Creating real joy in games is incredibly difficult, says Double Fine’s Nathan Martz. In the development of Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, one of the studio’s biggest lessons was that when creating games for kids and family, joy and accessibility are exactly the same thing.
Martz isn’t a parent and admits to a limited understanding of early childhood development. That’s where children and gaming expert Carla Fisher could help in identifying the actual issues and problems that would be part of the game’s development.
“My ability to close my eyes and put my hand on my head is a function of the fact that my body knows where my hand is or where my head is whether I am looking at myself or not,” says Martz. That ability – called proprioception – tends to be poor in children, which means they struggle with asymmetrical gestures and frequently confuse their left and right.
“The first thing we realized we had to do was add very forgiving gestures,” Martz emphasizes. Now, Once Upon A Monster will understand if, for example, the player is asked to raise his or her left hand and instead raises the right hand.
The goal of most Kinect development is usually to create as naturalistic a relationship with body movement as possible, but for a game like Once Upon A Monster things were a little bit different: “For us, actually, our goal was to filter out false negatives,” Martz explains.
Real-time one to one visual feedback is also especially key when working with small children. But instruction and gesture modeling is a special challenge in the game’s case. Except for critical communication, like proximity to the Kinect device, HUDs aren’t especially useful in a game like this.
Players frequently ignore them – kids most of all – and such displays make it uniquely challenging to demonstrate three-dimensional depth-related gestures. Voice commands aren’t helpful either; players frequently miss them, and some gestures and behaviors are hard to describe.
“Whenever we ask players to do something for the first time, we make sure a monster shows you how to do it first… and we require you to repeat it,” he says. Effective modeling eventually does includes voice reinforcement, which once a player has actually learned a behavior, helps remind should the young player forget or become distracted.
Inspired by the original vision of Sesame Street, which saw parents and children “co-viewing” the experience in a shared fashion, “we really wanted a game that kids and parents could enjoy together… where the parent is having fun, and not just doing it for the child’s sake,” says Martz.
The challenge of capturing that dual audience can be addressed partially through humor, which tends to resonate with adult. The game intentionally leverages classic characters that many of today’s parents might be fond of from their own childhoods, and integrates a constructive mix of humor both for kids as well as adults.
Bright colors and an engaging palette are “kid friendly,” but one goal of the game was to develop a game that would be beautiful for all ages to look at, with visually-compelling detail and the polish of technical achievement.
“We did not have a blockbuster budget for this game; we were trying to be very economical, and one of the ways we did that was to leverage our fixed camera,” says Martz. “All of our scenes are dioramas… all the corners we could cut would help create what felt like a totally polished game… without totally breaking the bank.”
Seamless drop-in, drop-out multiplayer was another important feature that takes the chaos of the family environment into account, as the game is likely to be played in living rooms where kids and adults may come and go. So as long as there’s a player in front of the camera, Once Upon A Monster’s gameplay won’t stop.
"We wanted it to be friendly to the rhythm of family life,” Martz says.
The biggest finding for Double Fine was that “the best fun is ageless,” in Martz’s words. The studio was anxious about compartmentalizing the activities, as if things that would be fun for kids would end up too separated from things that are fun for kids.
But the team was pleasantly surprised to learn that “the most popular activities with kids are the most popular with adults,” according to Martz. Any uncertainty can be addressed by the basic idea that parents generally are happy when they see their kids having fun: “When in doubt, we make it fun for the child first,” he suggests.
Yet “we never wanted to be the 'Tickle-Me Elmo of Sesame games,'” Martz says. Ultimately, Sesame Street is an educational brand – yet unfortunately education is age-specific. That’s to say what’s relevant and interesting to a child depends on his or her age. And didactic education – repetition, memorization and similar– isn’t especially entertaining.
“We decided the game would be primarily entertainment,” he says. “This wasn’t going to be like ‘learn your ABCs and your 123s’.”
The Sesame brand employs an idea called “whole child education,” which focuses on relatable life lessons like how to be aware of the needs and feelings of others, how to share and how to respect others. The team instead decided to focus on this kind of learning for the game.
“That’s what all of the educational content in Once Upon a Monster is about," Martz explains.
So how to implement that? Simple things can be profound, such as a scene where Elmo observes the sadness of a monster who is depressed on his birthday. So Once Upon A Monster’s narrative focuses on individual problems, emotions, aspirations and unfulfilled needs – in each section, a monster needs assistance with something or expresses an emotional condition. Thus by engaging with the narrative, children are thinking about empathy and kind problem-solving, a simple way of conveying life lessons.
Ultimately, Martz concludes, the biggest takeaways from the project were that joy and accessibility are equal, it’s important to understand kids, true fun has no age range, UI is essential and that education can be fun.
But he has a more personal takeaway, too. “Happy is hard… after 18 months of work on that game, happy is terribly hard,” he says. “But boy, joy is worth it.”
Pursuing games about joy can be hard to do in the modern game industry, if the complex learning and development process for Once Upon A Monster is any indication. “But if you actually take a chance to do this, you will be grateful,” says Martz.
“As an industry, I’m ashamed that we explore only a generally tiny slice of the human experience,” he continues. “If we want to reach a broader audience, we need… to make our games about feeling differently from ‘fight or flight’.”
“We get a finite number of ideas we can express in the time that we have, and it’s incumbent on us… to make those ideas count. ...Do something worth doing."