Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, Felix pleads for some quality when it comes to games for children.
I’m visiting my aunt and uncle in San Francisco. The weather is nice, a blue sky and glaring sun, the state’s notorious fog drifting over a nearby hillside. My cousins, aged 5 and 9 respectively, aren’t frolicking in the sun, however. They’re inside on the Wii. Naturally, I approve, having whittled away many a sunny day on my own console of choice.
As I sit on the couch, acting all adult-like but secretly desiring to join in, I watch as my little cousins struggle to come to grips with the game they’re playing. My aunt and uncle aren’t strict, but these guys’ ages barely figure in the double-digits bracket yet. It’s not like I could suggest Madworld as an appropriate title.
And then it dawned on me. Since when did kid’s games have to suck? I began playing videogames before I’d even joined school, tapping away on an old Sega Mega Drive, insistent on collecting all the emeralds in Sonic. I then graduated to an N64, where I lost myself in the depths of Super Mario, along the way finding a Gameboy and the delights of Pokemon. These games, though colourful and devoid of any real violence, were good. I’ve since gone back to play Mario 64, Ocarina of Time and even Sonic. Nothing’s changed. The quality is still there, the wrappings just a bit old.
Curse of the Wii
The easiest way to understand the declining quality in games for children is the simple fact that kids have lower expectations than we adults do. At least, we’d like to think so. Why should a publisher pump a few million more in the next Horse Land Adventure game, when the target demographic probably won’t even recognise the investment? It’s easier to skimp on quality, but ensure that your product is appealing enough to a buyer at surface value, whether it be a colourful piece of cover-art, or a well-known name attached.
The Wii is partly to be blame for this. It’s success is so rampant, and so intrinsically tied to the fact that it has sold so well because its mined a previously untapped market source; families who’ve never played videogames. The adults can play, and the kids can join in. As long as the game involves them making a fool out of themselves and each other, it’ll probably sell, regardless of the dated graphics or poorly implemented gameplay mechanics. Sensing a trend, publishers jumped on this rocketing bandwagon, fifty dollar bills spewing from its exhaust pipe, and thus we have our annual deluge of children’s games whose scores will plummet on MetaCritic, but that’ll continue to sell well. It’s no wonder kids can’t recognise quality.
The curse extends to film tie-ins, especially those of films obviously geared towards a younger market. The most recent Shrek game, for example, is a prime culprit, a game intended for a younger audience, and as such lacking in such vital areas, like polish and fun. Obviously, developers of film tie-ins work to a short deadline and must create within the boundaries of another, but this is no excuse for producing such abysmal results.
Tales from a Traveler
It would be hyperbolic to state all kid’s games are bad. They’re not. Some are wonderful, like Travelers Tales' Lego franchise, which are both intended for children and adapted from films, so they’re a double victory. They’re a supreme example of translating the source material for videogames, where the audience can interact with a malleable experience and yet still retain the charm and the wonder of their license.
It’s even more admirable when you consider how easy it would have been to simply pump out yet another mediocre game. Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, all billion-dollar franchises with an audience so insatiable they’ll flock to rubbish like The Phantom Menace and The Crystal Skull. But to their credit, Travelers Tales invested the requisite time and effort to produce something so endearing it’s established them as the go-to company for shaping filmic and literary sources to the block-a-block realm of Lego.
Is it really so hard or, perhaps more importantly, expensive, to make good games for children? I’m not so sure. Unlike the late 80s and early 90s, where videogames were still a raw, unknown quantity, publishers now have such a wide array of proven templates to build around, there’s no excuse for poor quality. I’m not advocating that all games must be good because it’s easy to do so, but what I am saying is that publishers should try. You can sense when a game’s been lovingly crafted, it’s an unidentifiable quality all gamers eventually develop the ability to see. It’s present in Travelers Tales' games, and was the heart and soul of many a game I played when I was young, despite the awful graphics and crab-hand controls.
Quantity, Over Quality
I suppose I should halt my assault on greedy publishers, and admit that their business strategy may have some worth involved. Good games don’t always sell, be they geared for children or adults. Beyond Good and Evil, a game I’d personally show to any of my younger relatives, failed to recoup its budget, let alone make a profit. Why should publishers invest their money in a game that might not sell? Sure, it might just mean only two money-baths a week for the corporate bigwigs, but the repercussions ripple further, into job losses further down. It’s a gamble, to invest millions in a game for children, when those very same kids might never notice it.
And thus, the market is saturated. That fear has propelled countless poor games onto shelves, in the vain hope that if you fire enough bullets, you’re sure to hit something. But as Predator proved, you can unload a million bullets into the jungle, but you’re not certain to hit your target. Terrible, and slightly irrelevant, anecdotes aside, whatever good games for children there are, run the risk of drowning beneath the piles of sales fodder churned out every year.
But at least, where adult games are concerned, we are seeing that good games are selling. Bioshock, an underwater dystopian tale about clashing morality and philosophy with mutants thrown in for good measure, sold over a million copies. Hardcore gamers tend to recognise quality, and respond in kind. But with Kinect and Move massing on the horizon, and the deluge of motion-control themed games set to rise exponentially, the future doesn’t look bright.