Guest Post: Getting Schooled on Developing the Best Games for Teens and Tweens

Editor’s note: The following guest post was written by Peter Hofstede, the Game Development Director at Spil Games. Spil is billed as the largest independent online gaming platform. As the social games market grows more crowded, developers find themselves competing more and more for audience share. One group that hasn’t been targeted by most studios are in the tween demographic, an audience that Spil’s found success with via its Girls Go Games label. In this article, Hofstede offers advice on how to find success with tweens.

There are over 80 million social games played each day, yet only 15 percent of these games are played more than once by a user. We’re seeing a high level of abandonment in the social gaming space, but keep in mind that many of these games are developed for mass audiences— where it’s very difficult to please everyone. At Spil Games, we prefer to operate in a world where tailoring gaming experiences to niche audiences is an ideal way to reach an engaged consumer base and convert them into loyal users.

Thinking specifically about tween girls, teenage boys or even parents looking to play online games with their kids, developing games for niche audiences can provide a major growth opportunity. If fact, 91 percent of kids are gamers – we know the market is there – it’s simply a matter harnessing these consumers to get them to play your game. When it comes to success, it is crucial for developers to incorporate a user-centered design approach to appeal to niche audiences’ unique interests and behaviors. Getting it right doesn’t require a PhD in psychology, and while it certainly couldn’t hurt, there are several different tactics to understanding the basics throughout the game development process.

I think of it as a three-step design approach:

1. Understand the psychological foundations of the audience for which you are developing.

2. Use focus groups to double-check your findings

3. Validate your game by testing it on real users.

Let’s dive deeper …

I. Open your Textbooks: Psych 101

Before you can get into your audiences’ hands, first things first: Get inside their heads. Specific to the teen and tween demographic, it’s essential to know the basic psychology behind these players so that they will find your game content engaging. In other words: Don’t trust your own “grown up” intuition. The psychology behind gameplay is fascinating to read up on. The incorporation of psychological phenomena, such as a positive feedback loop (continuing an action or behavior because of the reoccurring positive outcome,) for example, has been shown to influence gaming behavior by extending average length of play and recurring gameplay.

It is also important to examine gender differences when developing games to niche audiences. We find that there are many game components that motivate kids in general, but we also see that boys and girls tend to be motivated by different aspects of games, especially for players that fall between the ages of 6-12. For example, younger teenage boys prefer games that are extreme, with winners and losers, and an overtly competitive component where they can clearly show off results.

Tween girls like competition as well, but are also interested in non-competitive gameplay that helps them to develop self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Tween girls are also at an age where they are eager to act out different roles they see exhibited in their daily lives. Understanding that they see their daily role models (parents, older siblings, etc.) duties like feeding household pets and being held accountable for a fulltime job could all translate into successful online game themes.

II. Pop Quiz: Implementing Checklists and Focus Groups in Game Creation

Of course, not everything can be learned from textbooks, or rather, initial psychological or behavioral research. It is just as important to incorporate a human component to the development process by taking a look at focus group reactions, survey findings and direct feedback from niche audiences into making a game as awesome as possible.

In this phase of the game development process, think of your gamers as co-developers, aiding you in fully baking out the perfect game. Surveys and focus groups are the perfect way to test out a brand new game or character and see a small-scale perspective of how your audience will react.

A great focus group example is when we were tasked to rebrand and update a character in one of our staple franchises. The goal was to modernize the female chef character of a cooking game. After several focus groups in Europe, working with hundreds of tween gamers and their parents to determine their thoughts and reactions to the chef character, we ended up fully revamping her wardrobe, hair and makeup to appeal to these tween girls and their parents.

III. Physical Education: Designing User-Interface around Niche Audience’s Anatomy

In phase three of the game development process, that is, having real gamers play completed games in the lab, we have found an essential aspect of developing a game is all too easily forgotten: audience specific usability issues. For instance, with little gamers come little fingers. As a developer, we need to make sure that we are not only creating games kids will love, but also making sure that they can actually play them. The size of these gamers’ hands and fingers directly impact the way they type, hold a mouse and play games on a smartphone or — minor details which can ultimately impact whether a kid loves your game, or wants to throw their dad’s smartphone out the car window!

Specifically, our usability tests reveal several findings. One demonstrated younger kids find holding a tablet device to be very difficult for their little hands. In an attempt to grasp the tablet, the children often accidentally touch the screen with their fingers, which impacts the game controls. Developers can implement more forgiving touch systems to combat this issue, for example by placing the finger closest to a button or active region in control and have all other finger pressure ignored.

Graduation:

We are witnessing a very exciting time for the gaming space but for a developer to survive in this highly populated world, it is essential to take the necessary steps to understand audience behavior. Understanding specific audience preferences and behavior can not only instill confidence in a game’s success post-development, but also help developers allocate resources appropriately throughout the entire process. Developers can use data from focus groups and usability tests to prioritize what to spend the most time on during the creation process. There’s no need to spend hours refining certain animation details if you know your target audience cares more about the potential ways they can customize the game. There are plenty of hit games yet to be developed, we just need to make sure to hone in on the most applicable aspects to incorporate, so that awesome games can reach audiences effectively and start earning return.

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