Lessons from Uber-Successful Games for Kids

Pokemon and Neopets are two incredibly successful games. What do they have in common and how are they different?

I’ve been thinking a lot about game elements that are common to successful games. Now, let me preface this by saying that I’m by no means a games researcher, just an observer. In this post, I want to examine two games for children that have been incredibly successful. By successful, I mean that these games have been around for more than 10 years and still command a great share of the market. This means that they are able to retain players as they grow up and/or attract new players.

The first is the Pokemon series of games, which has sold 220 million games so far and has been around since 1996. The core games are made for the mobile platform (Gameboy before, Nintendo DS now). This RPG game allows players to move through a storyline, while encountering, collecting, and battling animal-like creatures called Pokemon. The Pokemon universe was one of the first and most successful to combine video games, trading cards, TV series, and physical toys in a consistent campaign (with no one part as an afterthought to the other parts)  — a model later followed by a number of other franchises such as Yu-Gi-Oh and Digimon. The aspects that define the Pokemon games are:

  • Collecting Pokemon, by catching them in-game and by trading with friends
  • Creating teams and strategies for battles in-game, against friends, and in global tournaments
  • In-game, RPG-style world to explore while playing through a storyline
  • Willingness to explore new technologies as peripheral game components, such as incorporating physical activity, augmented reality, etc.
Though Pokemon has experimented with a variety of non-battle-based ideas such as dressing up the Pokemon, decorating a secret base, and participating in Beauty Contests to earn ribbons, none of the concepts have succeeded in the game (e.g. survived for more than one generation). Pokemon tends to be more popular with males (e.g., see GL stats).

The second is Neopets, which is a very popular online community launched in 1999 that reached 1 trillion page views in 2011. In Neopets, a player adopts imaginary pets and is responsible for feeding and training them. Playing a variety of simple flash games earns points to buy food, clothes, etc. for the pets. A number of more recent games have emulated Neopets including Subeta, Club Penguin, and Webkinz. Most important features of Neopets are:
  • Customizing the look of the pet to express personality and style
  • Earning trophies by participating in site events, submitting user-created content (e.g., drawings, stories), and earning high scores in Flash games
  • Socially interacting with other players through moderated forums or in-game email-like messages (when over 13 or with parental consent)
  • Creating and customizing homes for pets, shops, and galleries
  • Collecting avatars, stamps, and more
  • Battling pets event single-player challengers or friends in the Battledome

Though Neopets has tried to branch out onto the mobile platform with spin-off games like Lutari Island and Puzzle Adventure for DS, neither of these approaches were particularly successful. Currently, it is very difficult to participate in Neopets on a mobile device. One note of interest is that most Neopets players are female.

Overall, I’d say that Neopets is more focused on self-expression and social interaction, while Pokemon is more focused on strategy and competition, but there are four elements that these games share in common:

  • Focus on collecting — in Pokemon this is a key feature of the game; in Neopets it was not designed as a core feature but has become so over time with the introduction of stamps and avatars
  • Pets — something about the idea of caring for and training a pet that seems to be consistently engaging to children
  • Activities outside the game that help succeed in the game — in Pokemon, these activities take shape of attending tournaments and using pedometer feature; in Neopets, these activities take shape of creating drawings, sculptures, and stories for in-game contests.
  • Many ways to succeed — in Pokemon, you can focus on exploring, collecting, training, breeding, or battling Pokemon in underused, overused, and uber tiers; in Neopets, you can focus on exploring, customizing, collecting, trading, drawing, writing, and playing games. There are some general heuristics for what it means to be a successful player in either game, but its hard to directly compare two people. Each player is just different.

I don’t think any of these points are new, but I think that examining Neopets and Pokemon as two successful case studies can confirm that indeed these strategies work.