GameDev Thoughts: How To Design Games For Kids And Younger Audiences

Let’s talk about developing games for the younger crowd. In the past, game developers had to rely on parents’ lack of knowledge of games to sell games to children, usually by building a game around a popular IP like Spiderman or Spongebob. Parents don’t fall for this much anymore, though, and we shouldn’t be scamming our consumers in the first place by peddling poorly made games that piggyback off of popular IPs. Now, how do you properly design a game for a child? It’s certainly one of the toughest design challenges, but hopefully, I can shed some light on the situation as I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a few developers in this particular niche.

So, before you even begin developing, you have to decide what age group you’re targeting. Ages 14 and up can roughly be clumped up into one gigantic group due to interests broadening up, but below that, age is a gigantic factor in what is liked or disliked. According to my experience, they’re usually broken up into sub-categories of a few years in age. For example, “ages 4–6” or “ages 7–9.” A game that’s popular with a 5-year-old with different design sensibilities is very unlikely to be popular with a 12-year-old child. As a result, it’s important to make sure that you hit your mark aiming for what group you’re going for and thoroughly research that demographic. Now, research isn’t enough. Actually go out and do some field testing with in-person surveys if you want to really hit the mark. Talk to the parents of these kids, and ask them exactly what they’re looking for when it comes to games for their kids.

Also, when developing for a specific group, you have to keep their particular nuances in mind. Your youngest audience might not be able to read, and slightly older kids, while capable of playing your game, might not get some social references you put in due to a lack of social awareness. All this being said, there is one universally beneficial tactic you can use: broaden your tutorial as much as possible. Teach your players how to play in as many non-intrusive methods as possible; show pictures, have words in a textbox or on a sign, let audio read those words out, and let them immediately try what they’re learning out. There’s a lot of different ways to learn, and if you can broaden your tutorial you’ll catch as many people as possible. This is especially important for kids as they often won’t want to play a game if they can’t immediately parse most of it, whereas adults might be able to power through confusion to get to the good bits.

In addition to broadening your tutorial, there’s one more golden rule that should always be remembered when developing for kids: don’t talk down to them. Kids are capable of quite a lot if you can guide them through the beginning ropes. Just think of them as adults with very little experience, and you might have a better idea of what to do. If you’re so inclined, don’t develop games specifically for kids, but rather develop games that can be played by kids. There’s a big difference there and it’s the reason why Nintendo is so successful; Nintendo makes great games, even by adult standards, which are playable and still enjoyable by a younger audience.

Important Takeaways: Games designed specifically for kids require a very specific target audience due to their interests changing every few years and their capabilities being vastly varied, such as 5-year-olds not being able to read or 8-year-olds being capable of playing the game but not having a strong grasp on social constructs that you might be utilizing. Do your research on what your age group is looking for as that is something vastly out of the scope of this article. There are a few universally useful things you can do, however; broaden your tutorial to let as many potential players play as possible, and don’t talk down to your players, as kids are capable of quite a lot if you give them a good start. If you don’t want to specifically target kids, you don’t have to, either. Instead, strive to create universally enjoyable games that can be played by kids of all ages.