Pushing fun to the limit. (children's software) (Buyers Guide)
by Carol Ellison
Have you heard the news about kids' games? They're not just for kids anymore. They're bigger, better, and more challenging than ever. And they're pushing the high end of computing technology. If you want to give your children the best software that the market has to offer - the programs with fast-paced action, hi-res animation, and concert-quality sound - you're looking at an upgrade akin to what it takes to run Windows apps.
Gone are the days of trickle-down economics in home computer budgets. No longer can you simply move your PC into the playroom when you trade up to a heftier model for yourself. If you still think the kids will be satisfied with any system you pass along, think again.
The Games Platform
"I finally had to turn my 386 with the 300MB hard drive over to my kids," a programmer in California confided. "I got tired of them pirating my VGA monitor and hounding me to uninstall software so they could install new programs; 120MB wasn't enough. Now, the kids have a better system than I do. Life's just easier that way."
It's also more fun. And unless you're a programmer, it's unlikely that your children's software will require that much disk space. Still, plan on allowing 6MB-8MB per game if you want to install programs packed with sound and animation.
The newest and niftiest programs on the market make use of multimedia effects that raise the bar on hardware requirements. And we're not simply talking about the programs on CD-ROM. True, Sierra On-Line and Broderbund, two leaders in children's software, have pioneered CD-ROM-based games: Sierra by taking its classic Mixed-Up Mother Goose to disk three years ago and Broderbund with its more recent series of interactive Living Books. But these companies and others now are delivering high-quality multimedia programs that you can run directly from your hard disk. If, that is, you have the PC power for it.
Arnold Waldstein, director of marketing for Creative Labs, which makes the popular and widely supported Sound Blaster cards, recommends a PC with an 80386 or higher processor, at least 2MB of memory, Windows 3.1, and no less than a 30MB hard drive as an entry point to the world of children's entertainment software.
VGA has become the video standard for the latest children's games. And virtually all new games - certainly the best ones - require a sound card for full enjoyment. Plus, many children's programs consume hard disk space soaring into the megabytes.
Binary Zoo's animated romp though the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Mystery at the Museums, requires 5MB of disk space to accommodate the games and scanned art images from the real museum. And its Wild Science Arcade (which presents kids with wacky exercises to illustrate concepts like the force of gravity) even requires expanded memory.
Squeeze Out Power
Superior compression techniques allow developers like Knowledge Adventure's Bill Gross to imbue that company's latest release, The Tale of Peter Rabbit Talking Storybook, with sound, action, and interactive hypertextlike capabilities. The software reads the complete text of the storybook aloud to an original musical score, and children can explore illustrative elements in the story. Best of all, it runs from your hard disk and uses only 3MB of space. These new compression techniques are marvels, but don't expect them to shrink the size of software. Developers are using these newfound schemes to pack more sound and graphics into their already sizable programs.
Superior compression schemes are what make The Sierra Network's online gaming service possible. The Sierra Network lets you and your children pit your skills at everything from poker to Boogers (a children's game, as you can tell from its name) against those of gamers across the country. The games actually reside on your hard disk; they consume a whopping 8MB. But because the games run locally on your system as part of the front-end software that accesses the network, the graphics achieve near-VGA quality, and animation runs at a reasonable speed.
Strides in audio technology are producing far more realistic sounds. New, quicker 16-bit sound cards, such as Creative Labs' $99 Sound Blaster Pro Deluxe, are downward compatible with software written for the old 8-bit cards and are able to take advantage of new technologies that produce more natural sounds. The company's new Sound Blaster 16, scheduled to list for $279 and ship by the time you read this, will combine 16-bit sound quality, downward compatibility, and upward expandability in a bundle that includes a variety of games, applications, and voice recognition software.
The new 16-bit Sound Blaster supports both FM (synthesized) sound and sampled sound, which is recorded and digitized. A new technology called wavetable synthesis merges the two to produce a wider, more even range of tones. This makes your PC's sound capabilities leap to a new range of fidelity that can produce everything from the high notes of a soprano's aria to the chirp of crickets on a hot summer's night, a Mozart concerto, or a stentorian monologue.
