[WayForward designer Stephan Frost combines experience and literature to delineate two schools of thought on how children's games handle multiplayer, and on approaching a young audience for testing and implementation of design ideas.]
The three major consoles out right now have numerous differences. However, one rather interesting commonality they all share lies in their top-selling games -- the majority of them are competitive multiplayer. There are completely different demographics between them, but it is an interesting fact that people who play games like interacting with others while playing. This is also a common feature among children's games.
There seem to be two types of competitive multiplayer themes prevalent in children's video game design that I have noticed in my tenure working in games: accommodating vs. empowering. These themes come from two schools of thought in game design. One is to create an "interactive experience", while the other is to stick to a more traditional definition of a competitive game experience.
In this analysis, I will use examples I have encountered in my career with developers and publishers as well as my personal gaming experiences.
More specifically, I'll look at how game designers approach children's competitive multiplayer games. I will also delve into why I believe we have two forms of competitive gaming from a child psychology perspective.
My goal is ultimately to provide effective tips for reading what children are looking for in games to better modify the gaming experience.
The game defines rules but ultimately it is up to the player to win the game. Their choices and skill level determine a win or loss. Games of this nature are aimed at ages seven to seventy.
I worked as a production assistant at Disney Interactive Studios and worked on the multi-SKU game Cars: Mater-National Championship. This was a game that allowed players to explore Radiator Springs openly (which kids love doing in games, by the way), and also allowed them to race head to head if they wanted.
The designers and programmers at THQ had implemented numerous moves that more experienced players could use in the race to succeed but were not crucial to victory. Boosts, slides, and knowing the short cuts were the tools to gain a win.
The only helping hand that was given to losing players was a higher top speed while trailing the leading player. However, this could still be counterbalanced if the leading player knew all the moves and shortcuts; it was just a slight bonus to make things a bit more competitive.
Cars: Mater-National Championship
The competitive game experience relies mostly on the players skill. There are winners and losers and it is typically the players who practice more that win.
A great example of this can be seen in the Kung Fu Panda multiplayer mini games. These are easy to play, difficult to master games. Anyone can play the game and understand it, but those who practice more will likely win. All of the games offer a clear distinction of a winner vs. a loser. There is also direct competition, because all players are on screen at the same time. This means a choice by the player can affect another player immediately.
This form of gameplay is more of what I would describe as a "ride", wherein victory is not largely dependent on skill. This is typically for a much younger audience, usually for the five to seven year old range -- but anyone could play it.
There was a cancelled game I had worked on that was a family-themed Wii Balance Board game, similar to Wii Sports Resort. There were numerous activities that players could compete in for the best time or highest score.
One such activity was skateboarding. The goal was to cross the finish line at another in the fastest time possible. That was the extent of the competition.
The publisher had requested that if the player were to step off the balance board, they would eventually cross the finish line. Even if they did nothing whatsoever, they would eventually finish.
The focus of the game was the visual aesthetics of the level; it was the player's experience of the environment. The thought behind this design choice was that this was a game that the whole family could enjoy; it was like a movie that the player could interact with slightly.
These games are the antithesis of hardcore. A great example of this design philosophy can be seen in the game Happy Feet, where games are significantly easy for any (and I mean any) player to win.
Wii Music is another example; there is little focus on competition, despite some of it being a points-based game. Unlike Guitar Hero or Rock Band, there are limited penalties for playing the game "incorrectly". In fact, the player can play the game in whatever way they please, and will still complete a level. IGN said in its review that it was "a noise maker tied to a series of gestures" and that is the gist. Anyone can play without the fear of defeat.
These games also tend to be more turn-based games. There is no direct competition because only one person is on screen at a time which reduces the sense of urgency in the competition based games.