Why Is It So Hard To Make Video Games For Kids?

“Daddy? DADDY!”

I look up from my laptop. This video game was supposed to give me a precious 15 minute respite from the endless drudgery of parenthood. What the hell’s gone wrong now?

“DADDY WHAT I DO?

WHAT I DOOOOOO?”

It must be really hard to make a good video game for kids.

I know this because to date, I have only played one good console game made for kids.

That game is Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U.

Super Mario 3D World. I’ll never forget introducing it to my 3-year-old. In the beginning it was frustrating as hell. He couldn’t do anything, kept throwing himself off the edge, shrieking like a deranged hyena. I walked away then. It hurt to watch. I made myself a nice cup of tea.

A couple of weeks later, sipping a different cup of tea, my son had mastered the game with literally zero input from me, his father who writes about video games for a living. I still have no idea how he did it.

Actually that’s an exaggeration. I have a rough idea how he did it. He did it because Super Mario 3D World might be the only perfect console video game made for pre-school children.

This, my friends, is hyperbole. An exaggeration used to make a very specific point, which is: Jesus Christ game developers don’t know how to make video games for children. They don’t know how to teach them, they don’t know what they’re capable of, and they don’t know how to engage them beyond… well, this video game has characters children might like, so I guess it’s a game for children.

It’s utterly infuriating.

Last month I downloaded LittleBigPlanet 3 because it was free on PlayStation Plus and I absolutely loved the original game.

“Perfect,” I thought to myself. “A game to deliver me from endless replays of Super Mario 3D World.”

It made sense. A co-op platformer. A simple video game. We could play together for a bit, get the basics down and voila – he’d be good to go it alone and play by himself while I abandon all parental responsibility for a precious 15 minutes or so.

It wasn’t to be. Unlike Mario, which allows for control complexity but never demands of it the player, LittleBigPlanet 3 forces its players to master a weapon wheel and within the opening tutorial levels.

“DADDY WHAT I DO?

“WHAT I DOOOOOOOOO?”

With LittleBigPlanet 3 an incredible amount of control complexity is demanded almost instantly, as is an implicit understanding of the ‘pop-it’, an insanely complex menu system that I – as an adult – frequently have difficulties managing.

Incredibly, progress is halted if you can’t manage these complex systems.

At one point I left my son alone with the game for a while.

“DADDY WHAT I DO? WHAT I DOOOOOO?”

I honestly had no idea.

My son was on a ship that refused to move. Progress was impossible. A character repeated lines about using an “Organisertron” in the quaint English way LittleBigPlanet asks you to do anything and everything. I was dumb-founded. I pushed every button on the controller. I eventually had to restart the entire level to understand precisely what I was supposed to be doing.

I quickly worked it out. My son was being asked to hold down the Triangle button on the PlayStation 4 controller to open a bloody quest organiser — an RPG style quest organiser — and highlight a mission before he could actually continue playing that mission.

I could not believe what I was seeing.

LittleBigPlanet 3 is a platform game. A platform game. Correct me if I’m wrong – I’m an adult, I played a lot of the original LittleBigPlanet – but LittleBigPlanet 3 is a platform game targeted (at least in part) towards children.

This is a game that – within 30 minutes of starting the game – demands children…

— Master a weapons wheel
— Use dual analogue stick controls to aim and shoot a gun
— Manage a bloody quest organiser

I just don’t understand. I literally do not understand.

Crucially, the instructions provided are so incredibly and self-indulgently wordy, taking the form of ‘quirky’ pre-created videos, with sardonic Stephen Fry voiceovers that fly so high over children’s heads they might as well be in orbit. Then there’s the written text. Are developers completely oblivious that most children under 5 have literally just started learning to read?

Sometimes I find myself wondering: do game developers have children? Do they play games with their children? Do they understand how children actually work? My son struggles with Simon Says, you think he’s gonna get it right first time when Stephen Fry extols the virtues of the ORGANISERTRON one single time in a cut-scene?

Seriously, does anyone besides Nintendo know how to make a console game for children? Please let me know, because my son and I have defaulted to Spelunky: a video game with features ghosts, giant spiders and spikes that impale its players in a slow, gruesome bloody death.

I’m not prepared for the inevitable nightmares that come with that.

But it’s infinitely better than that endless refrain – the one that haunts my nightmares:

“Daddy what I do?

“DADDY WHAT I DOOOO…”

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


Comments

    I played lbp3. I thought it was fine. Maybe it's not just targetted at children or maybe it's not targetted at 3 year olds?

