NewKidCo is bringing some of the most well-known properties and characters into the childrens gaming arena. Jacquie Kubin gains insight from executive Paul Samulski.
The NPD Marketing group has reported that children, aged six to nine, represent 24% of all interactive game users. This could mean a potential demographic group of millions that are coming to video gaming anxious to emulate big brother and sister's play patterns. At issue is that this ever-growing group is familiar with a whole different genre of brand familiarity and entertainment needs. NewKidCo International, Inc. (www.newkidco.com) has their cross hairs on the goal of becoming the leading publisher in the children's video game category by creating quality gaming that meets this demographics needs. Publishing games focused from early childhood (EC) to just before the 'tweens, NewKidCo is concentrating on the already significant and growing group of kids 2-12.
With a wide range of licensees, spanning the classic cartoon Tom and Jerry to today's hottest rated PBS children's show Dragon Tales, this New York group has a very defined formula for success that includes recognizing the characters and brands with which children are already comfortable and that will provide a fun, engaging and safe play experience. Paul Samulski, executive vice president and chief creative officer for NewKidCo International, Inc., stepped away from the demands of the corporate and creative to answer a few questions about meeting the challenges of children's game development.
Jacquie Kubin: Who is NewKidCo?
Paul Samulski: We are a publisher of video games for children, creating content for the dedicated console, including Playstation 1 and 2, Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advanced, Nintendo and Game Cube and, eventually, the Microsoft X-Box, though right now they are concentrating on games for the more 'hard core' or older gamer, so the time is not right for that platform, yet.
JK: What are early childhood, or EC, rated games?
PS: When I came to NewKidCo from Acclaim, I said, 'I have no problem moving from Mortal Kombat and MBA Jam to Goofy and Sesame Street, but I don't want to write down to these kids.' Too often it seems that developers feel you don't have to give them a lot to satisfy them because, 'Hey, the kid is only four.' But that is not true. Kids know their own lives and what they can do. For example, they can reason, 'I can bend down and touch my toes, so why can't the character?' You have to bring a level of kid maturity to the table if you want to create games for younger viewers.
Also, the game progression must be justifiable and go beyond the surface of the game. Children will become bored from a game that is only two-dimensional. Face it, if it is boring for mom and dad to play, it's probably not a lot of fun for the toddler either.
JK: What are some of your biggest challenges?
PS: One of the biggest problems we have is that we take the EC products and try to push them as far as we can, always pushing the line. For example, we are doing things with the Sesame Street characters that the characters would never do on television, because they are puppets. But now, in the context of the game, they are walking, talking, individual, three-dimensional characters that must react in a way that is consistent to how children think they should.
JK: Computer games often contain an edutainment element. Do you try to bring that to the console games as well?
PS: Children's gaming is often given the label of being edutainment, meaning that it contains some kind of curriculum or moral-based teaching element. Honestly though, while learning may be a part of our games, we try and steer away from the curricular and aim more toward the fun. We may have the underlying lessons and moral stories, but at the end of the line we are creating a game that has to be fun.
Finally, the games are designed to give children what they need to go on to the next step in video gaming. So, if you are a young kid and you like interactive products, you will find games that are challenging and will serve to bridge the gap between young and old games and game players.
JK: Explain the role of a 'publisher' versus a 'developer.'
PS: A developer includes groups, or teams, that create a game almost entirely in-house. NewKidCo is a publisher/producer. We work with the licensor to determine how their character(s) will work in an animated environment and then we assign a NewKidCo product developer and game producer to a development team.
While we are working with a contracted development team, NewKidCo is very hands on in the development of the script and the project. At the end of the day, we are writing the checks, so we closely watch the process, applying our expertise with what will and will not work in the marketplace, while making sure that the final project will meet with licensor approval.
JK: How do you choose a developer?
PS: We do work with quite a few teams from overseas; Edinburgh, Scotland and Manchester, England being two places that we frequently visit. Each team that we work with has their own expertise. Some are really good with sports characters or Saturday morning characters.
