Of course, safety is one of the top priorities, right? We want kids to have a safe environment to play in, so parents feel comfortable that this is a game that they can let their kids play. The second thing is we really set out to make a game in which fans feel that they can share their passion for the Marvel universe with the next generation of fans. So dads or moms who are really hardcore fans who know these characters now have a new way to share that passion with their kids and create a whole new generation of Marvel fans. So we created an art style that's very friendly, but at the same time we did a lot of the humor and the power of the heroes. So you got kind of both the angle of something that's funny for the kids, and also kind of the inside jokes for the parents who are really hardcore fans. I guess it's something you're expecting that parents and kids are going to play together? Absolutely. In fact, we got a ton of things that way. In my studio, almost 80 percent of our staff has kids, so we really brought an understanding of a challenging game for the adult, but that's really approachable, easy to get in, browser-based, free-to-play, all the kinds of things that need to be there for a family-friendly MMO online experience. I do notice that a lot of developers making games for kids don't necessarily think about what kids would actually find fun. I mean it's not that easy to do, and sometimes it feels like overkill because a lot of kids if they see, you know, Spider-Man they'll just be happy to play whatever it is, no matter how crappy it is. Well, we've got our harshest critics right in our studio, because we've got twice as many kids in the studio as people. So if we make something that's not fun for the kids, our own kids let us know right away. So within a matter weeks of starting this project, we had kids playing this game -- kids of all ages from over 40, to 5 and 6 year olds. And we discovered the fun quickly, and that way we could really add a variety of different gameplay modes to this game. We have a full collectible card game system, and that orients toward a little bit of an older crowd. So 10 to 12 year olds can come in and have a collectible card game experience that also brings in the kind of Marvel fan who really likes collecting original art, that kind of thing. We have over 600 pieces of original art created for the collectible card game portion alone. Then we've got a cooperative game that lets 4 players play together; the card game lets you challenge your friends, so that's player versus player. And then the game world and the headquarters let you do more solo play, where you explore and do your own thing. For a game that requires a lot of focus testing, do you have facilities on site for it? JR: I actually made sure we spent a little bit of money building a test lab right in our studio. We bring in cub scouts, and we bring in hardcore gamers, and we brought in parents, and we brought in girl scouts, and they just play the game. And we get the greatest feedback right away -- if something's not fun, they're going to tell us. And if they're having fun, we're going to see that and we'll just kind of pour the gasoline on that part of the game and set it on fire and just go. Sometimes with kids you can't necessarily trust if they're going to give you an honest, straightforward opinion. They might say they're having fun, when really all they're doing is running into the corner the whole time -- they're just excited to be the Hulk. Well, we actually set it up so we can record how they play, and we have the parents there and we really try to analyze what they were doing in the game and why, and make adjustments as often as we could. So from about four weeks into the project we already had kids playing every part of the game, actually. We had prototypes of the card game; we had prototypes of the customizable housing system, and the headquarters; we had the brawler combat, and we had the game world where you could fly. We did all of that up and running very, very quickly. And that really let us tune and try to focus everything as fast as possible.

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