    Surely there are simpler games around or you can start him off playing some retro console games from the virtual console or something that only use a couple of buttons.

    Last edited 20/03/17 2:06 pm

      See what I wrote below for comments re: controls, but for me I'd expect the need to use the right thumbstick so early in the game could be a challenge for a 3 year old. That, plus puzzles, plus timing, PLUS a 3rd dimension make it a lot to think about.

      LBP's are good games, and graphically would appeal to most kids, but if there are any complications the learning curve may simply put them off, and as you'd know, once a kid doesnt want to do something, thats it.

      This is what I was going to say. The crux of the problem is that these 'children' are effectively infants, not 'kids'. I know my experience doesn't speak for everyone, but in growing up, I knew plenty of fellow 3-4 year olds that got to only play with toys, not video games - computer equipment was expensive and not for little children to break!

      Only 5+ did I get to play video games and then it was pretty obvious from their basic difficulty, that they were aimed at that age group. Like, Serrels, you're upset that your son couldn't understand that game and I'm like, well yeah, was he meant to?

        I came here to say basically this. LBP3 is recommended for 7-and-up, complaining that a 4-year old can't master it is like complaining that his legs don't read the accelerator pedal on your car- they are not meant to, it is not designed for someone of that age. The answer is pretty simple, and it is to just wait until they're old enough to play the game. At seven he'll be running rings around you.

        Last edited 21/03/17 12:03 pm

    Tearaway Unfolded for free on PSN plus. I played it for 10 minutes and it was super cute.

    How does that go with kids?

      My daughter finished the game. She was 8 at the time. Liked it OK.

    Co op Rocket League is pretty fun for kids. My son enjoyed that when he was 4. Also has a Free Play training mode where they can drive around the field, doing whatever. He'd play this for a good hour at a time before getting bored.

    He's 5 now, and enjoys the Lego games, Minecraft (obviously), Pokemon Sun & Moon, whatever the latest Mario 3DS game is, and is a mean Geometry Dash player, freakishly good.

    Oh, Slime Rancher is a good one for kids too... though I'm fairly biased.

    Yup. All the best games I can let my kids play completely by themselves (from 4 up) were Nintendo games, preferably ones without time limits like Yoshi's Woolly World (Wii U), Kirby's Epic Yarn (Wii) and Kirby's Adventure (Wii)

    And somehow, surprisingly, Minecraft (on the Wii U) - I don't know how they mastered those console FPS controls, but they did it for Minecraft because Minecraft is concentrated awesome. The more I see my kids play it, the more I think it could be the greatest game ever made.

    Mark - have ySou tried Yoshis Wooly World? It has an easy mode which basically makes the game more impossible to die in and much easier to play. Plus!! Its gorgeous and fun to play.

    I think it comes down to simplicity of controls. Think of the classic Super NES era, where there were direction buttons, and A and a B button. That was it, no more, but man that era gave us some classic games.

    And they were targetted at kids.

    Fast forward to today, you have controllers with 2 joysticks, a D-pad, 4 action buttons, 4 triggers, and often 3 or more other buttons that do stuff. And programmers want to use as many of them as they can, which is going to confuse kids.

    If there are limited controls needed, kids will pick it up, and be masters in a week. Make it too complicated, they give up and dont wanna play anymore. Guess which ones Super Mario games usually are, and what Little Big Planet is...

      The SNES had X, Y, L and R too :P

      (and both also had Start and Select)

        damn moderation error:

        Could it also be a generational thing?

        When I was a kid, I had a 386. I had to teach myself a little bit of DOS just to play computer games. I'm pretty sure that in primary school from about the 3rd grade I was configuring config.ini/startup.ini files in order to optimise that 640 base memory. Remember that?

        These days everything has moved over to icons and (to borrow a phrase from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age which I'm listening to now) mediaglyphics.

          Can't say I do :P

          I don't know what kind of computer we had when I was a kid, but I have memories of being taught how to select and open stuff in what I'm pretty sure was Windows 3.1, also that Dad had gotten some kind of custom menu thingo that the computer booted to which just had all the games in there for us to select.

          I was pretty ignorant of computers in general til I took up programming in year 11. Though even then, still pretty ignorant of them :P

          Load"$",8
          LIST

          scroll to a game and then type
          LOAD"International Karate",8,1
          RUN

          PS I know what you mean.

            By the Gods, I'd purged that from my meatROM... err brain.

