Crafting new game experiences at the Game Design Expo

David McCarthy, an executive producer for EA Canada, was on hand at the Game Design Expo (presented by VFS) at the VanCity Theatre on January 19th to explain how the video game landscaping is changing and growing, and how game companies will have to adapt in order to take advantage of new opportunities. One of the most significant changes is the emergence of “casual” gaming, along with multi-generational households where adults and children play games together. Female gamers are also becoming a rising force. But the most significant new demographic, McCarthy said, is the soon to retire baby boomer population, who are already a growing segment of the gaming population.

But Nintendo is the company that forged the greatest change for the industry with the introduction of the Wii last year, an accessible machine with innovative controls that addressed a market of casual gamers that Sony and Microsoft couldn’t hope to capture with their hardcore-targeted consoles.

In terms of EA’s vision, McCarthy said the company plans to dive into new platforms and new audiences. He highlighted initiatives like EA Sports Family Play, a system designed to let people of varying skill levels to play together, such as a father and his nine-year-old daughter playing a hockey or baseball game together, which he said would previously have been a ludicrous proposition. In effect, Family Play acts as “training wheels” for inexperienced players, who can then get comfortable with games and move to more complicated fare when they’re ready. Madden ’07 for the Wii was the first game to include Family Play mode.

EA has also introduced EA Playground, a family-friendly set of cartoony playground games that McCarthy said was undeniably different from traditional hardcore EA fare like Medal of Honour, but which tore up the sales charts this Christmas.

EA Playground was a big shift in focus for EA from only offering hardcore games to more casual experiences, and McCarthy said challenges included deciding what made for a fun playground game and what didn’t, consulting with small children in focus groups to make sure the game addressed their desires, and promoting the game to mainstream media instead of the usual gaming press outlets.

The lessons EA walked away with were that accessibility doesn’t mean dumbing down games, but does mean making games instantly engaging and then evolving users through the experience. Simplified menus and constant positive reinforcement are also key, he said.

To conclude, McCarthy said EA is just starting with their commitment to audience expansion and that future projects will address even more audience niches.