Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Truth about Third Party Development on the LeapFrog Leapster

 I wrote a review of the Leapster, LeapFrog's handheld device for interactive books and criminal case hack games. It's become a popular read, consistently ranking in the top few links in applicable Google searches. In that article, the main critique I offer is LeapFrog's failure to offer third party development for the device. Here's what I said I hope LeapFrog reconsiders its decision not to open the platform to third party developers. I can imagine a productive and mutually beneficial collaboration between LeapFrog's research arm and independent game developers, but taking into account LeapFrog's public offering, I fear they feel they've found a niche that works, and changing their formula would be disasterous.

At the Education Arcade Conference earlier this month, I had a chance to ask many LeapFrog employees, including CEO Tom Kalinske, about this issue. I'm happy to finally be able to offer some more information on the topic. My new LeapFrog friends affirmed that corporate risk associated with being a newly public company had been the primary factor restricting the idea of third party dev. As I suspected, LeapFrog has contracted with outside developers in a work-for-hire capacity, but in the capacity of a traditional publisher. LeapFrog asserted that they have been discussing the possibility of third party development for some time. 

They also confirmed that if they pursue it, the model will look very much like that of Nintendo, meaning that developers would need to have their content approved by LeapFrog, and they would pay a per-unit fee for manufacture and packaging of Leapster carts. This is what I would have expected.None of the LF employees said it in as many words, and despite the doubtlessly sincere statements that Kalinske and others made at the Education Arcade when I pressed them, my intuition is that LeapFrog is really quite far away from opening their platform to third party development. 

When I asked a group of terrific LeapFrog folks attending the conference how seriously they were considering third party dev, they turned to one another in gesticulated pause. When I told them that I would take the report that third party dev was "under consideration" as a "no," they told me it was "definitely under consideration."Now, I'm really not interested in just complaining about the fact that LeapFrog hasn't made this move. It's a massive strategic issue for them, and they do have shareholders to answer to. At the same time, I refuse to accept one justification I heard at the conference, namely that shelf space pressure was one reason to shrink from third party development -- LeapFrog products get a full aisle of shelf space in Target and Wal-Mart. 

Rather, I think the good folks at LeapFrog just need an outside perspective on the matter. And why shouldn't that perspective be a public one? The reason I believe third party development would benefit the Leapster -- and possibly the other LeapFrog devices -- is because I think that the potential for improved educational game design is simply not going to come from inside the LeapFrog corporation. Right now, the only truly gamelike Leapster title is Spongebob Squarepants. 

The Leapster's launch marketing worked very hard to separate and distinguish the device from the Nintendo GameBoy: Leapster was a "Multimedia Learning System" to be correlated with curricular and educational standards, not a videogame platform. At the same time, researchers like Jim Gee have convincingly argued that games as educational environments are more effective than classrooms. Moreover, LeapFrog has a near monopoly on multimedia toys (educational or not) for kids under 8. It's no wonder that that Nintendo has finally started to pay attention. The spur I think LeapFrog needs to move third party development forward is a convincing market scenario. 

So I challenge you, readers, to give up some ideas here in the comments section of this post. What kinds of games would work on this platform, and why? What kind of game and educational content can the Leapster facilitate that other devices cannot (remember, the Leapster runs on Macromedia Flash tied to device-specific APIs)? How can third party software on the device increase, not threaten the company's value to it's shareholders? If the thread gets lively enough, I'll personally make sure that its contents are presented to the right people at LeapFrog. Hey, they're reading this website anyway. I think the main issue for Leapfrog is the fact that a depressingly small library of software is available for the Leapster. I can say my six year old sometimes uses it, but some more varied software would make it much more interesting for him.I don't know if I mentioned this in my weblog, but what the Leapster REALLY needs is memory to save stuff on. There is a drawing game on one of the games, but it does not allow a kid to save his picture! I can tell you that is the first thing my son tried to do. 

He has used a drawing program on my PDA and he knows that such devices should be able to save. After that, Leapfrom needs to realize that there no platform that has ever been sucessful without third-party software. Its about the games ( or learning applications, doesn't matter what you call it, kids would rather play something called a game ). There is a small, not very compelling library for Leapster. I don't suspect too many were sold after Chirstmas. Besides that, a strong hobbyist platform would be amazing. The Leapster package is great for kids. Imagine a PC based product where a kid could make his OWN interactive videos. 

I can tell you that creating their own content would be very compelling for any kid, and it would be more inspire more learning than any pre made "learning experience." Hmmm. That is my real point, I'll have to develop that some more.Thanks for the space. DaveIt would be self-defeating for them to continue to do without third-party development.The longterm value of a media-delivery platform relies on compelling and diverse content. Each new title builds the appeal of the platform, and provides consumers with a new case for purchasing it.And a 3rd party development community is a vital asset. Without one, you're a voice in the wilderness. They provide a network of businesses and individuals with a deep, vested interest in the success of the platform.

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