Parents seek 'first games' with more than just licenses

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Video games for the youngest gamers -- for those between the ages of three and six -- are all about pushing licenses and movie tie-ins, and have little to do with innovation. In short, "they are just crap." Or so says Ben Sawyer, a co-founder of the Serious Games Initiative, a game designer and producer, an author-editor of five books about game development, and father of two -- a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.

Speaking recently before the Montreal International Game Summit, Sawyer is on a personal crusade to convince game developers that "first games" for the very young ought to be not only fun, but a medium that parents and their children can participate in together.

"I just want to play cool games with my kids," he says. "I don't care if they learn something or they don't; this isn't about education. I just want us all to have fun together. Is that so much to ask?"

Instead, he says, all he finds are games that he can watch his kids play ... or games that they can watch him play ... but nothing they can play together.

Sawyer believes this is a tremendous opportunity for game developers to create something innovative for a whole generation of parents who were once gamers, then tuned out, and are now coming back to the video game market seeking shared experiences with their youngsters.

"I've spoken to other parents who agree there's nothing akin to what exists in other media," says Sawyer. "I mean, there are lots of fun books -- like "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" -- that you can read together. And lots of fun movies -- like "Cars" -- that you can watch together. There's even cool music that you can listen to together. But, in gaming, there's only crap, regardless whether it is specialized systems crap, like Vtech or Leapfrog; online Web crap, like Nickelodeon or Disney; or push-my-brand crap, like Elmo or SpongeBob."

In particular, Sawyer takes issue with what he calls "a whole slew of $50 fake computer laptops with so-called learning games embedded into them. The goal of practically every game is the same," he says, "whether it's picking out numbers or finding the words that begin with 'A' or the words that begin with 'B.' What's the difference between 'Dora the Explorer's ABCs' or 'SpongeBob SquarePants' ABCs'? They're all the same; only the licenses are different. The gameplay craftsmanship is simply phoned in."

But Ed Dille believes that the growing popularity of the Nintendo Wii and DS platforms is making accessible software that was previously inaccessible to youngsters.

Dille is chairman and CEO of Philadelphia-based FOG Studios, an agency that represents developers, especially those who create video games based on licenses.

"Until recently," he says, "children's software was largely a PC market which made it difficult for the youngest children to handle the interfaces. But the point-and-click interfaces of the Wii and DS are making Mario-style platform games and classic arcade games easier for them to play. Are these kids' games? I say, 'Yes.' "

Dille agrees that virtually all the "first games" that target a particular topic within a school grade -- whether it be math, vocabulary, spelling, geography, and so forth -- are the same.

"Licensed characters are simply used to provide a familiar framework for each child in which to present the material," he explains. "Multiple character SKUs exist for the same reason there are loads of different licensed lunchboxes. It's not just about getting a lunchbox; it's about getting your child's favorite characters on the lunchbox. Are these logo slaps meant to drive retail sales? Of course, but parents and children demand these choices."

While Dille says he understands Sawyer's interest in sharing the video game experience, he takes issue with criticizing games that youngsters might enjoy but Sawyer may not.

"I can understand wanting to help your kid get even more out of their gameplay," he notes, "but you can't mix our expectations with theirs. My granddaughter's favorite Christmas present was the PlayStation 2 version of 'Dancing With the Stars.' I would rather have sharp pointed sticks shoved into my eyes than play that game, but she loves it and that is good enough for me."

Dille believes that many games have suffered because licensors don't have the expertise to evaluate the games that carry their licenses "beyond making sure the character-style bible and logo placements are followed," he says. "Without that accountability, game publishers have far too much leeway in what they can get away with releasing -- hence the negative consumer feedback that feeds the perception that all licensed product is drivel."

The "first games" situation requires a two-fold solution, claims Sawyer. First, he says, parents must be educated to understand that "a licensed character does not bestow some intrinsic value on a game. Parents believe that, for instance, Disney wouldn't make anything that's not of the highest value for their kids. But take a look at those games. Is there anything of value going on there? Parents need to pay more attention to what they're buying their kids."

Secondly, he says, game developers need to be incentivized to create better "first games" regardless whether they are licensed or not.

"My recommendation to the Disneys and the Warner Brothers and all the other media companies that are licensing their characters to developers is to understand that there's a real opportunity here to appeal to this newly emerging parent who was once a gamer and now wants to share video game time with their kids."

Sawyer recently met with other developers for a day at MIT to discuss how the issue of creating better "first games" can be approached.

"What it comes down to is better innovative design -- and parents encouraging better innovative design through their pocketbooks," he says. "Don't let anyone tell you that if the game is appealing to the parent then it's going to be too difficult for the kid. I say that's bunk. That's just a design problem, just a design problem."
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