The production process for XR experiences for children is distinct from producing similar content for adults. Children are used to having their attention pulled into a million different pieces of content on a variety of platforms and, with an average attention span of 8 seconds, it’s of the utmost importance that you grab the attention of the child through imaginative game-design and maintain their attention throughout (often lengthy) XR experiences.
Throughout this article, you’ll see one word resurface again and again: engaging.
In my role as a producer at Apache, where I have worked extensively with child-focused IPs such as Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls and Ben 10 as well as Marvel’s Iron Man, I have noticed a number of key factors to keep in mind when producing engaging and memorable XR experiences for children.
Make the user experience easy to follow:
In a child-friendly experience, when drawing up storyboards or user flows, it will always be slightly up-in-the-air to some extent, however, it’s important to establish a child-friendly guide flow, to begin with. Understanding at what point the child will move into a new scene or interaction is vital to creating a tight versus a ponderous experience.
In VR, working in cues to a 360-degree environment is vital to the journey flow. Many children have never been into a virtual world before, and so, when placing the child into an unfamiliar world, it is important to have earthly, sensory interactions that they’re familiar with to gradually acclimatize them. We can do this with the use 360-degree spatial audio with cues from items placed around the scene and Haptic feedback when touching an interactable. In-situ, we can make use of primary school reading-level GUI. The correct timings of these elements strengthen the ease of the journey flow, creating an easy to follow experience.
In body-tracking AR, it is important to tutorialise easy-to-follow body movements that allow the users to enjoy the 1 to 1 connection between themselves and the digital asset, strengthening the illusion that they are indeed the character. This type of interaction is high octane and engaging in itself, but an easy flow into the character transformation strengthens this.
Use recognisable characters:
The presence of larger-than-life characters that children can gain a rapid rapport with has been a pivotal element of all of the AR and VR experiences that I have produced.
Children are familiar with seeing a variety of anthropomorphised objects and creatures through traditional screen-time, this means that delivering a style of content that they are familiar with in a new, digital format is key. Television programmes allow children to feel a sense of empathy through lengthy episodes, this allows the child to truly understand the fears and goals of the character they are engaging with. Often, when you’re provided with the challenge of increasing throughput in XR so no child is left without a turn, having time to build a rapport with the character is something that can quite easily be overlooked or discarded entirely but it’s crucial that it isn’t.
A great way to foster a sense of empathy in a relatively short space of time relates to orchestrating simple animations or interactions that allow the child to engage with the character or understand the character’s ‘mission’. This seamlessly allows the child to want to work with the character leading to a greater degree of engagement and overall experience satisfaction.
In my work on the Ben 10 Hero Experience, the IP itself was based around 2D child-friendly characters. The art team created 3D versions of the 2D characters which required the immense trust of the client when handling an IP that has entertained an entire generation of children for the past decade. Needless to say the art team did a fantastic job and the Ben 10 Hero Experience has enjoyed over 50,000 plays worldwide on a relatively small handful of tours.
Keep the storyline simple (or non-existent!)
I’ve worked directly with film and television clients, and usually, the first order of business is to convince the client that XR is indeed a completely different medium to traditional formats.
Some clients have been more aware of this than others from the get-go, leaving storyline suggestions in the capable hands of the creative production team. Others have not been so flexible. In my experience, the implementation of overly complex and intricate storylines have immediately been met with negative feedback through testing; the storyline is too long to be engaging at the beginning of an interactive experience. This approach may work for different audiences, namely XR experiences for adults, but for children this quickly leads to the user being overwhelmed and ultimately disinterested.
In order to deliver an enjoyable experience, it’s usually better to hint at storylines through simple animation and short, cinematic-style cutscenes rather than using long, drawn-out scripted pieces that need to reduced later down the line.
Keep it succinct and you keep it engaging!
Retain 6 degrees of freedom and Ensure Controls are simple:
I have played experiences for children, highly spoken about experiences, that for me have been entirely underwhelming. There are two issues that break your sense of immersion, making the experience disappointing and it’s a common thread throughout many highly regarded experiences.
The first issue: Moving too quickly through the experience, either using the rails of the software or using the controls provided. From a game-design perspective, not only does this break immersion for the user, but it has practical consequences too in making the user feel nauseous. This does not help with the widespread public perception that VR has a fundamental problem with nausea inducing experiences. It also really complicates my pitch when trying to convince anyone, inside or outside of the industry, that VR doesn’t make you sick.
The second issue: An experience will have buttons that are too confusing when interacting or moving through space. Do I push the thumbstick forward? Down? Do I hold it and then release? Am I aiming the cursor on the floor or into the distance? If I can’t understand how these controls work instantaneously, then how can you expect a child to? From the outset, controls absolutely need to be both simple and intuitive.
What I have learned from my peers is that keeping something on rails at a slow enough pace and avoiding sudden teleportation through space abates feelings of nausea or confusion. In fact, from what I’ve seen in the field, standing stationary in one place for the vast majority of the time in a short experience actually works best for children. They’d much rather be focused on one controller movement at any one time.
It’s particularly frustrating for children who, accustomed to a 2D screen and their traditional format console controller, are having to learn how to move through and around an environment with a new set of controllers, they simply lose engagement. As a producer, my decision making is constantly informed by the fact that the user will be completely unaware of the mechanics of virtual reality, including the practical aspects of getting familiarised with the controllers. Simplicity then, is key to both engagement and immersion with an experience.
Too many buttons activated in a short experience lead to confusion and complicate the journey. Too few buttons are not something that I have currently found to be an issue. In Apache’s UXUK award-winning “The Emoji Experience”, a whole section of interaction does away with buttons entirely and relies on using the controllers as an extension of the child’s arms to dance. This works beautifully because it is simple to follow, and relies on tried and tested bodily movement alone, creating an extremely engaging and child-friendly experience.
The Role of the Producer:
All in all, putting yourself into the mind of your inner child and familiarising yourself with the type of interactions they have with other forms of technology (and the real world) really helps tenfold when bringing these practices and concepts back into XR.
With children having shorter attention spans than in previous generations, it should be any producer’s goal to combine knowledge of what has previously worked in traditional formats with best-practice within this relatively green digital medium. This for me is the basic recipe for creating an award-winning and highly engaging AR or VR Experience for children.