If you’re involved in making games for kids then you’ll know how hard it is to attract and retain your players. Advertising opportunities are limited because younger children are hard to reach. Cross promotion can be frowned upon, and anyway, it’s rarely the children playing our games who make the decision to install or purchase – that power lies with a parent.
You’ll also have considered updates, nags, timers and notifications. But of course, all these mechanics have a negative impact when applied to younger children as players.
So what should producers of children’s games be doing to improve acquisition and retention?
One element of your strategy should be the role that creativity plays in your games.
The giants of kid’s entertainment are rushing toward open world games right now because creativity in games is what players crave, and as an acquisition tool, creativity has proven to outperform marketing and advertising.
Below we outline five simple creative game mechanics that will encourage younger players to return to your game, bring their friends along and build trust with parents.
One: Reward experimentation
Making a game world believable is important, and having appropriate reactions to the player’s actions cements this. As players we all quickly find and challenge the constraints of the world we are placed in. Young players are no different, they start to explore ‘What if…’ scenarios. When you reward players for experimenting they are encouraged to be creative, new behaviours emerge, and they become engaged for longer.
Experimentation and reaction are the fundamental building blocks (sorry for the pun) of building games like Minecraft and LEGO World. But you don’t need an open world and a blockbuster budget to take advantage of your player’s desire to experiment.
In Disney’s Phineas and Ferb: Tower-inator, we took the familiar theme of knocking down structures and added creative puzzle elements that reward experimentation with amusing and often explosive outcomes.
Two: Allow content creation and sharing
A lot of games use create, share and reward mechanics as a way of getting their players to invite friends. Farmville was famous for using this as its controversial “winning and addicting” strategy where players were rewarded with in-game currency for bringing their friends in to play. Farmville may lack overt creativity (or perhaps not), but that share and reward mechanic works devilishly well. Can that ever apply to kids’ games?
Sharing mechanics can be positive mechanics. Sending a friend your best go at an endless runner, so they can race against your ‘ghost’ – that’s positive sharing. Taking a selfie of you with your game avatar, or the end of level boss to prove you just beat it – again, a positive mechanic.
Sharing on mainstream social media may be limited to older kids and early teens, but that doesn’t stop parents sharing via those channels. And most websites that are popular with children have their own, trusted methods of sharing and promoting content, BBC iD for example.
Need to know where kids are going online? Common Sense Media have an excellent summary of the social media apps kids are using in the US that’s relevant to Europe also.
Three: Ask players to change your game
Why not give players the ability to edit and change the game you make?
Providing simple game editing features allows players to get creative, adding depth and encouraging replays. Players might change how your game ends, or perhaps even finish your deliberately unfinished game for you.
The Coding Revolution has happened in classrooms, and children of all ages are now learning the basics of programming and logic. There are dozens of games making apps available on the Appstore, so why not include a simple, visual way of allowing players to modify and share your game?
Four: Let players choose the story
Allowing players to make decisions that change their path through a predefined story means creating freedom and a sense of uniqueness, plus, of course, replayability.
Sure there’s some complexity here, but allowing players to branch your story, then tasking game designers with guiding them safely through to points where those branches converge, ensures a well curated experience.
In The Kid and I we designed dozens of story branches that allow older children and teenagers to explore the stigma of mental health in classrooms.
Five: Bring the player’s world into your game world
Some of the motivators for creativity that children experience in the real world are things you can bring into games. Kids love showing the results of their real world creativity (a drawing or a simple story) to a parent or teacher because gaining their approval is a great reward.
You can tap into this behaviour by including simple features that bring elements of that approval and reward mechanic into your games. For example, adding a snapshot of your player’s creation to the camera roll for a parent to see later, or having the game ask a parent to record their praise, so children can go back and replay it later.
The constraints around promoting and marketing games for kids can be a healthy thing. If you’re commissioning or producing games in that space, you should be challenging your developers to consider how putting creative game mechanics into their games could help better engage players and encourage sharing among their friends.