The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

November 1997

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 11 October 97 Copyright ©1997 alt.screenwriters
Writing for the children’s interactive market isn’t something you turn to just because you happen to like kids as a rule.

But if you love your craft, and lavish attention on your characters and how they react to the world, your screenwriting skills may cross over into the children’s interactive arena. Characters are one matter, but they’re only a start. Can you then craft a good story around the game? Can you make it appropriately challenging for the target ages of your audience? And, of course, is the story/gameplay fun for that age level?
With kids’ titles (that don’t fall into the twitch genre) it’s story that holds games together. Great kids’ stories, the ones they want to experience over and over again (nauseatingly so sometimes), mean a high replayability factor. And replayability is key to an interactive title’s success. Fortunately, stories are now starting to be a standard part of curriculum-based edutainment titles — they’re not limited to “pure entertainment”any more.
Because we’re dealing with the interactive world, a storyline doesn’t have to be complicated to work. But it should be complete. And it has to make sense within the confines of the product.
At one extreme, a simple “storywrap” serves as the thread that holds the entire product together. It “wraps” everything in the game environment, helps move the action forward, and links the game’s activities. Think of it as a keystone in the “wall” of activities and puzzles that brick by brick fit into the environment of the game (the location where all the action takes place) and the player’s journey through it.
At the other end, a 3-act story can be (to switch metaphors) the meat of a game seasoned with activities and puzzles that challenge the child’s imagination, his logical-thinking capacity, or his problem-solving skills.
Regardless of whether it’s a simple wrap or three acts, the story should add fun and playfulness to the game.
Being able to take a story and branch it is yet another skill set — one that is perhaps best suited for the “anal” at heart (which we realize reveals something about this column’s authors). And creating puzzles, activities, and little mini-games within a game is one more element of writing for children. But being a world-class puzzle master isn’t what’s needed. Kids’ titles need to be challenging, not complicated. The two are often confused. Nobody wants to produce a game for a kid that frustrates the hell out of him. But without conscious effort, it can easily happen…
Just when you think “I can do that” — we switch you to the reality that all ages are not entertained equally. Adults are adults, but kids, well … writing for a 3 year old is very different from writing for an 8 year old. And do you even want to think what it’s like writing for a 14 year old?
The children’s market is highly specialized by age range. The breakdown falls along the same lines as those drawn by traditional publishing. Hey, they’ve been doing it for a hundred years, and it works. But interactive publishers do take advantage of the fact that parents will always buy up for their kids, using the mindset that “My kid is only 2, but she’s as smart as a 4-year-old, so I’ll buy the game for ages 3 to 6.”
Age ranges for most commercial titles are typically broken down as: 3-6, 6-10, 8-12, 12 and up. Occasionally, curriculum-based/edutainment titles target certain grade levels in school. The “sweet spot” phenomenon defines who the game is EM>really intended for. So, if you have a title that’s for the 6-10 age range, chances are the sweet spot is 7-to-8-year-olds. This means that parents of 4 and 5 year olds are going to buy up, some 6 year olds will be sophisticated enough to play it, and some of the 9 and 10 year olds might like it enough to keep it around for a while. But you’re really targeting that narrower group of 7-8 year olds.
So why bother saying it’s for a bigger audience? That broader age range will convince Marketing the project’s going to sell wide enough, even though you know who’s really going to have the most fun with it. Does the writer care? Absolutely. If you’re doing a title with puppies, for example, you want enough edge in at least one of the characters to appeal to the 9 and 10 year olds, but you can’t be so “out there” that the littler ones won’t like it. Plus, you’ve got to be careful not to make it too “girl-like” or it won’t sell through to boys who might have fun playing it.
When in doubt, use the Barney rule. Three and 4 year olds love him, but the 7 year old’s version of Barney’s theme song tells it all: “I hate you, you hate me, together we can kill Barney.” You don’t want to create something for your target audience that older kids wouldn’t be caught dead playing — it’s the ultimate humiliation. Remember, it’s the writer’s job to make sure these products span the ages, and it’s also the writer’s job to keep ’em coming back for more.

Written by tborst

October 11, 1997 at 7:26 pm

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