            Could be a generational thing, I was focusing on early consoles and thinking how Super Mario Bros was playable to the youngest kids, but if you were on something like a C64 you needed to get your hands dirty just to get the game to play. I assume those dirty Amstraad's were worse.

            But that was also teenage years for most, not ~3 year olds.

          Kids who are at that sort of level are "playing" Minecraft. You should see my son. He's eight. He's like "let's play PVP, okay I've spawned this chest that gives you five diamonds and a pickaxe and some bedrock so you can start your base".

          An hour later I've built a house and forged an iron breastplate, he's running around with an enchanted sword teleporting around the map using ender pearls etc. "Tell me when you're ready to battle!" he cries, as he runs past, full diamond armour glistening in that way only enchanted armour can glisten.

          Ten minutes later he's in the Nether looking for a Nether Fortress so he can "farm Blazes for blaze rods so I can make a splash potion of blindness."

          Splash potion of blindness. Great.

          Oh and he also "programmed" a scoreboard that appears on the side of the screen (Yes, I know this is built into the game, but the point is he already knows the commands.)

          Last edited 20/03/17 7:24 pm

        I was thinking NES, not SNES, my error. Mostly though, the point was that controllers in those days werent as complicated as they are today, and I think that makes as big a difference as content does.

        Kids pick up games fine on things like a 3DS or an iPad, so whats different between those and a console? Personally, I think its the more complicated controls, particularly for young kids.

        Mario games do basic controls real well, while something like Little Big Planet bring the thumbsticks into it. Theres the difference, and for me, why one is easy for kids to pick up and one not so much.

    "self-indulgently wordy" - this is super on point. I've never understood why other devs need to make sure every component of their game has a unique name, lest they be accused of borrowing features from other games, even though (a) there's nothing wrong with that and (b) it's nakedly obvious anyway.

    It isn't. Minecraft proves that.

      I think Minecraft would be pretty hard for a kid of under about 6 years of age to handle without supervision.

        My son is a Minecraft grand master at 8, but he started at 5 just running around building things. That's the beauty of the game. You can literally stack coloured blocks in creative mode, or get into complicated brewing recipes in survival. Or build TNT cannons by exploiting the way TNT doesn't damage blocks in water or something? Something something droppers redstone something?

      Both my kids (4 and 6) play minecraft without issue on the ps4, this seems to be the only game outside of Nintendo console games that they're able to understand/get the hang of.

    To be fair, an understanding of human learning and reasoning is something MANY designers do not have. There have been plenty of games that I - an intelligent, mature, experienced-in-gaming adult - have had difficulty figuring out what to do next or where to go. Or have found so convoluted and unintuitive that I've struggled to understand who could have decided that this was acceptable in a form of 'entertainment'. Games where there is a mechanic or level design or UI element that makes you wish you could force the designers to sit in a room full of playtesters, bound and gagged, and force them to watch their fucking failure before the god damn game actually ships and is inflicted upon an unsuspecting populace. Or games where you just want to repeatedly kick the developer in the balls until your foot falls off (or, in the absence of a handy developer, rage-quit).

    Although I have seen this natural justice manifest at cons like PAX. There you can stand around the indie alley and watch some poor dev struggle to maintain a neutral expression or friendly demeanor in the face of a seemingly infinite stream of first-time-players all experiencing the same difficulty in grasping a certain mechanic/element. Watch their body shaking as they struggle to repress the urge to grab the controller off the guest and scream at them, "IT'S FUCKING OBVIOUS, YOU TWIT!"

    Because that rage comes from a place of deep shame. It is not obvious, mister developer. If it was obvious, you wouldn't be standing there, trying to repress your rage at how every single person to test your game doesn't understand what you were going for. It's only obvious to YOU, because you built it. One person, they can dismiss. Two, three, ten... But an endless stream of players, all experiencing the same problem... it rubs the developer's nose in their mistake and you can watch as they have no option but to stand there, swallowing their pride and thinking about how to fix their fuck-up.
    ...Or how to shift the blame, because developers are people, too.

      I never really got frustrated with that as a kid. I think I just thought getting stuck was part of video games because it happened on everything. I'd just wander around poking things until I figured it out, so whether it was blue key goes in the blue lock or Resident Evil style put the duck in the bucket then throw it down the well style puzzles it was all sort of the same trial and error process. Now I'm too lazy to backtrack and I'm used to figuring the puzzles out on the spot, so it's much more frustrating when I get even a little slowed down.

