Or why COOL and KID-FRIENDLY aren’t always easy to bring together…

I want to look at something that plagues me every day at my job.  Its the crux of every design problem we tackle and is almost always the difference between what we produce being lame or fun.  The question is;  How do we make cute kid-friendly stuff without sacrificing on radical zazz?!

Background (read this to the party before the adventure begins):  I work at a video games company, Kiz Studios.  We make games for kids roughly ages 8-14.  That’s a WIDE demographic when you start thinking about what kids are into at either end of that spectrum.  Considering a game like SMASHMUCK CHAMPIONS you can see how that’s especially challenging.  There has to be at least one champ to appeal to every potential user within that spread.  As fast as kids are growing and their interests are changing that’s a lot of ground to cover.


About Smashmuck:

I know I’ve been posting snippets from time to time about this thing.  We’ve been cranking stuff out at ludicrious speed for not quite 6 months and there is already plenty to show off.  And I’m responsible for posting most of the other sneak peeks on the Facebook page that you all need to go like if you want in on the Beta news that is rapidly approaching!

Here’s the totally-officious description:

SmashMuck Champions is a free-to-play arena combat game that combines intense action, player skill and strategy. Players build their own SmashMuck teams, training and customizing some of the toughest muck monsters, robots and creatures on Planet Muck. Then they send their Champions into battle, joining up to ten players in one of four action-packed game types. Combat is fast-paced and easy to learn, with tons of unique skills, weapons and attacks that you can master on your way to becoming the next SmashMuck Champion.

If you want to comment on the video or subscribe to the Smashmuck Champions channel I encourage you to jump over to YouTube and do so!


Back on topic!

There are a few basic Kid-friendly tenants we have to abide by when makin’ the arts:

  • No Guts, No Gore: Pretty straight forward. 
  • No Blood:  E for Everyone actually permits animated blood, but we didn’t want to go this far down the violence rabbit hole.
  • No Scary:  This one gets tricky, but there is a line; lookin’ at you fleshy-robot-doom monster.
  • No Adults: Its a world of only kids and monsters and fun stuff.
  • Cartoon Violence Only:  You clobber somebody with a mallet stars WILL swirl around their head. 

When I got really involved and stopped pushing the envelope and tryed to just unwrap it and build a paper airplane to fly away on (I was trying to put a pipe-smoking monkey that talked like Harvey Firestein in the world out of boredom) we settled on a few more guidelines:

  • MORE ZAZZ:  My basic rule for art, period.  (apparently comma, then period.)  No kids in blue jeans please, give her a jetpack, etc.
  • No Guns:  I broke this rule eventually (but only because another rule let me), but all of my original weapons designs were hodge-podged appliances and goofy stuff.  Fun, cool, deadly enough to take down the monster and robots you’d encounter; which brings us to
  • No Kid v Kid Violence:  Obviously something to avoid.
  • Monster and Robots have no Souls:  Even the ones with personalities; so take out that aggression kid.  Here’s a baseball bat.  This is when I gave Blitz a gun, because he could shoot monsters and robots with it.

The bullet points make sense, and most every wrinkle can be ironed out if you extrapolate them.  But what does it mean for Smashmuck?  These won’t outright solve the problem.  There is a difference between cute pokemon that nobody likes and AWESOME pokemon that still manage to be cute, amiright?

Well if you’re familiar with the Muck Critters from Planet Muck previously they’d only been seen as mischief makers and the lowliest footsoldiers of our sinister villain.  They’re certainly cute and have all the cartoon ‘gumby’ properties (being made of sticky mud) you want to let them do just about anything; but, they’re completely devoid of individuality.  That’s just not interesting enough in a MOBA setting like Smashmuck.  There is also the ESSENTIAL need to make every Champ cool enough a user will want to play with them, their unique skills, powers and playstyle.  A good self check is, “Would this make a sweet action figure?”

So put one on top of a slobbering death-muck-chicken and give him a minigun.  Solved?

 Smashmuck Champions Promo Art - Blitz





















Off the top of my head Blitz has the only traditional gun in the universe.  I really wanted to avoid pointing something and pulling a trigger; so everything prior has been a crank or a switch or a toaster…  You get the idea.  Its just a horribly violent connotation.  But, the perspective of the Smashmuck camera (yes, the position of the camera makes a huge difference… think about it, you aren’t really aiming anymore when you’re looking down from above) and the fact he is a monster battling other monsters and robots in a crazy American Gladiators sport makes this ok.

There are some pretty intimidating Champs lurking in the background in this one.  And I find that is really the sweet spot for “scary” stuff.  If the lights were all on, we’d laugh at these guys.  But under or backlight them, let them loom up out of the shadows and they should be rather intimidating.   Scuttlemuck is a pretty good example of this.  Up close his snarling shark face could be pretty spooky but from a distance the pear-shaped body reads as pretty nonthreatening.  The most monstrous champs tend to get the least threatening body shapes.  Here’s another example:

Smashmuck Champions Promo Art - Brutus and Scathe 










Scathe, the Muck Dragon, sticks to the script.  I also went without arms, it gives him a sort of helplessness that he can’t pick stuff up easily.  Keeping him looking a bit like an old man is also sort of disarming (puns?!) or extra creepy depending on how you feel about old people.  Use your ‘magination and picture a Skyrim dragon (timely!)  and then Pete’s Dragon (disney!).  Scathe is definitely in between the two on the Rock N’ Roll <-> Dangerously Tame scale.  I think that’s essential for the longevity of the character’s appeal as a player moves through the agerange of the demo.

Brutus, the gladiator, is the most classic looking warrior character.  V-shaped torso, helmet that mostly covers his face for that edgy cool, tall boots…  But the sword isn’t sharp.  Its just a square stick of metal.  I figure nobody has the balls to tell him he’s doing it wrong (pre-pubesence jokes?), and he really makes up for it with enthusiasum regardless. Brutus also just skirts the bottom line of having enough “stuff” to be interesting. To keep that cartoony vibe you have to exercise a lot of restraint and not overwhelm a character. Gears of War armor would not fly, it wouldn’t matter if Micky Mouse was underneath all that.  The Rumblebots we see getting served here focus on the sporty undercurrent of the carnage.

I don’t know a better way to discuss this than with some light analysis/commentary on a couple of these illustrations and concepts but its one of the trickiest design issues I’ve run into.  Its a fine line with lots of pitfalls, but where exactly that line is really boils down to the world/universe you’re working in and what rules apply there, the same as with ANY concept you may be tackling.  There are days I absolutely miss drawings guns, dinosaurs, cowboys, sorcereress chicks, etc. and balancing a successful and zazzed up concept with kid-friendly boundaries takes some getting used to.  A point for point or step by step guide would be a small tome of information.  I do get asked for that sort of thing, along with “how can I learn how to draw good” a lot.  A LOT. 

I hope you all enjoyed a little peek behind the Smashmuck curtain. Stay tuned for more insights and cool stuff. Keep Smashing!



Filed under: All TalkDev TalkGame TalkJob Talk

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