While sessions on gaming for older kids and adults tended to significantly outnumber those focused on youngsters at last week’s Game Developers Conference, discussions at the event surrounding the interplay of physical objects with digital content, education-based games, virtual reality experiences and the maker movement highlighted the growing importance of the gaming sector for today’s kids. Just ask those who were there.
For Mindy Brooks, director of education and research at Sesame Workshop, this year’s GDC provided an opportunity to look for new user methodologies and interesting, innovative game design across all kid demographics.
“I also looked for insights on analytics and educational outputs,” says Brooks. “One of the major takeaways for Sesame Workshop is that games have the ability to truly impact kids, but you really have to be thoughtful about design and strategy.”
She says this shift in development is becoming increasingly apparent with the growth of analytics and big data collection, and how this informs production.
“It’s especially important as the app stores and the marketplace get more crowded making it difficult for parents and teachers to find content. Producers still need to look for better solutions on how to find and talk to parents, and how to communicate to teachers. Word of mouth is still a big component for how people discover apps or game experiences.”
Discoverability and marketing have been and continue to be two of the biggest challenges for developers as more platforms emerge and the industry becomes more accessible to indies.
“The app stores alone don’t do anything to help you get your app noticed, and the preschool kids space, in particular, is really saturated,” says Anna Jordan-Douglass, VP of digital development and interactive media at The Jim Henson Company. “Mommy blogs still have a huge place in reaching moms and dads, but there is no silver bullet for how to approach marketing in this space.”
Brooks concurs. “Mommy bloggers continue to play a huge role in reviewing content. Sesame offers a lot of mommy blogger events, but we’re still trying to net out what is the best way to communicate. One way, for example, is to improve the clarity of our iTunes app descriptions and visual images.”
On the platform front, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo – as expected – hyped their respective new consoles, but the buzz around mobile, free-to-play games and startups at GDC remained significant.
In fact, a poll of more than 2,600 developers who attended last year’s GDC found that 51% expect their next game to launch on mobile, compared to 20% for the PS4, 17% for the Xbox One, and only 4% for the Wii U.
For Gary Goldberger, president and co-founder of FableVision, a Boston-based multimedia development and publishing company specializing in interactive, educational kids content, monetization remains a key hurdle in the kids app space.
“How do we balance commercial venture and educational gain? It’s definitely a challenge. We never want (an app) to be confused as a Smurfberry app,” says Goldberger.
According to Henson’s Jordan-Douglass, while the freemium model is successful in the general game industry, developers are tip-toeing around the approach in the kids space, ensuring it’s done carefully to build parental trust.
“The kids space is still a decent split of premium and freemium, but there is no clear winning solution for the freemium model. The debate about which is better will continue,” she says, noting that Henson recently found success with its Dinosaur Train A to Z app for PBS Kids, the company’s first paid app with in-app purchase.
As advancements in augmented/virtual reality technology, second-screen experiences, and physical toy/digital-based properties ramp up, Sesame’s Brooks says simplifying content so it’s usable for kids and equally fun for parents will be key for developers moving forward.
“We all need to be thoughtfully planning how to on-board a child into a game. It doesn’t have to be through video tutorials per se, but we need to design in ways that bring kids on-board and ease them into new emerging technology experiences,” she says.
Henson’s Jordan-Douglass points to the fact that augmented reality and wearable technology are already offering innovative, new ways for kids to experience play, and emerging virtual reality visor technology may have a profound impact that could trickle down to the kids space in the future.
Virtual reality made perhaps the biggest splash at GDC with the news that Sony is jumping into the fray with Project Morpheus, a prototype VR visor for the PS4 that was more than three years in the making. And merely days after the conference, Facebook announced its US$2-billion acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus VR.
“AR is evolving and getting better, and VR is such a big deal right now with Oculus,” says Jordan-Douglass. “It will be interesting to see the ripple effect of this technology.”