Being in the industry for more than 20 years, I have worked with a lot of these people before and many of the company owners were entry level programmers when I started. The ones that are successful will tell you that they made a decision to create a studio that would satisfy a certain need -- dedicated to a certain genre of gaming -- say horror role playing versus children's programming, both of which take very different skills.
Of course, if you have the talent, you can do anything, but we are looking for a company that has talent and is passionate about the work they do. Today, even a short project for GameBoy Advanced is going to take 10-12 months, while the next generation platforms will require 14-16 months to create a game. Wouldn't it be horrible to spend up to 18 months working on a children's title if your passion is first person shooters? More importantly, wouldn't it be horrible for the children's property if the animator did not care about the characters?
JK: There are a lot of people that you and your teams are working with. Are your teams' ideas in the middle of two very separate groups of creatives?
PS: We defend our work everyday by asking the question, 'Are we here to satisfy a quarter or create a profitable game?' Being in business, everyone understands you have to ship and sell to see profit, so the corporate individuals want to see how quickly, and inexpensively, it can be done in order increase the margin and sales window. You are always defending the project internally, fighting to make sure that the final product is done properly, even if it takes longer, so that in the end it flies off the shelf.
Then we also need to defend the game concept against the licensor. They often do not understand what it takes to turn an existing property, whether it is a television, movie or literary character, into an interactive product. They need to understand technical limitations, game play limitations and that even though certain elements, a character or their universe may be a big part of the property, it may not work in the game play. So you have the process of trying to get the licensor to accept and believe you know what should be done in the interactive realm.
JK: Is it hard to get the licensor to understand the difference between their characters' existing world and the interactive one?
PS: Going into a licensor and saying, 'We are going to take your property into an interactive realm and this is how, even though this is not how the property was brought into the world,' is difficult. For example, all stories, whether cartoons, movies or books, have a beginning, middle and end. But that is not as true in interactive gaming as elements are determined by an unknown factor, the game play.
Additionally, though those elements may be in the interactive environment, they are not going to be the same as the original content, because the player is looking for something new. We do not want to create, 'You have seen the movie, now play the game,' products. For example, if the player knows the ending of the story, or even how a conversation will turn out, why play, or buy, the game? So we say we know what you have done, and where you are coming from, but know we want to turn down this corner with the story.
JK: A very familiar story, and license, you recently garnered was E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, correct?
PS: I am very excited over this because I worked with Amblin Entertainment and Steven Spielberg in the creation of a series of toys, plush and hard, for the original movie, so it is wonderful, twenty years later, to go back and revisit this license in a totally fresh way.
With the E.T. license, we told Amblin that we were not interested in doing a series of E.T. games that mimicked the movie. During creative discussions we talked about everything we know from the movie, but that might not have been developed within that context. For example, he obviously possesses powers to make things grow, and he and his crews have obviously been to other planets. These are just two examples of things that the viewer, and game player, will readily accept about this character, even though they have never seen him use other powers or travel to other planets.
Without giving too much away, in the first games, four of which are being released for Christmas 2000, we have E.T. returning to the Green Planet. This was originally the idea for the never-realized sequel, so in the game play we are going to sequel the movie, having E.T. take on the role of an interplanetary environmentalist that takes care of emergencies in other worlds. As E.T. is dealing with trying to solve a problem, he might also have to be dealing with individuals who don't want him to succeed and who are creating obstacles, leading to the game play.
JK: How big is the E.T. license for NewKidCo?
PS: Right now, the plan is four releases for this holiday, following with two more for the 20th anniversary release of the movie, which is scheduled for March, 2002. We will follow that with four more games through quarters three and four, before we go on to year three of the license.
We will be creating E.T. games for cross platforms, including a 'Back-To-School' release that will work with the Color Game Boy to create a PDA application that includes a lot of science-fiction and technology-based games and space exploration facts, in addition to the PDA elements.
JK: Another fabulously hot license that NewKidCo has is Dragon Tales. How did you choose this property?
