There's a sea change when it comes to kids' gaming, as evidenced by recent turnabouts by publishers that had been successful in that space.
Take, for example, THQ -- which had a good thing going making kids' games from popular TV licenses like SpongeBob and movies like Puss in Boots and Cars. In January, the company announced it was departing that strategy in favor of growing its digital business.
And, last year, Ubisoft talked up kids' PC MMO Petz World, but this year it is nowhere to be found.
"While painful," said VP of digital publishing Chris Early, "we realized we need to take that back. Kids aren't playing on that platform that much right now."
Indeed, there's a lot kids that used to be playing that are no longer playing, says Carla Engelbrecht Fisher, president and founder of No Crusts Interactive, a children's game design firm, and a consultant on kids' games.
"There's this 'app mania' going on – a growing interest by both kids and their parents in the very accessible touch screen handheld market, specifically smartphones and tablets," she explains.
"There's a realization on the part of parents who previously just wanted to keep their toddlers and preschoolers occupied that these devices are super easy to use, that their kids who had been struggling with the usability of a computer mouse or with a console's buttons are finding the touch screens nice and cognitively accessible. And they're cheap! Who wants to spend $50 on a console game that your child may or may not like or could get tired of very quickly?"
And older kids – meaning between the elementary school and tweens range – are also finding that apps like Angry Birds and Tetris "may be more focused on what appeals to them and may be a simpler game experience than the huge online virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Habbo which offer amazing amounts of content, maybe too much content, much of it not the good solid gameplay that the child may be seeking," Fisher adds.
As a result, she says, there's been a shift away from some of the larger console games – and even some of the kid-friendly hardware like the LeapPad, the Leapster, and the Fisher Price machines – to smaller apps that take advantage of the portability and accessibility of smartphones and tablets.
"I call it the 'pass back' effect," she explains. "I may be standing in line at the grocery store and need to keep my child amused, so I pass them my phone and say 'Here, play!' I mean, what's two bucks to have an app on the phone that my child can play with?"
She cites a few examples of developers who "get" the current trends and are "doing things just right," including 5th Cell which took its 2009 DS puzzle game Scribblenauts and released an iOS version, Scribblenauts Remix, in October, featuring selected levels from the previous game plus new levels for the iOS version.
"It's not just a port," Fisher explains. "It's thoughtfully put together."
Then, she says, there's Where's My Water? developed by Creature Freep and published in September by Disney Mobile in both iOS and Android versions.
"Disney is trying different markets," she says, "as is Nickelodeon's Nick Jr., which is doing a nice job of exploring the different spaces as well."
But what about console games? Have young children rejected them altogether?
Not completely, says Fisher, but she sees a progression where youngsters are playing the mobile apps and then embracing the console titles as they get older and develop the appropriate skills. When the next generation of console hardware emerges, she adds, console game developers had better understand the transformation that has taken place and what sort of games are in demand.
"Consoles will intrinsically offer something that handhelds can't," she says, "like, for instance, the idea of 'co-play.' The one thing consoles do amazingly well is to allow parents and children to play together, like in the Xbox title Once Upon A Monster. Having a four-person family sit around and have fun together isn't something that can be done as easily on an iPad or on networked phones. There's a real need for fostering that kind of experience."
But if one platform is going to take the lead in younger kids' games, Fisher says she'd put her money on the handheld apps, which "are just more accessible and more financially appealing," she says.