How to find opportunities in the kids game market | Nick Button-Brown interview How to find opportunities in the kids game market | Nick Button-Brown interview
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There’s still a lot of gloom in the video game business, but it’s not a universal feeling. Nick Button-Brown, chairman of Outright Games, feels like things are better in the market for kids games.

Outright Games has been successful in launching a bunch of games based on the Bluey, Paw Patrol, Transformers and Peppa Pig brands. I spoke with Button-Brown about the kids’ game market just after the conclusion of the Dice Summit event in Las Vegas.

It might seem like kids are easily entertained. But it’s not easy making games that balance the fun across multiple age groups.

Button-Brown used to make shooter games and other titles for adults. But when the kids were growing up, they enjoyed playing titles like Lego Marvel Super Heroes and Lego Harry Potter, which were so rich with humor. The kids asked if they could play his games but the answer was no. He decided to switch gears and make games for them.

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We talked about how gratifying it is to make games for kids, how kids are gravitating to games at younger ages, the challenge of making something that appeals to both kids and parents, the value of subscriptions, and the roadmap for things coming in the kids market.

Button-Brown agreed with a recent survey by Magid Games that found interesting results about young gamers. They’re starting to use smartphones as their first point of entry into games, rather than Nintendo. And 29% of kids three or under are playing video games. That essentially means that gaming is skewing younger and by the time these kids grow up, it will be the dominant medium.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Nick Button-Brown is chairman of Outright Games.

GamesBeat: Do you have any observations about the game industry after going to DICE?

Nick Button-Brown: It was very up and down. There was a mix of people with tremendous optimism and people with tremendous fatalism. There were very few people sitting comfortably in the middle.

GamesBeat: There’s a lot of conflicting information in the market.

Button-Brown: It’s a very strange vibe because of that. Normally the whole industry feels good or bad together.

GamesBeat: In your corner of the business, how does it feel?

Button-Brown: It’s pretty good. Kids’ games sell. Kids’ games sell predictably. We’re in pretty good shape. We’ve gotten good at making kids’ games now. I don’t mean that in a negative way. We put a lot of effort into getting good at making kids’ games. Just understanding the difference.

I did a roundtable yesterday that was quite nice. We had lots of different points of view. Have I ever talked to you about the reason we set up Outright in the first place? I was at Crytek doing hardcore first-person shooters. My kids had started playing games. One of the problems was, that my daughter said, “When can I play your game?” The answer was about 12 years from now. That’s not great. I’m disappearing all the time.

I had great experiences with my kids. My kids have been–I took my daughter through Lego Harry Potter, and my son through Lego Marvel Super Heroes. The way that those games are brilliant at pairing. You have one player who’s kind of good and they can take the other player along. It’s a great way to start. We played through Marvel games. I used to send my son out to collect Pokemon in Pokemon Go. Don’t tell his mom, because I sent him out to go to the end of the road because there was a Pokestop there. But that kind of cooperative, collaborative play with my kids.

GamesBeat: Nice.

The kids like Peppa the Pig in a video game.

Button-Brown: I talked to them a couple of weeks ago about this. They remember those games so fondly, sitting on the couch playing together. It’s part of their life, part of a positive experience that means they’re going to be gamers for their whole lives. They had such a good experience at the start, and I had a good experience with them. It’s this really positive thing.

That’s what we wanted when setting up Outright. It was definitely one couch co-op. We wanted parents to play with kids. We wanted four-player split screens. We wanted to create those positive moments. When we started it, it was very much, we’re adults making games for kids. We’re making a shortened, simplified adult game. And what we realized over time–we ended up hiring a whole production team out of Travellers Tales. A creative head of production, a bunch of producers came from Travellers Tales. They have 20 years of experience making kids’ games. Just realizing, actually, they’re completely different. You’re not making a cut-down adult game. You’re making a game that plays completely differently.

Kids love repetition, particularly young kids. Bluey is one of our games. I don’t know if you’ve watched Bluey. One thing is that they play keepy-uppy with a balloon in Bluey. We have that mini-game in the video game. You get a review from an adult and they say that the mini-game is too simple. They finished the whole game in an hour and 20 minutes. The kids play it and they love the balloon game. They play the balloon game for two hours. It’s completely different. They want to play something fun, but there’s also this solidity in the predictability of being able to do it. They want to know they can do it. They don’t want to fail. They want to know they can do it again and feel good about doing it again and get a nice, “Yay, well done!”

We love glitter and stamps and achievements. If you’re not throwing them away stupidly, it’s very much about rewarding. One of the people on my panel, they’re making a kids’ game. They were looking at Deep Rock Galactic, which I love. Deep Rock Galactic is a fantastic game. You play a four-player round and at the end, you get all these badges. They did some tests with kids. The kids just didn’t get it. What they changed in the game they were working on was, rather than having loads of badges, you collected all these things, and all the stuff you collected drops on your head. It’s just a very physical representation, which the kids understood. Yeah, stuff’s dropping on my head, that’s great. It’s not an indirect achievement. It’s a very obvious–you can see it and feel it. Just having that, just being sensitive and respectful to kids, it’s really important.

