For all their aesthetic virtuosity, kids' gaming apps can actually be pretty limiting. Whereas analog toys forced kids to use their imagination, high-tech games with intricate narratives end up doing much of the imagining for them.
It's a problem that has concerned Raul Gutierrez, as both a father of young kids and the founder of the popular Brooklyn-based kids' app company TinyBop. A couple of years ago, the company launched a series of apps called Digital Toys—games, like Robot Factory (which Co.Design reviewed here) and The Everything Machine, that offer a basic framework but allow kids to build their own robots and machines. The latest in the series, on-sale now, goes a step further: in Infinite Arcade kids are not only the players, they're the game's designers, too.
Inspired by classic games from the '90s, Infinite Arcade gives kids the option of building on five arcade-style games—pinball; ball and paddle; maze; platformer; adventure—or building their own from scratch. A toolkit equips them with all the necessities for building out the game, from the terrain to the soundtrack to the obstacles and enemies that need to be defeated. Users can drag and drop these elements onto the basic blueprint. Once the game is built, they can choose from an array of colorful character—i.e. a floating eyeball named Jellyclops, a hulking monster Chompers—to make its way through the game.
"The characters were a launch pad for the whole app," says production designer Holly Graham, who led the design team along with senior designer Roza Gazarian. "We wanted to develop characters with really distinct personalities and interactions, but still leave it open to imagination." To help guide the game development, designers came up with fully fledged backstories for each of the characters, but ended up leaving them out of the final game to give kids room to create their own.
"We wanted to give kids enough open-ended pieces so that they can map their imagination onto them," says Gutierrez. The biggest challenge, he says, was making sure that kids could develop something that, in the end, actually felt like a real game. They held play tests to get feedback from kids in order to get to a delicate balance between offering too much instruction and not quite enough.
The final version of the game has an option to view a manual that tells you what each character does, how the tools work and explains some very bare-bones game basics ("If your character or ball runs out of lives, you lose the game"). But Gutierrez says the guidance is really more for kids who are familiar with the game and want to make it more complex and give it more depth. Otherwise, he says, "we wanted to give a context but making it a creative space. Many kids when they start the app they will recreate something that they know—a version of Mario or a map of their house." But when they become comfortable, they start to create their own stories. "That's when the outcome of the app is totally unexpected," he says.