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August 18, 2017
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Making Games for Toddlers and How I Got Here
by Todd Mitchell on 02/23/17 11:04:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

At the age of 17, I passed around my first game prototype. I used one of the first versions of GameMaker to create something resembling Pong, but featuring two of my friends—I didn’t put myself in for some reason—jumping sky-high with rocket shoes to bounce a ball back and forth. I had big dreams about getting through college and creating gaming experiences my friends would never stop talking about.

At age 31, I just shipped my first commercial game. It’s designed, as Apple classifies it, “for ages 5 and under.” Let me briefly explain how I got here, and I’ll share some of the lessons I’ve learned that help me navigate these new surroundings.

All Trained up and Nowhere to Go

The game industry wasn’t strongly represented here in the Greater St. Louis area when I graduated in 2005. By the time I’d left school, I had sent my info to every industry-related employer twice. No one had anything for me to do—no callbacks, and definitely no interviews. I didn’t have my act together enough to survive a relocation, so I accepted an entry-level QA job in non-gaming commercial software, which led to a successful decade of development at jobs I didn’t really want to do. I collaborated on game jams and kept the dream in my heart all the while. I held out hope for the future.

I worked, I dreamed, and I married an exceptionally bright woman. Not long after, we had an exceptionally bright son.

As a clueless first-time parent, I did everything I could to keep up with our child’s basic needs. I certainly didn’t know how to help a kid with a sharp mind and a thirst for information, so I tried to spend as much time with him as possible, remain attentive, and pick up on anything he showed an interest in. It really seemed like he wanted to learn letters as soon as he could hold his own head up. Awesome, I thought, we’ll work on numbers and the alphabet.

The problem with teaching a young child that’s ahead of his or her age milestones is that the toys and teaching aids tend to come with certain physical and motor skill expectations that a given child may not yet meet. We had no shortage of tablets with complicated instructions, toys with buttons and switches our son couldn’t easily manipulate, and even desks that taught great information, but required the child to stand or sit up safely in chairs meant for bigger kids.

I stumbled upon an answer by accident.

Press Any Button

Most gamers will tell you they play to unwind and reduce stress. Unfortunately, they’re able to do the least of it when they need it most. Parenting is a great example. The only games I consistently got my hands on before our son was about 18 months old were Clash of Clans and Clash Royale. When he got a little bigger, I noticed that Royale’s main menu with the big Battle button caught my son’s attention every time he was around. He’d do anything he could to hit that button every time he saw it, locking me in a four or five-minute match with a stranger online.

On a whim, I coded a short Lua program using the Love2D framework that would show one "cloud button” over a blue-sky background. It displayed a different letter of the alphabet each time my son popped the previous cloud by tapping on it. He was fascinated. I took it back to the lab and got down to business.

Over the next five months, I built out the app, adding voice-over to pronounce the letters of the alphabet as they appeared, lowercase letters, and the numbers 1 through 25. I added a multiple-choice quiz game, not expecting him to be ready for it immediately, but to have it available when he advanced further. I added soundboards displaying all the letters and numbers on their own buttons just like one of his toys, and added no special rules or objectives, so he could play with them and learn independently. Finally, I livened things up with little animated characters and scenes, adding background music I composed mostly using my iPhone and tablet while hanging out with him.

The result is Letter Taps. A game I’ve now released in the iOS and Google Play stores, demo’ed at a local elementary school, and even had the pleasure of showing to Clarissa/Bear in the Big Blue House creator Mitchell Kriegman. Word of mouth is starting to spread, and I find myself in control of an educational product line for young children. It’s not the same dream I had as a teenager, but at this stage, nothing could feel more meaningful, and I’m having the time of my life.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

Conventional Design Means Nothing

Literally. An intuitive interface and thoughtful instructions don’t necessarily mean a thing to anyone who can’t read yet and doesn’t fully understand the concept of a button. I designed a system of very simple level presentation and navigation using no text at all outside the info area created for parents and teachers.

I learned that a child under five years old can often pick up on one well-defined activity on screen, just like Royale’s Battle button. It’s up to you to impart knowledge carefully and gradually from there.

Kids Like Things We Don’t

When we play games that we find repetitive and predictable as adults, we’re unlikely to speak highly about them or recommend them to our friends, yet these same elements are captivating for kids. When we figure out what's coming, we tend to be disappointed; kids are thrilled. The teaching levels in Letter Taps simply go through their material, present a bit of fanfare (for reinforcement, but also to mark the end of the character set each one teaches), and the process repeats from the beginning until the player quits back to the menu. It feels too simple and even unfulfilling for us grown-ups, but it’s important to remember that practice through repetition is vital, particularly to teaching kids and helping them remember.

