Space Heroes Universe – A look into a magical online world
We reported earlier this week that Space Heroes Universe, the free-to-play, online story driven game especially for kids had been officially launched by Bubble Gum Interactive. Previously in its beta stage, the game is now available internationally for children everywhere to jump in and be immersed in its magical sci-fi world – and magical is the word for it. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent some time in the world of Space Heroes Universe. Below are my thoughts on the experiences I’ve had with the game.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, Space Heroes Universe is a social online gaming experience for kids which lets them create and customize their own character, traversing a vibrant and unique universe to solve mysteries, participate in quests, play minigames and more. As the game is played completely online, it emphasises socialising and communicating with others, and children are exposed to team play and working collaboratively in order to achieve goals. Being an online social experience for children, safety of players is of paramount importance, and Bubble Gum Interactive – an independent children’s entertainment studio who are the publishers of the game – are dedicated in their focus to protect every child’s safety during their time in Space Heroes Universe. The game features controlled registration, parental controls, moderated chat options, inappropriate and profane language blocking and in-game moderation to guarantee Space Heroes Universe is a safe, online experience for all its players. The game is also free of advertising, and its content has been deemed ‘E for Everyone’ by the Entertainment Standards Rating Board, so parents can feel safe that the game does not feature inappropriate content.
Space Heroes Universe is designed for children aged between 6-12, but this doesn’t mean that people outside that age bracket can’t enjoy it. I’ve played the game – and I had a fantastic time – which just shows how well-crafted the gaming experience is.
Once you set up you character and delve into the gaming world proper, one of the things you’ll notice about the game is how wonderfully imagined it is. There are so many little touches here and there – small snippets about the world that show just how special it is to its creators and to everyone who has been involved in its design. It’s lovely to see so much passion for the subject matter – a completely original IP – communicated through the game in such a way – and it’s one of the things that make Little Space Heroes more than just ‘a kids game’.
Another thing you’ll notice about the game is how vibrant and alive and welcoming it feels. Playing in its world provides you with that child-like wonder reserved for Christmas Days and surprises and get-togethers with people you care about. The game has that ‘feel’ to it – about being somewhere that’s positive and magical. The vibrancy of the setting combines with the magic of a world crafted for younger minds to create an experience that is extremely memorable, and hard to replicate anywhere else. There are a lot of children’s games out there – but there aren’t many that adults can enjoy without feeling as though they are playing a children’s game. Space Heroes Universe is a game you’ll enjoy playing – and a game you’ll remember playing for all the right reasons.
The colours of the world are vibrant and everything you would expect from a game focused on younger gamers. There’s also so much to see and do, and so many places to visit, that the game never feels stale or tired. Having said that, the game balances this variety with a feeling that you’re never overwhelmed by what is available to you. You never feel that there’s too much to see or do, and you’re never confused as to what you need to do or where you need to go. The game features a journal which tracks quest progress and provides instructions on what to do and where to go if you become stuck. It’s an ingenious way of ensuring that players never give up because they are confused about what to do next, and the journal itself has its own character and vibe. It doesn’t just feel like a way to keep kids focused – it feels like a part of the game – as much a part of the game as the characters and settings.
The gameplay and quest design are also well done and whilst they may seem simple for more seasoned adult gamers, they don’t feel too ‘kiddy’. As an adult gamer, it is hard for me to discuss how a child playing the game would experience the gameplay, but as I enjoyed my time within the world of Space Heroes Universe, I don’t imagine their experience would be much different. The quests are easy to understand, the goals clear, and if you do become stuck the journal provides clues to help you get back on track. There’s a variety of different things to see and do, and the game’s use of different planets keeps things fresh and ever-changing. There certainly aren’t any mundane browns and yellows repeated with more browns and yellows, and in a genre that is swimming with cut-and-paste shooters this is a welcome change. The music is also fantastic – a mix of whimsy and magic that keeps you smiling and engaged in the world without feeling too kidsy.
Space Heroes Universe is a joy to play. From the world you find yourself immersed in, to the environments, the quest design, gameplay and that feeling of wonder it creates – Space Heroes Universe is well worth your time. It’s fun. It’s witty. It’s fantastically designed. It provides everything you’d want in a children’s game, and it provides these things in an environment that is safe and well-moderated. I have no hesitation in recommending that everyone – regardless of age – play this game. It’s free-to-play and requires only a PC and a working internet connection.
To start your own adventure in Space Heroes Universe, head on over to The Official Space Heroes Universe Website.
Save Game Rating: 8.5/10
In addition to playing the game during its beta stage, I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask a few questions to Paul Gray, who is the Director of Community Management at Bubble Gum Interactive. Below are his responses.
Save Game: What was the inspiration for the story and setting?
Paul Gray: Each of the core team is a writer or storyteller in one form or another – we all have half-finished books, comics, screenplays or songs on our bedroom floors. All these personal projects have been put to the side as we tell the story of Space Heroes Universe! We’re inspired by that sense of fun and adventure that you get when you play a great game or hear a fantastic story. In fact, we are working very hard to try to infuse ‘story’ into Space Heroes Universe with a classic epic adventure set in space with a comedy twist – kids create their own heroes and then blast off for intergalactic adventures. Along the way they’ll make friends, meet quirky creatures, complete quests, earn badges and search for clues as to the whereabouts of the dastardly Lord Shadowbot. Space Heroes Universe is all about fun, adventure and discovery.
