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MMO Family: Moving beyond the mundane in kid-friendly MMOs

Karen Bryan

We're about to enter the "dog days of August," and lately, I've felt as if I'm in the dog days of kid-friendly MMOs. There are many titles to choose from, yet many of them feel all too familiar, and after a while, they start to blend together. Of course, there are some that push the boundaries and shine, and I've been trying to cover those in this column. But in this week's MMO Family, I'd like to get my rant on and look at a few characteristics of kid-friendly MMOs that really need to go. They've outlasted their welcome and are holding back the genre, so I'm calling them out!

Isometric viewpoint

I know that it's probably a lot easier (and by extension, more budget-friendly) to design a game with a fixed camera angle and square-shaped areas, but there are a couple of reasons that needs to go. First, there are so many games like this that it's no one game stands out in the sea of titles; you could take a screenshot from one game and it would look like a scene from all of the others. If the goal is to make a vanilla MMO with pretty colors, click to move, and some pretty basic gameplay, then isometric viewpoint is the way to go. I think kids deserve a little more, though.

The other reason isometric viewpoint should disappear from kid-friendly MMOs is that it just doesn't fit well. MMOs shine when they allow you to connect with your character and immerse yourself in the world. It's much harder to get that experience from the distant viewpoint and fixed camera. The experience is more like manipulating a small action figure rather than playing the role of the character you've created. It might seem like a small difference, but I think it plays a huge role in how long someone sticks with a particular MMO.

Big heads (and eyes, and hands, and feet)

I understand the reasoning behind making avatars with large facial features, and I know that it's just a way to make a cuter, more kid-pleasing world. But even the MMOs that are aimed at "tweens" tend to have characters with exaggerated features. I'm not saying that it has to be 100% anatomically correct, just that I think the industry can get a little more creative with character options. Unless there's some focus group or some batch of research out there that shows an overwhelming majority of young players demanding huge heads and big, adorable eyes, game studios should try to break away from it. Heck, one of the most recognizable and most popular characters that kids play right now is Steve, the Minecraft guy, and he's a blockhead with some forgettable clothing.

MMO Family Moving beyond the mundane in kidfriendly MMOs
Boring rooms

This one ties in with the isometric viewpoint, but it seems like every one of those MMOs will at some point present every player with his own room. It's always done in a way that's designed to make the player feel excited about getting his own chunk of the world to design as he likes, but in reality, it's just a blank square, usually accompanied by a table and a lamp. Not exactly worthy of confetti and trumpets, is it?

I must have at least a dozen rooms in a dozen different games that all look exactly the same: bed, lamp, painting, couch, and table (although sometimes I put my painting on different walls because I'm a rebel). Studios can do much better than that, and no, giving me a green square to design a backyard is not the answer. This is actually an area that kid-friendly games and adult MMOs have in common, since user-generated content tends to be family-friendly. In fact, I happen to know of a great column that explores user-generated content across the MMO landscape!

Metric-driven items

The more I hear about the use of metrics in MMOs, the more I dislike them, and I could probably make a pretty good Soapbox from my views. I think metrics are important, but they're being used the wrong way more than I'd like. They're great when they're used to find and fix the rough spots in the game and make a game that's more fun and more compelling. Too often, they're used to manipulate players into forking over lots and lots of money. I resent the fact that some game studios play head games with us to get us to click on a promotion or buy an item, but I think it's particularly unseemly when it's done to a young playerbase. I'd like to think that MMOs, and kid-friendly MMOs in particular, are created and designed with the goal of creating a place for young players to explore, solve puzzles, have fun, and maybe even learn along the way. But with metrics-driven design, MMOs risk becoming all-encompassing efforts to get players to long for that new coat, fancy ride, or cool haircut. I actually think that in the long run, the game that will win out will be the one the first example because players will have a richer experience from a game that's designed around ideas rather than data.

If I had to find the one common thread in each of these examples, it would be laziness. It's not that these game design choices are horrible, it's just that they've been done so many times in so many games that continuing to do them shows a lack of care for the target audience. Fortunately, there are many great MMOs out there that aren't designed around "the usual," but it would be nice to see more in development for the future because this is a genre that's really only blossomed within the past five years and still has enormous potential. It doesn't require huge studios and multi-million dollar budgets necessarily, just a greater understanding of young players and a desire to make something that goes beyond the conventional.

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

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