Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Jonathan Smith, You're My Hero

Of interest: recent coverage of the Nordic Game 2008 conference (a big game industry conference in Sweden), where a keynote was given earlier today by Jonathan Smith, the head of TT Games (Traveller's Tales). TT Games is the development company behind the massively successful LEGO Star Wars titles...a franchise which has now sold over 18 million units and inspired LEGO Indiana Jones and the upcoming LEGO Batman games. According to, Smith started off the conference with some harsh criticisms of the industry's treatment of child players. In describing TT Games' rationale for getting into the business of designing kids' games, Smith stated (as quoted in
"We believed that children were very badly served by the games they were being given...As parents at the time with children ourselves we knew that children were looking for things in games that they were rarely getting. We identified a market opportunity."

According to Smith, in order to address this gap, the team began involving kids in the early stages of the development process, rather than relying solely on market research.
"When people say focus testing I reach for my revolver, because it involves asking a variety of people what they think of an idea, which is a waste of time...What we do is get people to play the game and sit behind them as they play the game and take those lessons directly to influence the level designs."

Smith expresses a lot of enthusiasm about kids' ideas and feelings when it comes to video games, as well as an enormous amount of faith in kids' ability to communicate what does and doesn't work for them. Although this is somewhat contrary to some of the research I've read, I'm a big fan of the idea of child-centered design and exploring new ways of incorporating kids' own needs, ideas, aptitudes, etc., into the design and implementation of digital games...and not merely for educational purposes, but also as part of making games more fun and fulfilling for child players.

I applaud Smith for his critique of commercial kids' games as well. I too think that children are poorly served by the games industry, despite the fact that they are some of its most important and loyal customers. There are a lot of badly designed games out there that get offloaded onto kids, using popular media-brands (Bratz, Spongebob, etc.) as a Trojan Horse to create intertextual value and to get kids' playing them. In my current study of online multiplayer games for kids, I'm definitely finding a repeat of this trend, and it's good to hear from those designers that are trying to break away from the prevailing notion that kids' games should be overly-simplified, repetitive, linear and highly controlled...not to mention excessively commercial.

Not that the LEGO Star Wars games aren't commercial - I definitely place them along a continuum of narrativized and branded toys, with action figures and playsets as key progenitors. But I suppose my hope is that the message in Smith's keynote -- i.e. that the industry needs to become more responsive to kids' needs -- highlights a way for the industry start rethinking their underlying assumptions about kids and their play, which could open up all sorts of possibilities, including (perhaps) a de-commercialization of kids' games to allow for more exciting innovation in themes, storytelling, and player experiences.

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