Kid-gamers are a force to be reckoned with, and they can be just as passionate about their games as adults. What can we learn from them about trends in MMOs? Let's take a look in this week's MMO Family.
Kids are surprisingly smart
One of the most memorable moments from SOE Live came when the developers at the Free Realms and Clone Wars panel pointed out how sophisticated their young audience is and how kids are actually much smarter than the devs had expected when it came to their MMOs. Over the past few years, the team has learned that it needs to set the bar higher when it comes to challenge in kid-oriented games. Similarly, at BLOXcon, kids showed off some impressive creations that they were able to put together in Roblox. Even though the players are young, they're extremely skilled and stick with difficult things longer than expected. Kid-friendly MMOs typically try to avoid danger and failure, but kids are more than able to take on the risk in games. MMOs can, and should, treat kids as adults when it comes to raising the bar. It's possible to give kids a true challenge without graphic violence or scary themes, and it's nice to see studios like SOE and Roblox acknowledge that at their conventions.
They're fickle... or are they
Retention is the brass ring on the merry-go-round of MMO development, and with kids, it seems even harder to grab and keep their attention. But what if kids leave games not because they're fickle but because the content just isn't worth a second more of their time? If you add in content that's just more of the same thing, or requires repetition in order to get a reward, is that quality content or just busywork? Kids are surprisingly sophisticated when it comes to sniffing out "BS," and if you make content that's a not-so-subtle way of forcing them to come back, they'll more than likely say thanks but no thanks. Many young gamers are already oversaturated with typical MMO content like "kill ten" quests, repetitive dailies, and delivery tasks, so by the time they're adults, they're more than tired of it. MMOs have to rethink their content because the next generation of gamers will be looking for something different from what they already played when they were nine or ten.
No need to "pink it up"
Sexism and misogyny tend to rear their ugly heads in "grown-up" MMOs, and oddly enough, there's a trickle down effect in kid-friendly MMOs as well. At SOE Live's Free Realms panel, the developers asked a young girl what her favorite job was. When she replied that she loved battling as a ninja, the team noted how stereotypes sometimes worm their way into kid-friendly games, and that this girl was proof that there aren't necessarily "girl games" and "boy games." Not all girls want unicorn pets and pink outfits. Similarly, not all boys want blaster rifles, big trucks, and robots. MMOs have been a place where adults can experiment with playing different roles and identities, but for kids, playing "pretend" is a natural part of growing up, so MMOs are a perfect fit. But game developers need to continue to recognize that girls and boys don't always fall into stereotypical categories when it comes to gaming.
I have to admit, I think I had a very different take on the EQNext reveal at SOE Live. As I watched the video of characters doing parkour, smashing walls, and performing glitzy combat animations, I excitedly thought about how I could play with the kids early in the evening but then also play with my adult friends when the kids have gone to bed. But I ran into many others who grumbled about the game being too "kid-friendly" in its art style, open-ended class system (the Free Realms job twirl was disparagingly mentioned more than once to describe EQNext classes), and limited number of combat abilities.
Kids and adults really aren't that far off from one another when it comes to gaming. Both groups are passionate about their games; both are able to dive into games and perform far better than any developer could have imagined. So why shouldn't an MMO be appealing to both kids and adults? Some of the best games are easy to learn but hard to master, and those are the kinds of games that succeed well with all audiences. MMOs tend to be unnecessarily complicated at times, but it is possible to make a game that is compelling to both kids and adults.
Gaming freedom can bring about amazing results
Kid-friendly MMOs, in their effort to be a safe playground for younger gamers, often put up walls and restrictions that end up stifling creativity. I've mentioned chat restrictions as just one example, but there are plenty of things that end up frustrating young gamers.
Minecraft has transcended the "game" category and is now a creativity tool for both kids and adults. EQNext has a similar mode in the upcoming EQNext Landmark, but as soon as I heard that players will have to collect recipes and harvest their own materials, I cringed. There really needs to be a "creative mode" for EQNext Landmark so that builders of all ages can simply make the most of the voxel system without needing to harvest and farm. Harvesting and farming are features that make building more of a game, but not everyone wants to have that added "minigame" as part of the building experience. EQNext's building toolset is so impressive that players should be able to get into it and push boundaries, with the only limitation being their imagination. SOE seemed inspired by Minecraft when developing EQNext, so hopefully at some point the company will take a hint from Mojang and give players open-ended access to the toolset in EQNext.
Overall, kids might not have the years of experience that adults do when it comes to gaming, but they are still a legitimate demographic to be taken seriously. It's often difficult for adults to design games that are fun, challenging, and also age-appropriate, but game conventions like SOE Live, BLOXcon, and MineCon are great venues for kids to be heard and for developers to better learn about their target audience.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to email@example.com.