September 15, 2003

Software Industry Needs More Greedy Capitalists, Part XVIII

I’ve made the point before that the computer games industry is weirdly slow to capitalize on possible sources of profit. The movie industry is in thrall to the pursuit of the mega-blockbuster, but game designers almost seem afraid of trying for the biggest possible audiences. This has become one of my biggest criticisms of Star Wars Galaxies, for example: somewhere in the beta stage of the design process, the developers appear to have consciously decided to make a game that was maximally hostile to average or casual players, not to mention people who had never played a massively-multiplayer persistent world game before. Kind of a weird thing to do when you’ve bought the license for one of the two or three most popular cinematic properties of all time.

One of the other places where this strange aversion to profit emerges is attempts to design games aimed at other target demographics besides 18-34 year old middle-class males. It shows with games for girls, which make a Barbie dressed in a pink ballet costume look like the epitome of a cross-over toy. You could take nine-tenths of the games designed explicitly for girls and put a splash-screen disclaimer at the initial load: “CAUTION: This game has been designed by men who are not entirely certain what a “girl” is. They were furnished with blueprints that suggested that certain colors and themes are useful, and several pictures of actual ‘girls’. Care should be taken in the playing of this game by actual girls: this game may or may not have anything to do with their ideas about what would be fun to do in a computer game”.

Beyond girls, though, I’ve been even more struck at how absolutely rock-bottom horrible most games and educational software for small children are. My 2 1/2 year old is already a proficient mouse-user and loves to sit at our old PC playing, but the range of software available for her is pretty depressing. If it’s not just plain a bad, cheap licensed piece of crap (Disney is especially prone to license absolutely retch-inducing stuff that seems to have been designed by a 15-year old who knows a little Fortran), it’s buggy and extremely fussy about memory usage and operating system requirements.
One exception so far has been the Jumpstart series of games, which I gather is more uneven in quality when it gets to mid-elementary school levels, but the preschool and toddler games are really quite well done, and teach a lot of good mouse navigation skills.

The few gems aside, what is surprising to me is that so few game designers think about creating kid-friendly variants of existing software. One of the things my daughter loves to do is create characters for Star Wars: Galaxies using the slider to make them tall or short, fat or thin, green or blue and so on. If you just sold that character creation system and a small 3-d environment with simplified navigation (no combat, no multiplayer), I’d buy it in a minute and install it on my daughter’s computer. The same could be said of Morrowind—my daughter loves to create a character there (I have to get her past the complex skill-selection stuff in the beginning) and walk around the gameworld. She doesn’t like combat or the scarier places in the gameworld, so once again, you could just create a simplified navigation system, a selection of avatars, and a 3-d environment with friendly NPCs in it. Voila! Instant toddler fun. I guarantee lots of kids would enjoy something that simple—and it surely would be simple to produce. Disney’s multiplayer game Toontown (an exception to the normally wretched quality of their licensed work) is a good demonstration of that.

Is there some reason I’m missing why no one has done anything of this kind? Why is so much children’s software so bad? Is it the need to appeal to parents with the proposition that it’s “educational”, which usually results in insincere, uninvolving, hack-design work in children’s culture as a whole? Anybody got any ideas?