If You’re Making A Kids Game, Make A Kids Game

This is one of the games we got my three year old son for Christmas this past year.  Like a lot of kids (boys especially), he’s very interested in anything related to cars.  So against my wishes, I walked into Gamestop and bought this movie game for my son.

Now, most gamers know that history says movie tie-in games are typically sub-par.  There are usually many reasons for this:  hard date to sim-ship with movie, dependancies and interactions with IP owner, game design (what’s cool to watch isn’t necessarily cool to play), and lastly, the team making the game.

But I digress, this isn’t about whether or not this movie game is any good.  The game is descent, but I think the developers did a poor job making a game for their target demographic.  When I think about a Cars game, I envision kids of all ages playing this game, probably from the ages of 2-10.

So like I said, I bought this game for my son last year.  He loves the Cars movie and was excited to try this game out.  We opened the game and loaded it into our PS3.  I was immediately disappointed while navigating through the main menu to start up his game.  If this is a kids game, why is the main menu so complicated?  There’s a reason why you see so many kids playing iOS games.  One of the reasons is that the interfaces are simple, not to mention how easy most games are to pickup without any explanation.  Cars’ interface problem is even worse when the kid has to manually load his save game, press the circle button after the load is complete, and etc.

Ok, so somehow your child made it into the game, grats!  Unfortunately, now he’s greeted by the open world nature of Cars’ story mode.  Why on earth would you think it’s a good idea to force kids to drive around a world to find floating icons that represent the game’s different modes (races, mini-games, etc.)?  I’m not sure, nor do I know why they would expect a child to be able to understand and use a mini-map.  This is starting to sound extremely negative, that’s not my intent.  I just want to point out things that make sense for older players, but not necessarily children.  There is a map that you can access from the start menu which is actually useful to teleport directly to a game mode.  Man, if only Burnout Paradise had this feature!

So I’ve talked about starting the game and getting into a game, next let’s talk about playing the game.  To help, let me use my son’s favorite PS3 racing game, Motorstorm:  Pacific Rift to compare and contrast.  Motorstorm is tough.  It’s meant to be pretty tough as it’s targeting a different demographic.  Motorstorm’s tracks don’t have guardrails.  There are different paths that are better for certain types of cars.  Your car can overheat if you boost for too long.  Your steering is affected by crashes.  Even with all these challenges my son can still finish 1st.  This is almost never the case in Cars.

I believe he can sometimes finish 1st in Motorstorm because the AI and the game itself are more forgiving.  This is something that us developers sometimes struggle with when we create games.  We want players to feel challenged and to enjoy the content we create, but sometimes we have to be reminded that the player has bought the game so just let them have fun.

Anyhow, back to comparing and contrasting Motorstorm vs Cars.  Motorstorm can very quickly determine when you can hit select to reset your car to the track.  Cars, on the other hand, takes a long time to realize that you might need help.  It also feels like you lose less of your position in Motorstorm when you use this feature.  Motostorm’s AI drivers will crash occasionally much like a human would; Cars’ drivers almost never crash.  I will admit though that creating easy, but believable AI is harder than creating difficult AI.  Motorstorm has gameplay beyond boost (Cars also has boost) that a player can master to cause enemy drivers to crash thus increasing their odds to win a race.  Cars’ default controller configuration uses the non-standard scheme of X button for gas, R2 for boost.  This is another pet peeve of mine.  Why do some developers refuse to embrace popular configurations?  Lastly, the AI in Cars blatantly cheat right in front of your face.  You’ll see the enemy cars pull away from your car even while not boosting.

Having said all of this, my son still likes to play the Cars game, but he doesn’t enjoy it as much as Motorstorm and only plays it a fraction of the time that he can sit and play Motorstorm in one sitting.  I’ll admit that I’ve sat down on a couple of occasions to play with him and Cars is difficult, even as a 35 year old adult who is very comfortable on a Dual Shock.  🙂

TL;DR – Kids games should have simple interfaces, simple game mechanics and controls, and beatable opponents, especially so on easy difficulty.

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