[How should game creators build titles to appeal to wider audiences? Gamasutra held a kid-infested focus group and came away with 10 key points that will help games better reach the mainstream.]
Game designers are best placed to know what people need from play mechanics and game structure. But the best of our experience and craft is no match for face time with the demographic at whom the game is aimed.
This is particularly true in the emerging markets of casual, social and family gamers. Sit down to play a game with a young family and you are immediately aware of the successes or shortcomings in the games they are playing.
In this, the first of a series of focus group sessions where we at Gamasutra consider what a particular group of gamers really want from their games, we have some hands on time with some family gamers. We ask: What is it that families with young children want from the games they play?
What we did
In an attempt to discover how family-friendly our consoles and games really are, we collected together a selection of families, games, and liberal helpings of soft drinks.
By the end of the session we had notes as long as our arm, quotes by the bucket load, and a head spinning with feedback. All this distilled down to the ten issues that top these (potential) gamers' concerns.
Our controlled laboratory conditions (otherwise known as this journalist's front room) proved ideal for replicating the sorts of sessions seen in shared family spaces across the globe. Each of our families had children ranging from two to six and so represented the extreme lower end of the gaming spectrum. However, they also each included parents who wanted to play as well, sharing the experiences with their kids.
We had them play a mix of games comprising both those aimed at a younger audience alongside some more general games. This ranged from some film franchises such as Cars and Ratatouille on 360, PS3 and Wii to some more child-specific games such as EA Playground on Wii and a clutch of DS games including Pac 'n Roll and Nintendogs. Into the mix we also threw a healthy helping of driving games (Sega Rally) and a dash of sport (Madden) and some hardcore classics such as Mario Galaxy and Gran Turismo HD.
Warning: Nintendo stock photo. Actual family toothiness may vary.
Before we get into the specifics, let's set the scene with some general observations. The majority of the parents with less exposure to gaming seemed quite fazed by the conventional controllers.
Sarah voiced a common frustration: "By the time I look down and figure out which button to press, it's already too late and I've crashed." "Why do you need so many buttons? All I want to do is steer the car," chimed in Abi, another of the mums in the group. One of the dads ended up just watching for the majority of the time, stating "I just press the wrong buttons and reset the thing" after managing to quit a game and return to the 360's dashboard with a couple of miss-directed presses.
The parents seemed genuinely impressed and surprised by the level of detail on the PS3 and 360 games. "It looks just like the television. Am I controlling that? That's mad! I can't believe you can even see the driver in the car." Dave, one of our dads, was particularly impressed with the engine sounds, "I can hear the Toyota hum as it approaches, I can tell who is behind me without even looking -- now that is very impressive."
The kids were also vocal about their enjoyment. "Look, mum's flying the paper aeroplane", remarked one little boy who was excited to see his mum at the controller. "Nice Bear daddy, nice bear!" was one little girl's response to the "Nice Spare" award in Wii Sports bowling. They all seemed to enjoy repeating the various sounds and words of the games, adding their own cadences and interpretations of the on-screen action.