Young children are an interesting market to create games for. For one, you’re trying to sell to a group that literally has no money. What a screaming toddler wants, isn’t necessarily what is bought for them. It’s a lot like buying pet food, I suppose. Marketers make the canned cat food as appetizing as possible for the human. When it comes to creating games for kids up to age 10, you really have to cheat towards creating music for a sane, intelligent adult. In short, what terrible, loud, repetitive noises a kid loves to hear, may not be the best choice for a game’s soundtrack even if that child is the target audience.
In this entry, I will be talking about the trials and tribulations of composing for children games.
Kid-don’ts or Kid-tested
There are certain things kids love to hear. Horns. Slide whistles. Beeps. Honks. Noises, the louder the better. Kids also respond very well to repetition. I’ve watched my son play a game where the music repeated on a 15 second loop... the most innane and horrible music. After ten minutes of him entranced in his playing (and me wanting to stick a screwdriver in my ears), I asked him what he thought about the music. He looked up at me and said, "I love it!"
Of course he loved it. There were two measures of music on repeat. There was a funny horn. I couldn’t imagine what the composer was thinking, except that there might have been severe data constraints, or, the composer had a brilliant insight into a 6 year old’s mind! Even if effective for its target audience, as the one with the credit card, I said no to further purchases from that genre/company.
Kid-dos or Parent approved
There are definitely ways to appeal to a child without resorting to ridiculously repetitive noise-making instruments and mind-mushing melodies. Kid-friendly instruments include marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, synth brass and strings, and electronic drumkits. You can create melodies and harmonies with a bit of intelligence to them, and certainly strive for something longer than 15 seconds. I keep mentioning the short loops because this isn't an isolated incident. Honestly, if you’re stuck with a very short composition for whatever reason, keep it percussion only so your mind can't easily pick out the recurring loop.
Things parents want to hear when making purchases are friendly, soft, and intelligent compositions. They definitely want their kids to be happy, so it should be happy and fun, and not “stuffy”. Some other good choices are rock, techno, nothing too hard and loud. Always keep in mind that your target audience for the game isn’t necessarily the target audience your producer wants you composing for.
If you're stuck making songs for kid-apps and games that are educational or for a very young audience, take a look at the flow of information. Often these games require prompts from the user, which may not happen on queue as it would with a more cognisive player. During these moments, make sure you use appropriate background, ambient music, or that you get the music/audio to taper off. That way you won't have annoyed parents listening to quick-loops on repeat.
Another approach is to have no music at all. Instead, make sound effects especially rewarding and melodic. Keep the music loop to main menu or cutscenes for branding purposes, and save the ears of your older listeners which still engaging your younger audience.
When deciding how to move forward with a kids game, figure out if you want just atmospheric sounds and subtle ambient music should be used instead of typical cartoony/kidsy music. Often, the type of game you’re creating is the deciding factor. Have discussions with the leads about your opinions, and always keep your target audience, and target paying audience in mind. The end goal is to create a soundtrack that doesn’t get tiring and turned off. Treat players to a well-balanced listening experience, even those just learning to love games!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.