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Mini-game experience packs big punch with kids

Depicted as the next hot niche for the gaming industry, purveyors of kids IPs have been hopping on the casual online bandwagon. In the past 12 months, Nickelodeon pledged to spend US$100 million developing its casual game offering and Electronic Arts established EA Casual Entertainment to capture part of the estimated US$2.25-billion casual market. So it's no wonder that video game publishers have been tapping into the casual gaming ethos to amp up their console titles. In fact, including mini-games in kid titles is becoming a standard operating procedure and is helping gamecos widen their reach beyond the core gamer to bring in families and girls.
October 1, 2008

Depicted as the next hot niche for the gaming industry, purveyors of kids IPs have been hopping on the casual online bandwagon. In the past 12 months, Nickelodeon pledged to spend US$100 million developing its casual game offering and Electronic Arts established EA Casual Entertainment to capture part of the estimated US$2.25-billion casual market. So it’s no wonder that video game publishers have been tapping into the casual gaming ethos to amp up their console titles. In fact, including mini-games in kid titles is becoming a standard operating procedure and is helping gamecos widen their reach beyond the core gamer to bring in families and girls.

But what exactly constitutes a mini-game? Is it different from an online casual game? They both share the same characteristics of simplicity and accessibility. Gui Karyo, EVP of operations for family-friendly gameco Majesco Entertainment, categorizes the activity as a string of clearly segmented, short experiences. ‘You’re faced with a challenge, you perform and then get feedback for that challenge,’ he says. So if it’s accessible, gives positive reinforcement quickly and is still a satisfying experience after multiple plays, you’ve likely got a mini-game on your hands.

And these types of games appeal to a particularly sought-after audience – younger kids and girls. ‘We believe the six to 13 age range is a place where there are more and more gamers who aren’t looking for core gaming experiences,’ says Karyo. ‘Kids and parents are interested in a fun and easy pick-up-and-play experience that doesn’t require hundreds of hours of investment to enjoy.’ Also, mini-games often have a strong addiction factor. Once players are satisfied, they want to come back for more, as evidenced by Majesco’s Cooking Mama titles, which have sold more than two million units across the franchise. Cooking Mama World Kitchen for the Wii hits retail this holiday and includes fun mini-games such as flipping a burger and trying to catch it in the pan before Mama’s dog snatches it away.

The inclusion of mini-games is also considered to be a sure-fire strategy to entice girls to enter the gaming world. Disney Interactive Studios is launching Disney Fairies: Tinker Bell for Nintendo DS at the end of the month, targeting girls six to 12. Executive producer Sandy Abe likens it to an abridged version of Nintendo’s hugely popular Animal Crossing – a never-ending game of exploration and, naturally, mini-games.

The game begins in Pixie Hollow, and players can simply flit through the world with no time limits, bringing new seasons to the world. The script for the game was actually penned by the writer of direct-to-video feature Tinker Bell (launching this month), and the game team spent considerable effort trying to apply elements of the movie to the game. Tinker Bell fixes things, so the designers incorporated a mini-game in which players use tools to help her repair broken items using virtual glue, varnish and paint.

The DS, says Abe, provides the perfect platform for this type of gaming, thanks to the versatility of the handheld’s touch screen and stylus. She adds that girls play differently than boys. Boys want to spend the time it takes to figure out every nook and cranny of a game, whereas girls simply want to drop in and have fun. DS penetration is also much higher than its console competitors – as of this past summer, Nintendo had sold nearly 22 million units, according to The NPD Group.

Mini-games also work particularly well for licensed titles. Other than providing short, satisfying diversions, they can deliver clues to use later in the main game or let players earn extra points and obtain special items for the overarching game – a great fit for story-driven titles based on narrative-heavy movies and TV series.

In fact, mini-games provide a simpler method of creating depth, according to Tim Ramage, executive producer for D3Publisher of America. Development cycles for licensed titles are often shorter than for proprietary games and are less reliant on external assets, ultimately staying within the same budget structure, meaning there isn’t an affect on price-point or backend costs. ‘It’s a mechanic we can execute with a level of quality that will enhance the experience and allow us to stay within our schedule as well,’ he says.

Ramage, who’s worked on several licensed titles based on TV and film properties, also notes that the mini-game feature really immerses kids further in the experience. ‘We can open the player’s eyes to what’s going on beyond the screen,’ he says. ‘A mini-game contributes to the story experience and lets kids interact on a greater level with those characters.’ For example, in Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep series, the flock often embarks on elaborate campaigns to rid the meadow of a pesky mole, and so licensee D3P has incorporated a Tap-a-Mole mini-game into its Shaun the Sheep DS title that’s hitting retail later this month.

Mini-games have also become a key back-of-the-box marketing highlight and are being used to raise a title’s perceived value, says Ramage. ‘When you can put three to six mini-games in a title, the value of the experience goes up in the mind of the consumer,’ he notes.

Majesco released Furu Furu Park for the Wii this past February, and the collection of 30 arcade-style mini-games was competitively priced at US$19.99 SRP, roughly US$20 less than a typical Wii title. Karyo says it was promoted as a huge value based on the sheer number of extra mini-games, which include challenges to hit a home run using the Wiimote as a baseball bat, or make snow cones using the peripheral as a crank. Though Karyo couldn’t comment on sales figures, he says past experience has shown that titles with mini-games do sell better, and they also tend to receive more prominent in-store placement because retailers find the higher perceived value very attractive.

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