During the Develop Conference being held in the UK, Traveller's Tales publishing VP Jonathan Smith discussed the art of making games for children - an area in which his company is well-versed, being responsible for the blockbuster series of Lego-based games that kicked off with Lego Star Wars
Children are the best players of games, Smith argued in his amusingly titled lecture, 'How To Make Children Cry', and if they can be delighted, then developers can be proud.
It isn't always obvious what will be successful in that space - Lego Star Wars
itself was frequently underestimated before release, but the risk paid off. Its developers immersed themselves in Lego, and are supplied virtual carpets of Lego pieces.
Smith explained that Traveller's Tales believes play is intrinsically good for you - it shapes children's imaginations, which in turn shape how they experience the world, and how they learn.
The Lego Manifesto
A number of concepts and decisions drive how Traveller's Tales approaches its series. In keeping with the theme of Lego blocks, the games must have player-controlled character transformation and player-controlled environment transformation, and they must allow people to play together.
The team also attempts to keep from keeping the games too easy - the intended difficulty balance is called "the springy path." The springy path, Smith explained, allows players to easily get through the game if they desire, while allowing more adventurous players to veer off and create a more unique experience.
Lego Group, the company that manufactures the toys, has cited noted psychologists Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Hans Henrik Knoop for their theories about the "flow" of play - the natural balance between challenges and skills - and Traveller's Tales relies on those theories as well. Children like to learn through facing challenges, Smith said, but when a game is too hard they feel stressed and give up. When a game doesn't allow a child to flourish, it has failed.
As a game designer, it is inexcusible to let a player flounder without giving help, Smith argued. The game must make the player feel as if he or she belongs in its world; it must be welcoming.
Learning Is Life
Starting with the hypothesis that games are teachers, Smith asked, "What makes a good teacher?"
A government study put that question to students. It found that students tend to enjoy particular areas of curriculum when they involve activity and autonomy. Conversely, they tend to dislike particular areas when they lack opportunities for autonomy, involve sitting still for long periods of time, or seem to more often offer the experience of failure.
Students dislike bullying and fighting, punishments, attention seekers, teachers who don't recognize their students or who complain, and being inside when it's sunny outside.
Good teachers, Smith said, explain things clearly and properly; turn teaching into problem solving rather than simple information delivery; take small steps towards the goal; have an intimite knowledge of the subject matter, including interesting and unusual facts; and reward children for learning. That last quality can be notably compared to the currently popular "achievement" systems in games.
Traveller's Tales tries to apply these findings to its games, and to learn from its mistakes, Smith claimed, with the goal of making children not cry anymore. There is always room to improve, he concluded, and they must always strive harder.