Talking Games: Gross, animals, abstract… How to choose a theme for a kids’ game?
When designing a mass market kids’ game, what makes for a great theme?
From Hungry Hungry Hippos to Gator Golf, it would appear you can’t go too far wrong with animals. Soggy Doggy, Pig Goes Pop, Foxy Pants, Rattlesnake Jake, Burping Bobby…. A fun animal doing something eye-catching – and a great name – seem a winning formula.
Burping Bobby’s windy hippo falls into another area that seems to be a breeding ground for game concepts: the stinky, slimy, gloopy world of all things gross. Flushin’ Frenzy, Don’t Step In It, Gassy Gus, Doggie Doo, Gooey Louie, Pimple Pete, Skid Markz… They all bank on kids’ evergreen love for burps, farts, boogers and poop – and again, they all boast great names.
It’s worth stressing this space isn’t limited to animal games and titles based around gas. It’s a vast sector with an eclectic raft of themes. You have an OAP being blown around in Windy Knickers. Felines going boom in Exploding Kittens. Furniture spitting out goodies in Grouch Couch. Aliens taking off in Drone Home. The list goes on and each year brings with it more fantastic eclectic themes.
We spoke with Big Monster Toys’ Sam Unsicker, Peggy Brown Creative’s Peggy Brown, Ulco’s Don Ullman, Creating Unique Toys’ Adam Borton, PlayLenz’s Richard Heayes and ToyZone’s Alex Prieto to find out what guides their approach to inventing great kids’ games.
Sam Unsicker, Big Monster Toys
“From my experience, there is no “one way” to come up with a game for kids, but I will say that there is one little trick that I have used a time or two and that is… Cliches and idioms. Some of the wackiest sayings from culture involve animals – but are used in ways that you don’t normally think of that animal. For example, Cold Turkey… That’s a saying used for stopping something immediately, but we took it and made a “plucked” and shivering bird that kicked ice cubes out of a frozen pond! As stupid as that is – it has had great success for many years! Ants in the Pants is another example of a cliche/idiom turned into a game. Again, I don’t believe there’s a perfect way of coming up with a game – but this is one way that certainly works!”
Peggy Brown, Owner, Peggy Brown Creative Consulting
“Game themes and builds run in bunches, like highway traffic. Somebody will come out with a certain theme – whether it’s gross, animal-focused, abstract or whatever – and others quickly follow. Then, by the time most decide it’s a solid trend and move to get on board, it’s too late – or they simply swamp the market and drown the theme. The good news is it all cycles over time… If you’re too late on one trend, wait a few years and you can hit it when it comes back around. Or better yet, ‘start’ it later when it seems fresh and new. That being said, I’ve always believed we’re better off sticking with fun and funny instead of gross, cheeky, animal-focused, abstract, etc… Fun and funny never gets stale, and the longer I watch the churn, the less I know about how to predict the next hot tamale.”
Don Ullman, Owner, Ulco Toy & Game Co.
“Picking themes for kids’ games is tricky and I’m not sure there is a specific formula; at least we haven’t found one. These are some of the steps we take in hopes of landing on a good theme…
- We look around at retail and try to find an under-represented animal – or some other inspiration – and look to build off that.
- We look at the current trends.
- We play with fun names and see where that takes us, because sometimes a good name will dictate the theme.
- We might have a cool mechanism or pay-off idea that lends itself to a particular theme.
Any combination of these things may lead to a game theme that can resonate!
And while it’s great to deliver a great game mechanic and a great theme together, we have had experiences where we didn’t deliver the perfect theme but the mechanic or pay-off was good enough that we licensed it anyway. Sometimes a licensee might be able to put the perfect theme on it.
We also try not to go too far into left field for kids’ games. Ultimately for a kids’ game to successful, it has to be in their ‘knowledge universe’, although with humour you can push the boundaries a bit.”
Adam Borton, Founder, Creating Unique Toys & The Toy and Game School
Choosing an appealing theme is tricky… If you get it right, you’ve got many more hurdles to overcome afterwards as a great theme alone is not enough! If you get it wrong, it may not matter how good the game is!
For me, theming a game goes with the idea stage. If I brainstorm some ideas and can’t find a great fit between theme and gameplay, then it’s not worth spending time on. Sometimes, great gameplay might result from the idea stage but it doesn’t match the theme – so the story of the game wouldn’t make sense. That’s when the theme can be changed to more closely match the gameplay.
You have to find the balance between mass market appeal and saturation with a theme – there are lots of cat and dog games, but it’s harder to stand out. Whereas there aren’t many pangolin games – but very few people even know what a pangolin is!
In the past few years, toy and game companies have tried to theme games based on trends. This is risky as once the theme goes out of fashion, the game might too. Games need to have gameplay that allows that theme to have a life past the trend.
Theme is an important factor when creating a game – but it’s only the start. There are many games with the same theme but they don’t all succeed.
Richard Heayes, Founder, PlayLenz & Heayes Design
“It’s important, whatever you are creating, to be flexible with your approach. A fun name, a quirky character or a little mech can all be the starting points to create a fun kids’ action game. That said, I do tend to have basic gameplays in mind that I think can be fun to play and age appropriate. But in order to create a product around that, the name and story are key; they are the glue that holds it all together. The story and theme can then enhance the basic gameplay you had in mind.
An example was a game I created some years back called Monkey Madness. I had an idea to use an inflatable as the main component of the game to make something with physical presence, but that was light, cost effective and easy to set up. That soon fused with another idea I had where you’d hammer a spring-loaded base and collect items in a hammer head with a one-way entrance. The result was a tree whose coconuts fell down when you smashed its base. On top was King Ape who had a stash of coconuts that you were trying to plunder.
The gameplay certainly was pretty mad, with a large inflatable tree and coconuts bouncing all over the floor that kids raced to smash and collect with their hammers.”
Alex Prieto, Director of Fun, Eolo Toys & ToyZone
“At ToyZone, we focus on four main questions:
- Are we going to have fun in the process?
- Is it a global, well-known, classic concept or a current global trend?
- Is the concept ‘Wow’ enough? By ‘Wow’, we mean amazing action, speed or a reveal.
- Will families want to play it again and again and again?
From there, we go straight to the fun of developing a new game!”
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