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Piggybacking: Gaming Across the Generation Gap
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Piggybacking: Gaming Across the Generation Gap

December 10, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Leveling the Playing Field

The third and most desirable method, leveling the playing field, is also the most difficult to do. It is achieved by employing mechanics that nullify the reflexes of the young and subvert the wisdom of the old. This is not to say that some people aren't going to be better at this type of game than others, just that the relative performance graph would not correlate directly with age. Ideally this leaves the player to fend with nothing more than reason, an attribute that develops early and plateaus.

Full Throttle, a game released in 1995 by LucasArts, contains several puzzles that appeal to logic over experience. For example: you come to an unlocked roll-top door in a high wall, which can be raised by pulling on an adjacent hanging chain. The objective is to get to the other side of the wall. Common sense dictates the solution has something to do with pulling the chain, but this doesn't work because passing through the door necessitates letting go of the chain, and releasing the chain sends the door crashing immediately shut. The solution is to lock the garage door -- thus fixing the chain in place -- and then use the chain to climb over the wall.

You don't need to know how doors or pulleys work beforehand to figure this puzzle out. In fact, you don't need to know anything beforehand -- all information required to solve the puzzle is presented by or can be learned within the puzzle itself.

Many adventure games take this premise to its limit, abandoning much of natural law by creating worlds very different from our own, forcing you to reject many fundamental preconceptions and learn arbitrary ones. This type of worldcrafting, while time consuming and difficult for the designer, is perfect for Piggybacking. It may even tip the balance against mom and dad, whose world experience could conceivably work against them.

LucasArts' classic PC adventure game, Full Throttle

Keep it Simple, Smithy

All of the methods described above can work as long as a modicum of care is employed during implementation. Counterintuitive as it may seem, simplicity does not come easy. It's quite difficult to pull off, and even more difficult to pull off well. It's far more challenging to convey relatively complex GUI or story elements with short and concise sentences than to go on some pretentious long-winded rant about, say, gaming across the generation gap. The urge to use the word "jejune" can be surprisingly overwhelming at times2.

Having originally come from the art side of production, writing for children's games fascinates me in much the same way as modeling a character or an object within a strict polygon limit -- at some stage of self-critique you become the judge and jury in a trial for each polygon's continued existence. You have to objectively trim and rework without mercy. What polygons ultimately remain must be justified and exploited to their full potential. Just swap "polygons" for "words" and it's an accurate analogue. Every word matters. It's certainly worth investing the time and money it takes to make sure it's done right.

Time to Get Down, Daddy's Neck Hurts

Tragically, when writing about the games business, many paragraphs begin with adverbs like "tragically", and many publishers and developers skimp on writers when it comes to creating children's games.

Even worse, many writers skimp on writing when working on children's games -- an opportunity squandered. It might not be such an issue if you aren't concerned with appeasing the adult spectator role, but if a good work ethic isn't enough to disavow you of this notion, it's a good idea to remember who possesses the buying power in the parent-child relationship. While your primary target demographic may not notice shoddy wordsmithing, your secondary one probably will.

So the next time you find yourself designing a children's title, remember there may be a literate and highly critical parent watching and judging your every move. You may not have the time or resources to level the playing field, so avoid condescension, encourage lateral thinking, and throw in an occasional bone for the old-timers. Not only will you expand your audience, it's just possible the result will create a lasting memory as a bonding experience between family members.

1 Coincidentally, the New York Times recently covered how Sesame Street originated as a Piggyback show (albeit not in those words), but has become increasingly puerile over the years - to the point where the upcoming release of season one on DVD carries the following disclaimer: "These early 'Sesame Street' episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today's preschool child."

2 Ask Woody Allen.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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