Sunday, May 14, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Building Characters

Go figure. One of the most popular characters in children's software is a sweet, purple, cheery car named Putt-Putt. He stars in three programs from Humongous Entertainment - Putt-Putt Joins the Parade, Putt-Putt Goes to the Moon and the brand new Putt-Putt Saves the Zoo - and he is, well, unremarkable.

In fact, the most remarkable thing about Putt-Putt is that he is so successful in appealing to children when so many other characters being developed for children's software are not.

This could be because hoards of developers are rushing into the hot new "edutainment" (educational material presented in an entertaining way) software market by publishing redundant A-B-C programs hosted by annoyingly cute, useless animations: cuddly bears, eager kangaroos, perky penguins. You name it, they are out there.

Far too few companies develop what could give their program a great advantage over the competition: a well-thought-out main character to engage children in a positive manner, give kids a terrific experience they can benefit from and capture their heart at the same time.

Part of the problem is that the art of character development for kids is so undefined. Some software companies find the problem of creating a kid-pleasing character so daunting they decide to not even try.

"We thought about this for a long time," says Mike Malone, president of Gryphon Software. "In the end we realized we had no idea why some characters were hits and that we weren't comfortable with that much mystery. Instead, we elected to stand on the shoulders of giants."

Gryphon was the developer of the Aladdin Activity Center, published by Disney Interactive Software. The genie from the movie Aladdin acts as the program's host and Gryphon adapted his character to the program's needs, but stayed true to the character that Disney had already developed.

But even if no one knows exactly why a Putt-Putt, or an Aladdin, or a bunch of violent morphing teenagers can win kids over so completely, there are companies who have made good, quality software for children with witty, original, successful characters and they have some valuable insights into how the process works and what appeals to kids.

To begin with

Children's edutainment software that uses characters can be loosely divided into three types:

-- Interactive stories that use a new character created specifically for that story, or one pulled from an existing favorite book title or video. A strong character is obviously an essential ingredient for this type of program.

-- Activity center programs that use a host character to guide children through games and learning areas within the program.

-- Children's software programs that use characters as animated help buttons. (Did someone say Bob? Shhh . . . he's more for adults.) The characters in these programs act as guides and ensure kids that they can use the program with little adult assistance.

Successful software characters are no different than successful children's characters in books or video: They are created and then allowed to grow. They have personalities, and they give children a sense that the characters like them and will help them.

What attributes children want the character to have may change as the kids age, but kids do want a character they can relate to as they read a book, as they watch a movie or now, in the '90s, as they use software.

Putt-Putt started out as a character in a bedtime story that Shelley Day, co-founder of Woodinville-based Humongous Entertainment, told her young son. Before he was even a glimmer in a CD-ROM's eye, Putt-Putt had been on adventures and the founders of Humongous knew who he was.

"A good character in children's software needs to be a living being and you need to know where it's been and why it is," explains Ron Gilbert, creative director and co-founder of Humongous. "Characters who begin this way seem more alive. Before our new program (Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds) even began to be developed I spent a couple of months thinking about Freddi Fish as I was driving to work. Who would Freddi's friends be? What would Freddi do?"

Microsoft has also created very successful characters used primarily as animated help buttons. Its Creative Writer and Fine Artist programs (both for slightly older kids) feature a weird-looking character named McZee. In Explorapedia, the company's new encyclopedia for kids, an animated amphibian named Tad helps kids by bringing them on board his frogship and then being accessible throughout the program. (Both of these characters are nonhuman for a reason: not one child on this planet could look at Tad's green grin or McZee's bizarre, outrageous purple face and feel excluded.)

Microsoft has a key insight into developing a kid-appealing character: "One of the things you always have to remember as an adult doing this is that no matter how much you think you can think like a kid, you're not a kid anymore," says Melissa Pasanen, marketing manager-kids. Redmond-based Edmark, in its House series of programs, is another company that manages to have an entire collection of successful characters.

Bailey's Book House is a pre-reading program that has five activity areas, each with its own assortment of cartoonlike characters. Bailey doesn't do much, but kids know that it's his house they're going to play at when they sit down with that program running. And within Edmark's programs, a multitude of well executed characters add to the excellent play quality of the program. The characters are never dull; they never overact their role.

"Our characters are meant to be learning friends for the children and we try to think about learning diversity," says Donna Stanger, vice president of development at Edmark. "We also try to allow these characters to have a personality."

The really good characters in children's software also act as positive role models. The last thing a parent who has just shelled out thousands of dollars for a home computer wants is some digital brat acting as a negative influence (zany is fine; nasty is not).

Where a number of companies fail is in offering flat, one-dimensional characters who add very little to the content, or the intended interactivity of the program. Most of these programs have a host character who might chirp an annoying "good job" or "way to go" whenever a child completes a task successfully; the character also gives an equally annoying, "Aw, too bad, try again" when a wrong answer is given.

Pandering to preschoolers isn't pretty; it doesn't hurt to have someone cheering you along, but it shows an annoying lack of creative thought when that is the extent of a character's involvement in the program.

"I think companies plan to have richer characters, but when it comes right down to it it's just too difficult or it doesn't fit into their plans," says Eric Brown, executive editor of features for NewMedia magazine and author of "That's Edutainment: A Parent's Guide to Educational Software" (Osborne McGraw-Hill, $29.95).

Even in programs where the educational content is excellent, there can be a main character who does very little other than to mislead parents and children into believing there will be a fun companion throughout the program.

Zurk's Learning Safari from Soleil Software is one example of a program that has good activities for kids to play with, but Zurk, dressed in safari garb, barely exists. He certainly doesn't add to the program's potential for interactivity.

Brown says characters need "a more defined and complex personality where you can identify that character as being wacky or dippy or innocent, even an eccentricity or foible that makes them stand out and makes them funny or interesting."

In the coming years, the children's software programs that have staying power will have been developed by people who did their homework, and who never underestimated a child's ability to relate to, and return to, a character they enjoy spending time with.

To quote my 4-year-old daughter: "I like Putt-Putt. He's a lot like me." Now that's remarkable.

Robi Zocher is a free-lance writer living on the Eastside.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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