Smartphones and Tablets Aren’t Built for Kids

This is obvious, but comes with implications you’ll have to plan for. A kid can’t easily hold an iPhone 6s Plus in landscape mode and interact with the middle of the screen. They also won’t likely grasp the subtleties of touch screen use like only touching the part of the screen you’re interacting with. To work at all, Letter Taps has to be able to iterate through multiple simultaneous touches, looking for anything the user might be intentionally trying to do. This is because my son has one palm on the side or corner of the screen at almost all times. If I don’t look past the first touch, the game is useless.

The other side of this topic is that kids will pick up things you never would have expected. My son swipes banner notifications off the top of the screen with the greatest of ease, rarely opening a different app by mistake. I found that young players appreciated non-trivial actions (interaction with background characters, etc.) that weren’t immediately obvious, if they didn’t interfere with the actual objective. Who doesn’t love a little Easter egg?

The Rules Are Completely Different

It was no surprise that special rules apply to kids’ apps, but if you don’t seek out the guidelines early, you run a real risk of hurting your release schedule when it counts most. Letter Taps tracks absolutely nothing, doesn’t advertise anything, and doesn’t communicate with anything, and I was still required to post a privacy policy if I wanted the “made for ages 5 and under” designation. Some advertising is allowed, but not if it links anywhere or presents a purchase opportunity. Certain tracking is allowed but it may not impact the ads. It’s an intricate set of rules that you need to know as soon as possible, and they don’t perfectly match up between the stores.

Community Is Everything

Even as mostly a one-man team, I learned that development of educational games isn’t a lonely experience. It’s true that you don’t get the same opportunities to interact with eager players leading up to release or run a community forum or any of the other benefits of working with older players, but parents and educators place a high value on quality teaching tools, and they will go to unexpected lengths to support you as a developer.

Near the 75% or 80% mark of this project, I answered a call for volunteers to help with a local school district’s “We Love to Code” week. I volunteered in December for Code.org’s Hour of Code event and never got a call, so I thought it would be nice to get a chance to help after all, and I was tremendously impressed that a school district put this kind of emphasis on my line of work.

When I reached out, I was matched up with an elementary-level library coordinator who I hoped would schedule me for a short session of coding help in a classroom. Instead, the school set me up with a special speaking engagement during a students and parents event, as well as about 10 classroom sessions the following day to talk about my job and demo my game. That kind of testing and interaction time with kids close to the target age range (and many kids well outside of it) was invaluable. It was also immensely rewarding on a personal level to speak with kids and teachers who were enthusiastic about my work.

Creative reaching out has also been helpful when moving from development to launch and marketing. Who’s your favorite streamer or indie game blogger who focuses strictly on educational games? Perhaps you see my problem. It was tougher than I expected, finding any coverage on Twitter. I had to go further outside the box. I drafted up a couple of personalized messages to living legends of kids’ entertainment, hoping only for a short quote or something I could include in press kits and appeals for coverage. Within half an hour, Mitchell Kriegman tweeted out a link and words that were far kinder than I ever could have asked for. It absolutely made my year.

Success Looks Different Here

Now, with the game available for download, a modest amount of buzz and sales trickling in, I’ve come to a few realizations about what success looks like in this category. Sure, I hoped to move a thousand units immediately after launch and take the Editors’ Picks down a peg shortly after—none of which has happened, I promise—but I’ve had a launch free of any technical catastrophes, I’ve received positive feedback from teachers and parents, and I’ve participated in a few discussions about potential licensing at schools and educational organizations. I know no one is playing Letter Taps on Twitch right now, but I’ve gained tentative approval from a major curated directory of apps for educators.

Success is a long-term goal in this market, and the result will depend on my continued efforts to reach the right people and provide a worthy product. Meanwhile, new kids start learning the alphabet every day.

This shouldn’t be considered a postmortem on the project by any means; I do intend to write one when the time is right. This story is still unfolding. It’s difficult to say what the future holds for this product, and more difficult to anticipate what project will come next. With a ton of trial and error, and a shipped game under my belt, I can tell you I’m hooked on the process. I want to keep learning, keep creating, and hopefully, keep helping players learn and discover along the way.

 


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