      Every developer I've spoken to has taken my critism on board. They've always been lovely about it and appreciate the feedback

    Yup I tried to play little big planet 3 with my kids, but because you all had to move together or die, they made a game out of moving off screen forcing the camera to follow them instead and kill me!

    All the games that I enjoy playing with my kids are on Nintendo,

    Little Big Planet is not a game for young kids. The fault lay in Mark not thoroughly checking out the game before giving it to his kid to play. I have all LBP games and would not give them to my kids.

    My kids like stuff like Hatsune Miku Project Diva games because, on easy, it involves pressing a single button in time to the music (plus some screen swiping for star notes).

    My kids like playing Tokyo Jungle, because it involves either eating plants and running away (for herbivores) or chasing animals and running from bigger animals (for carnivores).

    My kids like Kirby games, because they are basically linear platformers that you can still win even if you mash buttons in combat.

    My kids like Beat Sketcher, because you can draw pictures using the Playstation Move.

    I disagree that games for kids are hard to make. It's just that outside Leapfrog software there aren't really any retail gaming products specifically designed for young kids, who have trouble with control schemes and hand-eye co-ordination. You're better off just choosing inoffensive games for all ages with simple control schemes.

      Yeah. I was already an adult when LBP 1 was announced and it was the adults in the room that were excited because it was clearly about some adult game developers wanting to make a neat game about making games as was their profession and were clearly appealing to an adult's nostalgic curiosity for playing with legos and making a game levels just like ye olde Mario.

      I mean sure, it wasn't hard for them to realise the concept's universal appeal and make the style accessible to children, just not 3 year olds of course.

    My daughter (then 6, now 7) wants to play video games, but it's hard to find games that'll appeal to her. So far, she's given up on Super Mario (but I think she could master it given enough patience), and can't get the hang of Mario Kart.

    The only game she's actually enjoyed to date is Scribblenauts Unlimited on the Wii-U. And even then, a tonne of those puzzles require a level of pop-culture savvy that's beyond an early primary-school child.

    That LBP example is insane. I haven't played it yet, but got it through PS+ and was hoping to get the kids into it. Guess not.

    And I think it's probably true that many game developers don't have kids. Given the conditions developers work under, it seems to be very much a young-folks industry, a job for 20-30 year olds with no external ties to speak of. Getting a job in a games company with a family is a tough thing to do (I'm speaking from some experience here).

      Has she tried and rejected Minecraft already? At the risk of sounding like some kind of Minecraft shill, it has been incredible value for money in my house. Though we do have it on PC and I bought us all accounts so my wife and I can join the kids on our work laptops. So we've spent $100+ on Minecraft but in terms of entertainment per hour, it's fractions of a cent.

      I came home one day and mother, daughter and son excitedly crowded around to tell me about this epic Survival map they'd been exploring and how they'd found a village and in their eagerness to visit the village lost the location of their settlement, and they were wandering the wilderness and the kids would brick their mother up in a shelter each night "to protect you mum" while they held off the monsters (and nabbed all the crafting materials).

      They were set to give up on their little treehouse homes when my daughter spotted a familiar hill and they ran home laughing with relief.

      Say what you like about Minecraft in solo, but as a multiplayer PC game with kids, it's amazing.

        She hasn't tried it. I'm honestly wary of games without a set endgame. I've gotten addicted to my share of those in my time, and I'm worried she will too.

        Gaming is such a small part of our lives right now, and our budget is so limited, I'm not too worried if she writes off games for a few more years.

    I don't think it's hard to make video games for kids, because kids aren't able to discriminate what is a good game from a bad game, and just seeks to interact with everything. My own experience has been the easier the degree of input/outcome or choice/consequence then the higher the adoption rate of playing, no matter the genre or content.

    My first born son personally loves Super Mario Run. He is 1 and has finished the game and just plays toad rallys on repeat.

    I think there's an important difference to observe between something designed for kids and something which may be *appropriate* for kids in terms of subject matter and presentation, but isn't necessarily intended for them as players.

    There's also a general problem with video games where developers / publishers seem to demand that any sequel must be packed with more features, and thus more complexity, than its predecessors. So you get a situation where a game like LBP might have been accessible for kids, but by the time you get to LBP3, that accessible core has been buried under a couple of sequels worth of feature-bloat.

    My daughter is only 2 but she often asks me to play crash game. Which is a samll indie game called dangerous golf. Basically a ricochetting golf ball in different rooms causing as much destruction as possible.
    Control is wild and out of control so just having fun doesn't need any precision. Getting a high enough score to progress would be hard on some levels so I don't see it as a leave them to play game. But you can replay any level once complete. There is a local co-op mode as well which might be fun to play with a kid.

