The F Word
No, not that one.
The “F” word that’s on my mind is not profane, but it does sometime escape my lips in moments of frustration at work.
The word I’m talking about is “Fun.”
Fun is pretty core to what we do as game designers. We design games for children – aspiring for the games to be fun is a no brainer. But there is always a moment (or several) in the design process where someone – whether it’s a developer, a publisher, an IP holder, a curriculum expert or a producer – is going to provide feedback involving the word “fun” that is going to make me mental. Something along the lines of:
“I’m just wondering if there’s enough fun in this activity.”
“We have to make sure kids think this is fun, not educational!”
“But is it going to be fun?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand where these folks are coming from, and the emphasis on the final product and whether children will enjoy it is not misplaced. But I bring it up because I think that our concept of what “fun” means can get a little off track when we’re talking about games for kids, especially younger kids (just check out this video of a baby and how much fun he has ripping paper, a favorite of Carla’s). Our grown-up idea of what’s fun can get pretty abstract, and it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of discussing whether or not it will be more “fun” to tap on the upper right or lower left hand corner of the touch screen while losing the bigger picture of the game experience as a whole.
As designers, we have enough experience that we’re coming to the table with a pretty good idea of what’s going to work, but communicating why it’s going to work – and be fun – can be tough. It’s genuinely challenging to envision what a finished game is going to feel like in the middle of the process, especially for people who are new to games. Tapping pictures on a piece of paper or moving a red blob towards a white blob in a Wii game prototype may be useful for getting a sense of layout or mechanic, but they’re hardly what anyone would consider a rollicking good time. And while I would encourage people to trust us and our experience as designers, I recognize that isn’t always as reassuring as I wish it would be.
So, with this in mind, I’ve developed some my own personal cheat sheet for fun, a few ways to design for fun and trust the development process. Hot off the presses, here are Anne’s “Four Footholds of Fun” for kids games:
1. Make it usable – Make sure you’re designing for your audience. Sometimes the fun in general audience games can be in the challenge of mastering how to make your character move or shoot or jump or climb or avoid spinning axes or werewolves. Grown-ups can lose themselves for hours in the intricacies of how to best utilize their weapons in Left 4 Dead. No five-year-old (at least none I’ve ever met) has the patience or the dexterity to do that. In kids’ games, and in many general audience games as well, we strive for an “easy to learn, difficult to master” model, where figuring out the mechanic itself is not the challenge. Rather, what’s difficult is using the mechanic to accomplish what you want to accomplish – you understand what you’re supposed to do, it’s just hard to do that thing. Think Angry Birds – anyone can fling the slingshot, but can you solve all of the levels? And can you get the maximum amount of stars while doing so?
2. Make it educational – Yep, you read that right. Here’s a big secret: little kids don’t care if a game is going to teach them something. In fact, they love to learn. Sure, there’s an age after which kids don’t want to be seen as nerdy, but it’s a lot later than most people think it is, and there’s a huge misperception that if kids think they’re learning something they’ll run in the opposite direction. Now, I’m not advocating digital flash cards or ignoring the things that games do best in order to drill kids on their times tables. We’ve all seen dull “educational” products that make learning a chore. But mastering skills is something small children delight in, and anyone who’s seen their child sing the “ABC” song over and over again with a huge smile on their face or show everyone in the room how they can write their name intuitively knows this. Picking the right animal in Peek a Zoo or finding the right vocabulary words in Martha’s Dog Party are accomplishments kids can be proud of, and will gladly crow about given the chance.
3. Story and character are your friends – Even a really simple game can be made hilarious by the right story and characters. When we were writing the games for the Nintendo Wii game Cookie’s Counting Carnival, we were a little concerned about the simplicity of a game in which the player was asked to help Cookie Monster hit a strongman bell over and over until he reached a certain number. It had the potential to be a bit of a dull task. Then the maestros at Sesame Workshop and David Rudman, the voice behind Cookie Monster, started adding jokes and ad libs. By time Cookie’s voice was in game, the dialogue was so hilarious, complete with Cookie Monster huffing and puffing from exertion, that even us grown-ups testing the game couldn’t wait to play it again and hear what he would say next.
4. Test it if you can – Of course, kid testing is one of the best ways to ensure that your design is as fun as you hope it will be. As you’ve heard Carla and I say a million times, kids are just different than we are, and without research and testing, we’re developing in a vacuum. It’s not always possible to test games during the development process, but there’s often good research available that we can utilize that’s relevant to the kind of interaction we’re designing. When we are able to test, watching kids play our games is invaluable to us, not only during development but also after the fact. It’s one of the best possible ways to discover things about the games that worked, and things that didn’t. And seeing the delight that a game you designed brings a child who’s really enjoying it – especially a child you’ve never met before – now that’s what I call fun.
So, those are Anne’s Four Footholds of Fun, at least as of today. Hopefully they will help both to arm me against those “F”-word questions, and to remind me that what’s fun for a young child and what’s fun from my perspective may be two really different things. I mean, my son likes to play “Happy Tapping with Elmo” four thousand times in a row in the car while singing it at the top of his lungs. Does that sound like fun to you?
Photo courtesy of Muffet