PS: Dragon Tales is the number one rated children's show on PBS right now, but when we first began looking at the license it was going into its first season with no ratings, no street word of mouth. Fortunately, from dealing with licensors that we have worked with in the past, when it was introduced to us we were able to recognize that there was something there. Strong characters and story quality, wrapped around the whole idea of a gentle journey for the kid's imagination.
JK: What do you mean by 'gentle journey?'
PS: In the story you have these dragons that can fly and do things that are great, but not to the point that it takes them too far. Though they go on wonderful adventures, it all remains within the confines of Dragon Land, where it is safe and never frightening.
JK: Was the license instantly successful?
PS: Yes and no. When we first started taking it out, no one knew what it was, unless we were talking to a buyer with children, than it was a fast and immediate sell. It's a great license, and going into year three, it is still rated number one for ages 2-11 on PBS. This is really amazing because they have not even started to work it as far as the advertising and promotion machine goes. They do not want to burn it out; they want to create it as an evergreen property.
JK: You have quite a few licenses, including Sesame Street and Tom and Jerry, that are, without a doubt, evergreen products.
PS: This is important when choosing a license. You want things that have been, will be, and will always be popular. Standing by our decision-making process, we had the opportunity to pick up The Powerpuff Girls and we passed. We did not see it as evergreen and we could not predict if the title would, in the12-14 months that the product would take to develop, be strong enough to support the game.
JK: I love that you have brought the classic cartoon, Tom and Jerry, to video games.
PS: Tom and Jerry are about as classic and timeless as you can get. An interesting aspect of Tom and Jerry is that while their exposure to children in the United States is limited, in Europe, they are huge.
Because there have been so many different renditions of the duo, we are creating Tom and Jerry games based on their various periods beginning in the 1950s. Warner Bros., the licensor, is very defined about the art approaches and style guides that we are able to use. When looking at the license potential of Tom and Jerry, we decided that we liked the cartoon history of the property and the level of cartoon violence that is no longer allowed or tolerated. For instance, at a design meeting for a game, we can say, 'We want to slice this character in two,' which is something you can't do in children's gaming. However, within the boundaries of cartoon violence, we can put a zipper into the character so that instead of 'slicing,' we are unzipping.
JK: What are some of the other things you look for in a license?
PS: One thing to be careful of is the creator of the characters and whether they are going to be interested in the product in two years, much less long term. One of our benefits is the amount of experience we have in the upper and middle management range. Everyone here has 8-20 years of experience in interactive gaming and I feel confident in saying we have seen it, done it and we can tell when something or someone does not have the depth, the heart and the passion to create a good game...on any level.
Another important factor of early childhood (EC) gaming is gender neutrality. A lot of the really popular properties immediately relate to a universal audience. For us, doing EC products, it's very important to have that gender neutrality. It reminds me of all those years when the industry was clamoring over how to get more girls interested in gaming. The answer was not, nor is it now, to create games for girls, but to create good games that girls, and boys, will enjoy playing.
JK: According to your press releases, NewKidCo is showing 50% increases in fourth quarter sales from 1999 to 2000, resulting in a company revenue (Dec. 2000) of $26.0 million. What is your secret?
PS: Last July 2000 we set up a North American sales and distribution network that has lead to two consecutively profitable quarters for year end 2000. In 2000, we released nine new titles including Winnie the Pooh and Tigger-based games for Playstation, Nintendo 64 and Game Boy Color, Dragon Tales for Playstation and Game Boy Color and Disney's Doug for Game Boy Color, all of which are very strong properties.
But when you are talking about a group that has been around as long as we have, we are able to make decisions. We keep the number of employees low, and bring in strong experienced people not afraid to work and have someone tell them, 'I don't agree, and I challenge you to that point,' and then enter into a strong dialogue. We understand the business so that products are on schedule and good.
Jacquie Kubin, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist, enjoys writing about the electronic entertainment and edutainment mediums, including the Internet. She is a frequent contributor to the Washington Times and Krause Publication magazines. She has won the 1998 Certificate of Award granted by the Metropolitan Area Mass Media Committee of the American Association of University Women.