GamesBeat: I looked at a report that came out about young gamers. There were two interesting things to me. It confirmed that the point of entry for kids is smartphones and not necessarily Nintendo anymore. Also, something like 29% of kids up to age three were playing games.

Button-Brown: One of our sweet spots is three- to six-year-olds. We do Paw Patrol and PJ Masks and Bluey. Lots of IP that work very well for them. When we first did the Paw Patrol game, nobody thought that kids at that age would play a console game. I remember, in our first basket of titles, we thought Paw Patrol was very risky. Kids at that age don’t play games. Eight years on, that seems like a completely stupid observation.

But there’s definitely–three is probably the youngest. We’ve done some tests with younger kids. One of the difficulties that they have is making the connection between the action with their thumbs and what happens on the screen. It’s much less visceral than playing a mobile game. With a mobile game, you’re pointing and moving. Here you’re asking for this separation of representation. Obviously, kids develop at different speeds, but that’s the problem for younger kids around three years. The thing I do here will cause something to happen on the screen over there.

GamesBeat: It suggests that there’s still an almost universal attraction to games, even in the youngest generations.

Young kids are playing console games.

Button-Brown: Given mobile is the entry point for most kids–I agree with that. It’s the entry point for kids playing most of our games. Most of them have had some kind of mobile experience before. When you’re looking at monetization of those experiences, it’s kind of hard when it’s free-to-play. It’s hard to have that mechanic where you’re trying to pull them forward and trying to get them to engage because fundamentally, the players and the customers are a different group of people. The players are the kids and the customers are the parents. If you’re doing a free-to-play game that’s quite hard.

That’s one of the reasons why I like subscriptions on mobile. You’re not providing an experience where you need to keep paying to keep going forward. You’re providing a set of friendly and safe content over time. That was what I thought Apple Arcade should be. Apple Arcade should be a safe space for kids. As a parent, I’m happy to pay $4.99 to know that my kids will have really positive gaming experiences. I was slightly disappointed that Apple didn’t focus more on the kids’ side.

GamesBeat: On the challenges side, is there anything that comes to mind that’s specific to your category?

Button-Brown: Well, you already said it. Kids have their first gaming experiences on mobile. We did a big test many years ago when I was at Crytek. We got friends and family in. It was a group control thing. It was really cool. We got the friends and family in, and one of the first things was, that one of the two-year-olds went up to the screen, big cinema screen, and touched it. They wanted to move it around. Being able to translate the mechanics that you’ve learned from playing a mobile game into a more traditional separate experience, is definitely a challenge.

Evolving kids from mobile into fuller experiences–we do an awful lot of effort around user research. We have a group of people that go into kids’ houses. I know that sounds dodgy. They do have permission. They set up cameras to watch the kids play in real life. Not in a lab. They’re playing at home. You’re doing the user research and thinking, “Oh, the kids all stopped at this level. There must be a problem. They got halfway through, there must be something different.” Then you watch the videos and get to that point. What did they fail with? You actually hear in the background, that Mom says “Time for dinner!” and the kid says, “Aw, that’s not fair, I’m right in the middle of it!” Just accepting that kids play games in real places. They don’t always play them how you want them. They play them how they want them.

I really like giving creative experiences to kids. It’s not just playing through a story. That’s great, but you also want them to experience the story in the way they want to interact with it. That, for me, is the key to good games for kids. That’s Minecraft. That’s what Minecraft is. Adam was talking yesterday about Roblox. He now plays Roblox with his kids. They were playing a lot and he wanted to have an experience with them. His honest response was, “Roblox is danky as hell. It’s really horrible. There’s no real entry system. But the kids love it.” It’s actually because of that. You almost have to achieve something to make something out of it. You have to work against the system.

We’ll spend six hours building complicated tutorials for ramping up the skills, but actually, they just want to get in and get it wrong, watch somebody else, watch a parent or a YouTuber find out a way to do it, copy that and imitating it, but then trying to evolve on their own as well. It really is recognizing what kids are doing, kids and families together.

GamesBeat: Is there a user acquisition challenge as well? How do you address that?

If you want to sell games to kids, the parents have to be on board.

Button-Brown: It’s a huge challenge. That’s the difference between the customers and the players. When you have that separation between the two, that’s problematic. Outright makes licensed games. A lot of our user acquisition comes from the recognition of the license. You want to play a Bluey game. Bluey was pretty successful for us last year. People play it because they want to play a Bluey game. A lot of recognition and user acquisition comes from that. The parents are buying the Bluey game because they’re having a great experience watching Bluey with their kids and they want to bring that home.

