September 15, 2003
Software Industry Needs More Greedy Capitalists, Part XVIII
Ive 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 youve 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, Ive 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 its
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), its 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), Id buy it in a
minute and install it on my daughters computer. The same could be said
of Morrowindmy 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 doesnt 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 simpleand it
surely would be simple to produce. Disneys multiplayer game Toontown (an
exception to the normally wretched quality of their licensed work) is a good
demonstration of that.
Is there some reason Im missing why no one has done anything of this kind? Why is so much childrens software so bad? Is it the need to appeal to parents with the proposition that its educational, which usually results in insincere, uninvolving, hack-design work in childrens culture as a whole? Anybody got any ideas?