Voice recognition is the newest multimedia frontier. Voice recognition will probably first make a significant appearance in children's software in the form of verbally entering players' names so that the games programs can speak them back at appropriate moments. Creative Labs' bundled voice recognition software is called Voice Assist, from Voice Processing Corporation (VPC). Voice Assist comes trained to recognize 256 words, including those on familiar Windows menus. Understandably, it initially will be most useful for Windows-based software.
At this writing, voice recognition has not made an appearance in children's games. However, at the Computer Game Developers Conference last spring, attention focused on its potential. With voice recognition and a bit of artificial intelligence (AI) built into the software, and with a sound card, speakers, and a microphone installed, a computer will be able to interact with a child in more natural ways. The child will be able to speak commands instead of entering them from the keyboard.
Creative Labs, in testing Voice Assist, actually wrote an AI program that took orders for pizza and assembled the pizza, with the user's choice of pepperoni, extra cheese, onions, or anchovies, onscreen as an order was entered verbally.
Sound is important in entertaining educational games. Unless you have a sound card, you simply can't hear ground control monitoring Carmen Sandiego's moves through the solar system in Where in Space Is Carmen Sandiego?, Broderbund's latest entry in its runaway hit mystery series. And unless your hard disk can accommodate the 8MB the program consumes, you won't even be able to install it.
And what's a music video without sound and animated effects? Binary Zoo's Rock and Bach Studio lets kids stage music and light shows, a la animated music videos, right there on the monitor. It, too, requires a sound card - not to mention a large amount of disk space to hold the sound and animation files that make video creation possible. If you let your children save their videos, your disk needs start rising incrementally.
The Man Becomes the Child
The latest games software from companies like Broderbund, Sierra (and The Sierra Network), Davidson & Associates, and Binary Zoo combine fun and challenges with state-of-the-art technology that the whole family will enjoy.
What's more, these new technologies are remarkably interactive, allowing children young and old to interact with the computer, with one another in multiplayer games, and even with the masses in online interactive game arenas like The Sierra Network and America Online's Neverwinter Nights adventure game.
You'll still find software with age ratings on the box, but a number of companies are following the lead of Davidson. Last fall that company erased the age rating on its Davidson's Kid Works 2, a paint and publishing program packed with animation and sound effects, and began advertising the package "for kids of all ages."
Davidson's Kid Works 2 is just one of the multimedia products that populate the top of the children's software charts. It's a creativity kit that's sold with a companion clip art library, called Kid Pictures. Kid Pictures can also be used with the competition, Broderbund's runaway paint hit, Kid Pix. These creative kits make wackiness the norm. The sight gags and sound bloopers you can build into pictures and stories are limited only by your imagination - oops! We meant to say your kids' imaginations, of course!
If you haven't perused the software store shelves lately, take time to do so. You'll find that these incredible children's packages are affordable. But be forewarned: Once you take these programs home, you'll probably have to relinquish your computer to your kids. That is, until you try out some of the programs yourself. Indeed, they aren't just for kids anymore.
Creativity Hits: Fun for Everyone
Pick a color, any color. Then, pick a background, one that explodes with starbursts. Mix it with thundering applause and a beat to rock a coliseum. Add some reverb, and loop the routine so the end links to the beginning and it plays and plays and plays and ...
This little scenario is what plays out in Rock and Bach Studio. The software not only turns kids into budding MTV producers but also gives them something new to work with every time they sit down at the PC.
Programs like Rock and Bach, Davidson's Kid Works 2, Broderbund's Kid Pix and Print Shop Deluxe, MECC's Storybook Weaver, and the Disney print kits aren't just games. They're tools - programs that a kid can come back to when there's a project to complete. They're as versatile as adult desktop publishing programs, word processors, or draw and paint software. In fact, Kid Pix and Kid Works 2 put in a little of each of these applications and throw in animation and sound effects to boot.
These programs are the electronic equivalent of finger paints, crayons, and chemistry sets. They're limited only by the imagination. And two minds often being better than one, these games are also better suited to group play than ones that challenge kids individually to attain a higher score.
The beauty of these programs is that they grow with the children. Adults who want to include a family newsletter in a greeting card or produce their own announcements will even enjoy using them.