MMO Family: Four ways to improve kid-friendly MMOs

Minecraft flame field
Right now, there's a small war going on in our house. It's winter, we're all cooped up inside, and we're interested in different games. What's particularly interesting is that my kids will tolerate most of the games I play and join in, except for one: Star Wars: The Old Republic. They aren't remotely interested in it, and any time I fire it up, they push back by demanding their favorite game, which is Minecraft.

It got me thinking about why kids would prefer a 16-bit, block-shaped world to a glitzy, voiced-over, multi-million dollar title. Adult gamers love to hash out why they love one game over another, but what makes games appealing from a kid's perspective? Furthermore, we often see differences in kid-friendly MMOs and their features compared to games for grown ups, but can those features be improved?

Chat filters

It's almost a requirement for kid-friendly MMOs to have some sort of chat filter. But too often, the filters are too heavy-handed and end up stifling conversation in an effort to keep things safe. It's frustrating for a child to type out a question in game only to have it show up as, "How do I @#%$@#$# the #$!@#! for the quest #!@$@?" Younger children in particular get upset and annoyed because typing is new to them, so it takes a while to find all the letters and put a sentence together. On top of it all, kids who want to get their profanities through will always end up finding a way to spell a word that gets past the filter.

It would be nice to have a better, and smarter, chat filter, but that's hard because there are plenty of words that, depending on the context, can be completely innocuous but also very inappropriate. Another option is providing ways to toggle it on or off, which some games do well. That way, you can turn it off if Mom or Dad is sitting close by and able to keep an eye on things, or you can keep it on for when the kids want to play on their own.

Pets with a purpose

Again, it's hard to find a kid-friendly MMO that doesn't have some type of purchasable pet. But they're almost always just vanity pets -- pixelated collectibles that follow you around but don't really have much of a purpose.

The parent in me almost would love to see vanity pets disappear from kid (and even adult) MMOs. Pets are an easy thing to stick in a cash shop, and since they're so cute, and since everyone is running around with one, we're faced with the high-pitched spam of, "Mom, pleeeeeeeease?" And as soon as you give in an buy one, it becomes uninteresting and forgettable because it doesn't have any real value or appeal. If you're part of a family that plays a variety of games, you end up going through this same scenario over and over. I think our household now has as many variations of unicorns and puppies as grains of sand on a beach. If we're going to see pets as standard in kid-friendly MMOs, I'd love to see more games do something with them to give them a purpose.

Minecraft enderman
Invisible walls and gated content

Want to frustrate a kid? Draw in an interesting horizon and then put an invisible barrier in front of it. Kids love to explore, and my two children will often find some really neat spots that I'd otherwise run past and never notice. I can't tell you how many times I've watched my kids reach the top of a mountain, overlooking an amazing vista, and then run smack into an invisible barrier when they try to jump down toward it. Even minor things like running down ramps can be a hassle, since some games prevent you from shortcutting and jumping off the side. If kids can see a location, and it appears reasonable to reach, games need to make it so.

Even worse is gated content because kids don't always appreciate being told they can't see a certain area because they're too low-level. Heck, even adults get turned off by games with gated content, especially endgame content that requires you to gear up and raid if you want to see it. Locking out players based on arbitrary rules isn't really appealing to anyone, but it's especially frustrating to kids. And every time my kids reach an entrance to an area that's locked out to them, and they ask why, I never really have a good answer.

Intrinsic fun (dial down the achievements)

Back when Jesse Schell gave his talk about how achievements would come to dominate our everyday life, people debated whether or not it would happen and whether or not this would be good. But we're already seeing a generation of kids grow up on video games, and they're growing used to having their gameplay be driven by achievements. What's suffering is the intrinsic fun of playing the game, and I think this is one of the main reasons why my kids insist on Minecraft over SWTOR. The open-ended world of Minecraft gives them the freedom to explore without barriers and to create whatever they want, wherever they want. They aren't playing because they're trying to unlock an achievement, gain experience, or open a new level, and they actually complained a bit when Minecraft added in experience orbs. (They have yet to even notice the achievements and probably could care less). Their main reason for playing the game is just simple fun, and there's nothing pushing them to play a certain way. In fact, they might start off a session with one idea in mind and finish by doing something completely different.

At GDC in Austin this past fall, I listened to Laralynn McWilliams give a talk about how game designers need to stop making games for themselves. She specifically discussed how hard it is for adult designers to get passionate about creating for a genre that they might not particularly care for, like kids games. I think that's an important point because features that work well in "grown-up" games don't translate well to kid-friendly ones. What's fun and compelling to an adult might not be so for kids, and sometimes games slip into a cookie-cutter routine of repeating features in games without thinking through whether there might be a better way to do it or whether it might be better to do something completely different. Kid-friendly MMOs are a relatively new genre, and there are some great titles out there that have helped raise the bar, but hopefully, designers will continue to build games around the perspective of a younger player rather than through the lens of an old, jaded adult gamer. In the meantime, I'll be kept plenty busy tending to my herd of unicorns and puppies!

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to karen@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.