This article was originally published in the International Game Developer’s Association IGDA Perspectives Newsletter.
“The power of imagination makes us infinite.”
This popular quote from John Muir is one that you might have seen. When we look at videogames, it’s clear these interactive stories can help kindle our imaginations. For kids, this evolution can become truly incredible—kids have vivid imaginations and don’t hold back. They blend ideas and stories, role play scenes and imitate characters, creating their own stories for family and friends.
In creating a game for kids, the team here at Bubble Gum Interactive knew we had to involve them right from our earliest days. We knew we wanted to create a game based on our original story, of the Space Heroes facing up to the dastardly Lord Shadowbot, a not-so-evil villain with a fear of the dark. We also knew we wanted to create a kids virtual world – a safe, fun and social online game in which kids could interact, make new friends and play together.
Know Your Audience
With these thoughts in mind, we invited over 50 kids to take part in a series of focus groups and game testing. We didn’t have a lot to show them, just some artwork and a limited prototype. We spent time talking to the kids about what movies they liked, which games they enjoyed and who their favorite characters were. We wanted to understand the universal stories they liked. We told them our story and introduced them to our character concepts.
We feel the storyline of Space Heroes is one of the main reasons players get interested in the game. The vibrant artwork and diverse environment has something for everyone. As we developed the game, Space heroes grew into a massive home world. This vibrant setting is where new players join the Space Heroes Academy, learn to use their jetpacks and bubble blasters and interact in social elements that resonate with their offline lives. In Space Heroes kids role play being the managers and employees of Stylebot’s Hair Salon or live out rock star dreams on stage in the Star Struck Theatre. They can dive underwater, explore a sunken pirate ship or fly through the galaxy with friends.
Through our work in these original focus groups, and through continually engaging with both kids and parents throughout game development, we’ve been able to change tack a number of times and adjust our thinking. For example, we at first had intended the game to be skewed towards boys, but the many girls that took part in our focus groups and our beta testing period showed us how much they enjoyed the game. We learnt that it wasn’t relevant to pigeonhole kids based purely on age and gender. We talked to just as many girls that wanted to blow up asteroids as we talked to boys who spent ages personalising their hero’s space suit.
This showed us that kids gravitated to certain types of game play based on their personality. Some preferred the competitive types of play such as having an epic bubble blaster battle or racing in their starjets; others preferred nurturing activities such as adopting and caring for pets; some liked to set forth in their starjets and explore the virtual universe while others just wanted to hang out and chat with other players.
Creating your own model for your game and its audience is a great way to help your teams stay focused on who they’re creating the game for.
Don’t Forget Mom and Dad
It’s important to know that when you’re creating a game for kids, you must also keep in mind that it’s the parents who make any purchase decision. We worked with leading Mommy and Daddy bloggers and engaged industry experts to make sure we built the game experience in a way that not only met, but exceeded parent expectations around content-suitability, age-appropriate themes and gameplay, safety and value for money. Above all, it had to be fun and playable by kids on their own or with their older family members.
Space Heroes is free-to-play. Kids can create their own Space Hero, adopt a magical Glow and explore vibrant planets without paying a cent for as long as they like. Of course, we have a team of talented developers, artists and community people who work very hard to create the game so we offer optional premium memberships for those families that want unlimited adventure.
We’ve built Space Heroes with a number of innovations, from advanced chat-filtering that prevents personal info or profanity being shared to a moderator team that plays the game alongside kids and answers any questions. As our virtual universe is accessed globally we added multiple languages and allowed kids to communicate easily wherever they are in their native language with multi-lingual menu chat. Our efforts have been recognised by leading safety and content suitability organisations around the world. Space Heroes iscertified kidSAFE+ and is rated E for Everyone and PEGI-OK. It has been awarded the Creative Child Magazine 2012 Game of the Year, a Parents’ Choice Approved Award and the Family Friendly videogames Seal of Approval to name just a few. Space Heroes now has more independent safety recognitions, endorsements and accreditations than any other virtual world for kids.
Draw Inspiration From Your Fans
Space Heroes launched in late 2011 and we now have tens of thousands of kids from over 80 countries blasting off for adventure every day. As a free online game for kids, our fan community is really starting to buzz and we’re amazed by their creativity. Our fans make videos, send in fan art, report bugs and suggestions and let us know what they think via the multiple engagement channels we’ve set up including the site itself, in-game reporting tools, a fan blog, Facebook page and Twitter too. It gives us a lot of feedback and this is synthesised back through to the wider team.
As a game developer, you need to keep your audience front and center in your decision-making. Take the time and make the effort to really understand your audience and involve them as much as you can. By inviting and using their feedback, comments and ideas you’ll be able to create a better game experience.