I got my first game console, the original Nintendo, in 1985 and it forever changed my life. Today, kids take for granted how accessible and abundant games are. From computers to phones and tablets, all the way up to dedicated gaming consoles, the next generation of gamers has numerous choices to play any type of game they could imagine. For developers, this means that we have multiple options where we can publish our games. In our house, the Fire TV will be my sons’ first video game console. If you are like me and you always wanted to build games for the TV, the Amazon Fire TV now offers you that opportunity, and access to an entirely new generation of kids growing up as gamers. With that in mind, I wanted to share the three key concepts I have found help make games more approachable to kids.
Most developers think of kids’ games as matching, interactive storybooks and simple learning apps. Just look in the kids section of any app store and you’ll see these in droves. While a few games for kids stand out, the vast majority doesn’t take into account the fact that kids like to be challenged just like traditional gamers do. Developers can incorporate the game mechanics that core gamers have grown to love and adapt them for kids. These kinds of games will not only entertain kids, but will teach them critical thinking, teamwork, and even help them build the skills to play more advanced games.
For example, last year, I focused on making games that were similar to the games I liked to play on Nintendo but with my three year-old son in mind. The best example of this was my space exploration game Super Jetroid.
In this game, the player is challenged to explore a cave on an alien planet and try to survive while balancing their energy, health and air supplies. It’s a difficult game to master and a style of gameplay that I have always loved (it was heavily inspired by the classic game H.E.R.O. on the Atari). While the main game is way too challenging for my son, I have added in some special things to help him also enjoy the game. Some things to keep in mind to making a difficult game more approachable for kids:
I cherish my game playing time with my son. Not all games are designed to be played at the same time but there are still lots of ways you can collaborate and let kids be part of the action, even in traditional single player games. Super Jetroid has a familiar level selection menu that is common among casual games these days. If you do well on a level, then you’ll unlock the next one. There are two difficulty settings: the “Serious” setting targets core gamers and the “Have Fun” setting targets kids.
In the “Have Fun” mode, the player doesn’t take damage, and has unlimited air and energy. Suddenly, the game was easy enough for my son. All of the other challenges still exist but he was able to experience the same game. Also, we could take turns playing the game as I unlocked new levels and he plays the ones that I’ve already beaten but at his own pace. When he feels more confident about the level, he can switch it over to “Serious” mode and challenge himself. This way he self-regulates the difficulty and still feels like he is accomplishing something by playing each level on the “Have Fun” mode.
Right now, I’m expanding the game for Amazon Fire TV. As I do this I am working on building in a more collaborative experience, especially around local multi-player and puzzle solving so we can work as a team to complete levels together. The Fire TV offers a great opportunity, similar to dedicated gaming consoles, to support up to 7 controllers (assuming you have a mini clan of gamers at home). It also has a second screen experience with tablets similar to what the Wii U leverages so there are lots of great multi-player and collaborative mechanics developer can explore.
Knowing that every Fire TV ships with the Amazon Fire remote is an incredible opportunity to think about designing kid-friendly games with the remote in mind. There are already some great games on Fire TV that do this, including Despicable Me: Minion Rush and Badland. It only makes sense that more casual one-button style games are a natural fit on Fire TV.
For years, gamers said touchscreens would never be good enough for immersive games because of the lack of hardware buttons. Now we are starting to see that some of the most successful games, such as Angry Birds, are the ones being built for touch. Building game controls that work on TV have their own set of limitations similar to what early mobile game developers faced. As developers, it’s up to you to think through how to make the best game possible with the broadest audience in mind, especially if you are designing for a younger player. Designing for the remote as the primary input for your game will not only capture the audience of Fire TV owners, but it also makes it easier for younger children to play. My son moves effortlessly from remote to game controller without a care in the world; he actually favors the remote since it’s easier to hold and use in his smaller hands.
In Super Jetroid there are only 3 buttons: left, right and up. On Fire TV for example, the game can be played with the remote or the controller for more precision. Even on touch screens the simplified controls work with a single virtual joystick and on desktop the keyboard. Across all of these different ways of playing I strive to have the game’s controls adapt to the device it is being played on so that anyone can simply pick up the game and play without a steep learning curve.
While traditional console game development is still out of reach for most, the Fire TV enables developers to target the casual gaming audience right now. It’s also an opportunity to be one of the first TV-based games that kids play. There is no doubt in my mind that the types of games my son plays on the Fire TV will be his favorites for life, just like I still hold onto Mario, Zelda and Mega Man from my early gaming days. Even better, many of the games my son plays on the Fire TV are also with him on his Kindle Fire. The power of having the same game on tablet and TV with dedicated controls tailored to each experience has me incredibly excited as a game developer. This is a great opportunity to help shape the interests for the gamers of tomorrow by building fun, accessible, kid friendly games today.
So pick up a Fire TV and start making games for it as soon as you open the box!
- Jesse Freeman (@jessefreeman)