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Making an MMO For Kids

By Carolyn Koh on February 26, 2010 | Interviews | Comments

Making an MMO For Kids

Carolyn Koh talks to M. Margaret A. Krohn, a Game Designer on SOE's Free Realms about the specific challenges that come up while making an MMORPG targeted at kids.

How does the design roadmap differ in designing for Free Realms as opposed to adult MMOs?  Or does it?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

There are some differences in the overall design process when designing for kids, especially for those of us who don't have kids. When designing Free Realms we had to go outside our comfort zone of developing conventional MMOs. It's sometimes hard to try to put yourself into an eight year olds' shoes, even though at one point in your life, you were there. This is why focus tests and speaking to parents is extremely important. With adults, we can easily speculate what they can understand. Where as, with kids, we can't assume they know how everything works or what certain things mean.


Apart from sex, drugs and alcohol references, what other particulars did you have to take into consideration?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

When it comes to making games for kids, there's an assortment of content and particulars that must be considered. In general, designers have to be cautious when creating content for kids across the board including language choices and chat abilities, online safety measures, clothing designs and even the way opponent NPCs get knocked out when you beat them in combat. Tapping into popular culture, toys, music, fashion and technology is also very important in order to stay fresh and in tune with what kids think is cool these days. But, not only do we have to keep the kid's desires fresh in our minds, we also have to think about how parents will react. Making sure we had a safe game that parents would allow their kids to play was key.

Fun is fun, right? Or did you have to take into consideration the age of kids.  What about gender?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

Fun is fun, but depending on a child's age, the things they are interested in can vary greatly. For example, an eight year old's likes are quite different compared to that of a ten year old. Not only do their interests vary, but one also has to look at the needs and capabilities of the audience- attention span, hand-eye coordination and reading comprehension, et cetera.

Focus testing with kids in our target demographic and talking to parents definitely gave us a better idea of what kind of game children would want to play and what kind of game parents want their children playing. There were times when we were sure a certain minigame or gameplay mechanic was going to be fun, but found out through focus testing with actual kids that the content in question wasn't comprehensive or intuitive enough for kids to really get into it.

Do you take adult age and gender into consideration when designing adult MMOs?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

With adult MMOs, I think gender is taken more into consideration then age. Not that designers necessarily make content specifically for men or women, but using the age examples from above, there's a big difference between an eight year old and a ten year old. Where as, the difference between a thirty-one year old and a thirty-three year old are not as diverse.

Let's take a game from Free Realms - Kart Racing.  Given the popularity of racing games among adults, why do think that a similar feature isn't implemented into say... Star Wars Galaxies in a feature like Pod Racers.  Or EverQuest II.  Griffin races maybe?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

Those all sound like great ideas, but when one looks at the overall design of each of these games, although they are all MMO games, they'll notice that these games vary greatly. Free Realms was created with the intention to allow players to enjoy many types of flash games. Where as, if a designer added a racing flash game to Star Wars Galaxies and or EverQuest II, it might take away from the overall feel and style of the game.

Were you tempted to add educational features into Free Realms?  Were any added?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

I think games are a great medium for kids to learn, but I also feel kids don't want to know they are learning. In Free Realms we did try to create a fun world where kids could just play and explore, but also learn in a non-traditional sense. Players come across a quest here or there with a moral story, a math problem to solve, or a new word to learn.

What did you take away from designing for kids that you feel should be implemented in any design? UI / action / control simplicity?  Is there any reason not to keep things simple?

M. Margaret A. Krohn:

If I had to choose one element that should be implemented in any design, I'd have to say that a designer should always make sure players have a clear direction as to what their objectives are. In my opinion, simplicity is always a great foundation for a kid's game. Simple UI, controls and directives all help increase the fun factor when they are layered on top of compelling content.

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.