Your questions answered: how to design games children want

By Ben Templeton, News

This Q&A highlights some of the questions raised in our recent webinar masterclass, ‘How to Design Games Children Want’ on July 6th 2016. Here Phil Stuart, co-founder and Creative Director of Preloaded, discusses the webinar’s themes in more detail.

Access the webinar video here.



How transferable are the key principles to different audiences, such as kids with special needs or adults?

Phil Stuart: They are principles that can work for any audience and are about designing inclusive solutions. They can scale really easily so we’ve used them to work with a wide age range and with kids of mixed abilities including those with special needs.

We do a lot of work in the training space as well, looking at how we can design experiences for people who are in the professional workplace, and we’re working on a cognitive development product for 65 year olds. The same principals have worked out really nicely across them all.

These principles work for both digital and physical games but how applicable are they to emerging tech, such as augmented reality or virtual reality?

PS: They are principles that we apply when we are designing games for any platform because they are technology and platform agnostic. Virtual reality (VR) I think is inherently low threshold. We talked about diegetic interface in the webinar and a lot of design principals in VR now are moving towards trying to use physical props for interface.

One of the challenges with VR is high ceilings because often what you’re being asked to do is quite simple and it can feel quite “on rails”. And likewise with wide walls, you don’t necessarily have many options. I think as principles they’re a great way of trying to build a really high quality VR experience, but certainly there are challenges within that technology at the moment.

Does making a game simple mean it provides less learning content to the audience?

PS: When we’re talking about low threshold we’re not really talking about making the game simpler, we’re just trying to make that onboarding experience as simple as possible. We spend our time making games about very complicated things and whenever I speak to the people we’re working with I try to avoid the word simple because it’s really about making complexity understandable. So I don’t think low threshold means a simple game but it can mean a simple onboarding experience.

Low thresholds – the in-line Crafty Cut tutorial

Referring to high ceilings, if offering easy, medium and hard levels, do children generally go for the harder option or do they start with the easier and work up?

PS: It really depends on the child; different children do different things. The key is to make failure fun, so if someone starts on a hard level they don’t feel put off and always see an option to go easier if they need to. You can build intelligence into the game too, so if someone plays hard and they fail, it could say ‘try again’ or ‘try easier’ for example.

High ceilings – difficulty levels in TyrAnt

How can you make failure fun and at the same time avoid frustration?

PS: That’s all about game design and building an experience that gives strong and positive feedback. We talk a lot about design juice and designing that really juicy experience that you just want to do again and again. I think Angry Birds is a good example of fun failure; it’s delightful just to watch your bird squawk across the screen. It’s really about understanding what people like and trying to build the most juicy experience possible.


Fun failure and easter eggs in Happy Studio

What impact do the principles have on the budget of the game and on the time of development?

PS: We use these principles in order to build the best product we can and we find that trying to arrive at the best product without them can be quite a long process. Delivering games with a low threshold experience, for example, will make the tutorial design so much simpler and allow you to build a product much quicker. It also gets you much closer to the audience so you really understand what they need and can cut down creation time, so I think the principles can save time and budget, because time is budget.

What’s your favourite key skill and what’s the one that you feel embodies these principles?

PS: I’ve shown a lot of my favourite skills today and I’m a big fan of Minecraft as it seems to deliver them all. We’re also increasingly looking at digital and physical play here at Preloaded and have been playing with Lego in the studio, and I think for me that feels like the best encapsulation of these principles. It’s low threshold, you pick it up as you play with it; high ceiling, I can make anything I want and widewalls, I can choose what I want to do. I always think about Lego whenever I’m trying to improve my understanding.

How do you go about weaving learning objectives into your games without it feeling clumsy?

PS: That is the biggest challenge we face every day when making learning games. We really buy into the Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (MDA) framework, so when we receive a brief with learning objectives, we like finding a way of embedding those learning objectives into the mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics of the game design. When you can get them as close and as interweaved as possible, you can achieve a product that has a balance of game integrity and educational integrity.

One of the reasons the low threshold principle is so important is that we want people immersed in the game as quickly as possible rather than having to learn how to play a game about learning. The learning and mastery of a game should be about the learning and mastery of the content.

That’s all quite theoretical, but the way we practically do it is we have an amazing team of game designers, instructional designers and educators who have an appreciation for the content and bring together the best of their expertise to create games with purpose.

Blending learning content with the core mechanic in Story Cards

How do you win round the publisher? How do you get people to understand it’s worth spending money to make it truly engaging?

PS: We try to set out our stall as a company that wants to make high quality games, and what makes us interesting as a studio is that we attract people from not only the games world but from education, training and health industries because they too are passionate about making high quality games.

The best way to win people round is through results and our results are very good. As a studio we put a lot of focus on how we really deliver learning efficacy alongside engagement. It’s about demonstrating to the publisher, client or collaborator that engagement with a good quality game will deliver deeper learning and better results. It’s about framing the projects KPIs for the success criteria in the context of the game you want to make.

A fan of arts, culture, capoeira and cups of medium strength tea. Above all, Ben is passionate about the power of play to transform the way we learn. Since 2005 he has created learning games for businesses, brands and cultural organisations around the world.

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