Pushing the bar high: Roblox
Too often, MMOs that are made for a young audience are almost too easy. The phrase "dumbed down" gets tossed around all the time with adult MMOs, but it probably applies even more to kid-friendly ones. I like how Roblox basically says to kids, "We know that programming and game design is hard, but we want you to have the chance to do it anyway." You can manually pick up and manipulate blocks and items to build your world, but those who want to really push themselves can use the Roblox Studio to edit worlds and learn Lua along the way. In addition, there are regular updates on the Roblox blog that explain a lot of the "behind the scenes" work that goes into game updates, and it's written in a way that treats kids like adults. The process isn't over-simplified, and I like that because it gets kids thinking and asking questions about new ideas and concepts that they might not understand at first. We need more MMOs like that.
Many kid-friendly MMOs avoid putting danger out in the open world. They tend to tuck the bad guys safely away in instances, so players have to opt-in to danger, and they can't be attacked when they're running around the world with others. I like the fact that Wizard101 didn't shy away from that. The game strikes a great balance between putting the bad guys in the streets and pathways but keeping the sidewalks safe. Our kids aren't going to be traumatized by a little danger, and it actually gives a nice challenge in the form of travel (something that's largely missing from kid-MMOs).
Similarly, I love the fact that you can freely enter a battle with other players without having to formally make a group. Adult MMOs have begun to add similar systems more recently, but KingsIsle was doing it years before. For kids, it's fun to hop into a fight that's going on in the road, and even though the players aren't formally grouped, they tend to adventure together from there. The fact that it's an organic thing rather than a formal, forced scenario makes it more low-key and relaxed.
This needs to be standard in every game, not just kid-oriented games. If it's a game with quests, there should be an option to just say, "I can make better use of my time than holding down the run button and navigating back over terrain I've crossed a dozen times before to visit an NPC that I've already talked to several times, so just take me there!" Granted, you can't put all that in a hotbutton, so I'll take Free Realms' condensed version any day. When you click on the button, a little path lights up on the ground and your character begins to run along to the destination (if it's really far, you'll even use the travel stones to port there and then run). Travel for the purpose of doing vanilla kill quests or delivery quests isn't really travel as much as it is busy work. I'd love to see travel have more of a challenge in kid-MMOs, but in the meantime, if we have to quest, let us have a Take Me There button.
I know, I know, Minecraft isn't technically an MMO, but when I watch my kids' cousins log into the Massively Minecraft server (no relation to the site) or watch my kids set up a LAN World, it sure looks like an MMO to me, so I'm adding it to the blender. What I particularly like about the recent option to make your world sharable by network is that it gives kids a chance to play in a world with friends and family they know and trust. Similarly, the ability to run their own worlds on their own servers is something I'd love to see in more kid-friendly MMOs. The LAN World option gives kids a safe place to play with others without parents needing to keep a close eye on what strangers are saying and doing in the persistent MMO world. And the ability for kids to run their own worlds on servers creates a neat role-reversal: They become the GMs and assume all the responsibilities that go with the authority. They're in charge of setting the parameters of what's allowed and not allowed in their world. They make the choice of whether to focus on building, creating, survival, or PvP. They are the admins of the white list, and they have to decide how to manage things in the world they create. The internet with its blank-slate anonymity has allowed both kids and adults to be at their absolute worst if they choose to do so. It's a refreshing change to see kids realize that there are consequences and responsibilities, and what better way to practice than in virtual worlds?
Crafting isn't something that's as common in kid MMOs as it is in grown-up ones. I'm guessing that's probably because crafting can be so darned complicated with all of the components, combines, and inventory management involved. But it really doesn't have to be that convoluted, and I'd love to see more kid-friendly MMOs have a crafting system like Minecraft's. It's intuitive and clear, and that's really what all crafting should be like when you get down to it. Why do I need essences, powders, dusts, and weird fragments to make armor or a sword? Why can't I just take some metal, put it in the shape of what I want to make, and then make it? The irony is that Minecraft's crafting has morphed into something similar to what's in standard MMOs, with enchanting and potion making, and I've noticed that the kids and their friends have pretty much ignored the newer stuff so far. A clear system of crafting that makes sense, like what Minecraft originally had, would be in my ultimate kid-MMO.
I was a little skeptical about the boardgame-style of Pirate101 at first, but I like the end result, which is that players are free to absorb and enjoy the animation, pacing, and excitement of the battles. They aren't missing out because their eyes are focused on hotbuttons and the UI. I'd love to see more MMOs (and not just the kid-friendly ones) move away from complicated hotbars and data-heavy UIs and more toward a system of combat in which your eyes are on the action. Age of Conan approached that with cues that made you react to the action between characters, but it was still a little clunky. The turn-based system that Pirate101 uses slows things down enough so that there's time to think about the next move, time to coordinate with others, and time afterward to sit back and watch Egg Shen or Nanu Nanu perform their impressive moves.
I'm always astounded at what EverQuest II players can build in game, and I love checking out highlights from the Norrathian Homeshow and the Hall of Fame in the in-game directory. But I'm even more amazed at the fact that the relatively young playerbase of CWA has created things that are right on par with the best of EQII's housing community. At first, I would enter a housing plot and assume that the fort or ship or temple was a pre-built item that was placed, and only after further inspection did I realize that players had placed the tiles, panels, and staircases piece by piece to construct it. CWA has added a lot of basic building items that players have used in ways I would never have imagined, and the addition of open plots has led to some really cool creations. I've ranted before about the cookie-cutter, isometric rooms that so many MMOs give to players, and I resent the fact that that's their idea of a creative outlet for kids. More games need to include a deeper housing system like what's offered in CWA. In fact, the detailed look of the items in CWA, plus the building options from Roblox, would make for an amazing system.
I have to add this one because I think every game needs a speeder bike race, regardless of genre. My inner kid had pined to recreate the chase scene in Endor, with Princess Leia and the Stormtroopers dodging trees and gunfire. So I was thrilled to see my little Jedi character race around the streets of Coruscant and through the frozen valleys of Orto Plutonia. Minigames in kid-friendly MMOs can sometimes be a bit bland, but this one definitely takes the cake. In fact, I never thought I'd say it, but I think BioWare should actually work on something similar in SWTOR.
That about sums up what I'd want to see in a kid-friendly MMO. When games treat young players as young adults, and when game companies are encouraging kids to push themselves rather than coddling them with safe and oversimplified games, we get games that are appealing to everyone, even adults. Let kids fail here and there, give them hard challenges, and watch the amazing stuff that kids will be able to do as a result.
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