We take inspiration from many sources. Lots of games, cartoons, comics, books and movies have inspired our team. Some of the standouts include classic Nintendo properties and titles like Mario Galaxy and Zelda but we also draw upon Astro Boy cartoons, manga comics, books, sci-fi and action/adventure movies and of course classic retro arcade games. Most of all, what inspires us is seeing kids tell their own stories in game. Just the other day we were playing online and a group of kids were in one of the places on the heroes homeworld – Astro’s Pizza – and they were role playing that they were the owners of this galactic eating spot. It was great fun to watch and it was clear they loved using their imaginations and roleplaying the scene. That’s what we can’t wait to see more of!
Save Game: What are the challenges in designing a game specifically for children as opposed to a wider audience?
PG: Kids are very demanding gamers! They tell it like it is and make their decisions quickly based on their experience. Our game is designed for kids aged 6 – 12 and caters to both boys and girls. This is a very broad group and no two kids are exactly the same. You can’t just go along with stereotypes like “8 year old boys like this” and “12 year old girls like that”. The reality is it’s much more complex. Kids have different interests – some like competitive play, others like discovering things, others still like to collect and nurture and some just like hanging out and chatting. We spent a lot of time working with kids directly right from the earliest days of development. We had over 200 kids and their parents play test the game at multiple focus group and game-testing sessions. We asked what they liked in games, what they disliked and took them through the story of the game. We’ve developed our own framework identifying six core roles that kids play from socialite to nurturer, explorer and others. We make sure that the game is balanced to cater to the needs of our players, whatever their preferences may be.
We know how important safety is and we have built Space Heroes Universe around some fundamental safety principles. Parents get to pick which chat options they want their kids to use and we have very robust world filters that block any profanity or attempted profanity as well as mature topics. We have a Conduct & Culture Charter that celebrates good behaviour in kids and we have a moderator team who play the game and make sure the experience is safe, fun and inclusive for all players. We’re rated E for Everyone and we have the Family Friendly Videogames Seal of Approval which is great external validation of the efforts we’ve gone to.
Save Game: Have you ever felt constricted when designing for a smaller audience or does designing for children provide unique opportunities?
PG: There are over 200 million children worldwide aged 6 to 12 and online and this number is growing rapidly so it’s a very big audience and there’s plenty of opportunity to evolve the game. As a virtual universe the game keeps on getting bigger and better with new quests, characters, creatures and things to do. Because our game has a sci-fi setting it makes it hugely fun for us to keep building out the game. In our early planning we had a dinosaur planet and it resonated really well with kids. It’s not in the game yet but you can imagine just how much fun it would be to fire up your starjet and fly off to a dinosaur planet!
Save Game: How do you (as adults) design controls and environments/areas for children? How do you keep their interest?
PG: It’s important for any games designer to make sure they understand their audience. You should never build a game for yourself – you should build it for your players. Obviously you weave together the story and then guide and direct the game but by understanding the likes and dislikes of players you’ll be able to make sure they’ll want to try it out and hopefully will like it. The focus groups and game testing we did during development helped a lot. Many of the features in game came from ideas and suggestions from those early conversations. We also cut some things out and made changes to gameplay mechanics and subtle elements based on feedback. Throughout our beta we had several thousand kids from around the world playing the game on a daily basis and they gave us feedback throughout that process via the website. It’s really helped us to make sure the game is not just meeting our player’s expectation but is fun and captivating for them.
Some interesting observations have come along the way – we always knew that kids tend not to enjoy reading so we’ve removed as much text as possible in game and used icons and visual cues. We’ve also worked hard to make sure the game requires minimal introduction and uses well established mechanics such as point-and-click and basic keys. We’ll continue to refine it to make sure that it’s not just fun but accessible too.
Save Game: There seems to be an educational element to the game – was this something that was important/integral to the design of the game?
PG: Space Heroes Universe is first and foremost an entertainment product. We are very clear in our positioning – Space Heroes Universe is not and will never be marketed as an educational game. We know of other kids virtual worlds that try to spin an educational angle but the reality is their educational elements are rarely based on any legitimate academic curriculum or educational models and are often just be a bunch of counting or spelling games thrown in. We wanted to be very open, honest and up-front with parents. Space Heroes Universe is a fun, safe, social gaming experience.
That said, there are some very subtle and discreet educational elements. As kids play Space Heroes Universe they’ll learn some basic principles of financial literacy through completing quests and playing games to earn virtual coins. Through play, kids will experience some basic science topics such as the principles of flight, gravity, solar systems and so on. There’s also the social skills that kids develop – making new friends, managing friendships, learning how to work as teams to complete certain quests. We’ve had really positive feedback from teachers as well as parents and we’ve been working with Macquarie University and the NSW Department of Education who have given us some fantastic ideas and feedback.
Save Game: What’s the one thing about Space Heroes Universe you want everyone to know?
PG: At this stage in our development I just want everyone to know that Space Heroes Universe is live and is free-to-play – so why not strap on your jetpack,fire up your starjet and blast off for adventure at www.spaceheroes.com!
I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Paul for his time, and for answering my questions. Space Heroes Universe is available to play now, for free, to anyone with a PC or Mac and a working internet connection. Check the game out – it’s well worth your time!