Straight user acquisition is really difficult. You can’t market to kids, or you shouldn’t market to kids. It’s wrong. You shouldn’t do it. Trying to bring kids into new games cold is really difficult. That’s why we use licenses. That’s our user acquisition. You recognize it. You want to be part of the Paw Patrol story. Let’s play with the pups for a bit. But we don’t really answer that question. We use the licenses for user acquisition. We definitely want to build better communities with the parents. We’re a safe space. You can come and play our games. They’re always going to be friendly and creative and rewarding. You’re going to have a good experience with the kids as well.

We love couch co-op. I still go back to it. It’s fantastic. Parents and a kid playing a game together. That’s so reassuring. For a kid, they’re coming in and seeing the parent play. The parents showed them how to do it. That’s a positive experience. At the same time, the kid gets time with dad or mum or whoever. It makes me happy. That’s why I did it.

GamesBeat: What does your road map look like? What’s happening going forward into 2024?

Button-Brown: I talked about bringing in the Travellers Tales people. I’m sorry to kind of collectively call them the Travellers Tales people. They are all of course individuals who are very talented. That happened three years ago. We’re really seeing that in the quality of our games this year. We’re much more consistent. We’re much more understanding of how kids play. Our slate this year is brilliant. I can’t talk about most of it, but–we’re making a Turtles game this year, based on the film. That’s such a wonderful world, such a rich–that last film was absolutely fantastic. It was a rich universe. It really, for me, resurrected Turtles. We get to make a game with that.

I think this year we’re providing lots of different experiences. Ten years ago a kids’ game was a third-person action-adventure. That’s it. Now we’re doing much wider, much different experiences. Some are more creative. Some are more linear. Some are more open-world. Some are more experimental. We’re providing lots of different genres because kids want to play lots of different kinds of games. They don’t just want to play a third-person action-adventure. They want to play a Minecraft builder or Goat Simulator or Animal Crossing or something like that. We want to provide experiences that are varied and live on collection and evolving and building and sharing. That’s important.

This is one that came from the panel. It was a really sad one. The sister of the person on the panel was a primary school teacher. She was talking about how the kids that she sees, their parents don’t have any time. They don’t have time to spend with the kids. The teacher sees games as a really positive way to give a wider experience to those kids. They don’t get to go out. They don’t get to see other people or play with other people. But in games, they can go on adventures. They can meet other people. They can have positive experiences. And although I’m tremendously sad about the fact that you have families in that situation, hopefully we can give them new adventures and broaden their experiences and get them to see positive things.

GamesBeat: Are you attracted to any particular upcoming platforms?

Young kids play console games too.
Young kids play console games too.

Button-Brown: We’re at DICE. It would be silly to not be looking at what’s coming. I’m interested in AR. I know we’re not there yet. The first version of the Vision Pro is not going to be in many kids’ hands for many years. But there are some real opportunities to tell interesting stories and create interesting experiences around that. I’m quite excited by that. I think we can see some really interesting new ways for kids to interact with worlds. Hopefully, safe worlds where it’s very positive and social and reinforcing. I’m quite hot on AR and MR at the moment.

Obviously, Switch 2 is coming. We love Switch 2. Switch 2 will be fantastic and create a whole new opportunity. For us, one of the interesting things about that transition is the hand-me-downs. A parent buys a Switch 2 for the older kids, but the younger kids get the Switch. That’s a great thing for us because then the younger kids want to play Paw Patrol. We like hand-me-down consoles.

GamesBeat: Xbox mentioned they’re going to do hardware. That seems to allay fears that people have.

Button-Brown: I’m about to go on a campaign with Microsoft, so I might get in trouble for this. But one of my things is–my kids watch Netflix. The key thing is, there’s a kids button in the corner. You click on the kids button and from that point on, your kids are only seeing safe content. They’re seeing content that’s appropriate for them. I really want Game Pass to have a kids button. At that point then you change it around and you’re showing them positive experiences. This is my big campaign for this year. I want to get a kids button on Game Pass.

GamesBeat: The interesting thing somebody mentioned to me was that some of these subscription services hang on to one member of the household wanting that service for one purpose. If you get kids’ games in, the kids are the ones who say, “Hey, you can’t get rid of this.”

Button-Brown: Entirely. I spoke to Netflix a few years ago. They said that the parents would buy the Netflix subscription because they wanted to watch House of Cards, but they could never end it because their kids were watching something. They were always mid-season. You’re in the middle of the story and you take it away? You can’t do that. We were very sticky on Stadia. The kids’ games were very sticky. They just enjoyed them and wanted to come back and play them. I completely agree. All the subscription services should spend more time on kids’ games. Come to us, we’ve got some.

I do believe that subscription services are here to stay and a fundamental part of the industry going forward. It’s a great way to see content, to keep yourself busy and find a whole bunch of new things. But it’s true what you say. I still have my Disney+ subscription, which realistically isn’t justified anymore. I can’t take it away from my kids.

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