      Get her playing Trials on the xbox - Batboy *loved* trials when he was 2 - it's all about the crashing! (I'll send you a video)

        Interesting. Always keen to see more cute videos. Will have to give it a try

    Is there somewhere on the internet that does kid-friendliness-based reviews of games? It sounds like an important niche that needs to be addressed. I have a 5-month-old, so I'm nowhere near that yet, but one day I'll need to know this stuff, and it would be great to have a resource to turn to for research.

      Not sure how that'd work though, because in the case of my kids they've been gaming since age 2, where as another kid of the same age as they are now may struggle playing what they're able to play.

      Spawn point, formerly on abc? They're still doing YouTube Eps.

      Good Game Spawn Point will be back on ABCMe (abc3) this year.

    My nephews loved Journey and played it till the end, I think the music and simplicity draws kids in.
    They also love Super Meat Boy which is insane and prefer it to Mario, they're shit at games but they love Meat Boy coz he's made from meat.
    Unravel was too hard but they loved it, frustrating watching them with the puzzles.
    I struggled with Ocarina of Time as a 6 year old but taking hours and hours to work something simple out drew me in even more. Struggling with that game is what made me love games more than just enjoying Mario and having fun.

      Journey works well for kids actually! My son had a blast with that for a fair amount of time.

    My daughter is 4 and has nearly finished Knack with little to no input from myself aside from words of encouragement

    I bought the marvel disney infinity and that stumped me how to play it (the overload of information and popups felt too much). I always wondered about how a child was meant to pick up and play that game.

    My son loves all the lego games, very simple controls and easy to follow story for him, that and he is just happy being able to run around a city playing as different super heroes

    just picked up a switch with skylanders and he is loving that too

    Honestly, your best bet for kid's games is stuff like this:

    http://www.nickjr.com.au/games/

    They are quick, easy online browser games that feature familiar characters they see on TV. Yes, they aren't "real" games, but a 2 year old isn't going to care about that. When my daughter (who is now almost 7) was younger I used to sit her on my lap in front of my computer and play these kinds of games with her (she also loved a Wiggles game that we had on CD). Now she's old enough that she often sits down to play Mario Kart, Smash Brothers and other games with me, and can be left alone to play other console games such as Disney Princess and some Virtual Console Pokemon games (not the main games as they require too much reading, but games such as Pokepark: Pikachu's Adventure and Pokemon Snap are perfect).

    Basically I guess what I'm saying is, you need to start them on the stuff that you think is mundane and will bore you silly, especially after your child elects to play the same game they've been playing for the past 2 weeks, but they eventually work their way up.

    And now I have another child on the way so I'm going to be starting all over again! I foresee more Nick Jnr and Wiggles in my future.

    Last edited 20/03/17 3:49 pm

      You just made me listen to the US dub of wallykazam and sorry but I hate you a little bit right now. Oh god the horror.
      Although I might have to have a good look at the abc kids games list as my daughter doesn't know most of the Nick characters

    I find this article a bit ironic, because I've had a few people tell me lately (a bit rudely) that video games are only for kids, and that it's weird for me to play them as an adult.

      A lot of folks I know - and a lot of industry folks who I read - seem to be labouring under the misconception that games are 'mainstream'.

      I personally think they're working off bad data, reading results from surveys where tonnes of people say they've played mobile time-wasters as people being on-board with the concept of 'core' games, or dedicating time specifically to games.

      They are not the same activities, and they are not perceived the same way.

      Did you just time-travel here from like 1997? :) Seriously what kind of person says "ew computer games are for KIDS" in 2017? So that bus ad with the hot redhead and the exploding cyber dinosaur is for kids, is it?

      Last edited 20/03/17 7:33 pm

        You had me at hot redhead exploding dinosaur, what game is this? I fear I've missed it ;)

          Horizon: Zero Dawn on PS4. Don't miss it. Buy a PS4 if you have to! :)

    My 5 year is desperate to play console games, but he really struggles with the controllers just being too big. He mainly plays iPad games (he's getting really good at Super Mario Run) but I'm thinking of getting him a 2DS and trying with that.

    3D World is an obvious starting point, anyone else recommend anything else a 5 year old could play?

      Yoshi Woolly world
      mario kart
      Lego city undercover
      Disney Infinity
      Minecraft
      Captain toad
      Pokken Tournament

      These are what I can recall off the top of me head, the 4 and 6 yr old both play these games.

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