For games designer Ryan Creighton and his five-year-old daughter Cassie, the plan for May 13-15 revolved around a "game jam" in Toronto where teams of enthusiasts vie to build a video game in a single weekend.
The plan was for them to spend some much-needed quality time together. But two things happened at the event.
The Creightons' Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure, a point-and-click game drawn by Cassie entirely in crayon, became the breakout game of this year's jam.
And its success emboldened her dad, the president and chief designer at the kids gaming site Untold Entertainment to get on with his plan of building an online toolkit for kids and parents to create their own video games together.
"Everyone thinks that you have to be some sort of rocket scientist in order to build a game. You don't," says Creighton. "Games are more about logic and following steps than they are about math, so if you can put an Ikea table together, you can build a video game."
Now, Creighton has two new projects on the go: Games by Kids, the toolkit for family game building, and the game that's getting the rave reviews, Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure.
In it, a girl named Sissy looks for "ponycorns" – a cross between a pony and a unicorn – and along the way has a series of adventures with a tiger and a sentient, levitating lemon, among other things.
As well as her drawings, Cassie also provided most of the audio in Sissy's narration and played the harmonica for the opening theme song.
Within a week of the game being unveiled on the Untold Entertainment site, it was being talked up on several video game and news blogs, while Cassie was appearing, along with her dad, on local news programs.
Ron Gilbert, creator of the classic Secret of Monkey Island games, called it the "best point-and-click adventure I've played in a long time."
The Ponycorns site now sells T-shirts and other mementoes to go along with the game.
Creighton also set up a link that gamers can donate towards Cassie's education. The current total runs over $2,800, enough for "a bouncy castle, which will be of immense value to her as she pursues her doctorate in bounceology," he writes on his blog.
Creighton didn't plan for any of this to happen. The project was only a means to spend more time with his daughter.
"I don't get nearly as much time to spend on my wife and my family, so I thought I would bring Cassie [to the weekend jam] because her drawings are really cute. We could do the Sissy game and do some of her drawings."
The notion behindPonycorn Adventure had been on the idea board of Untold Entertainment for some time now. It was originally conceived as a challenging puzzle-platformer in the vein of the recent standout Super Meat Boy, in which the titular character must avoid hazards such as buzz saws and bottomless pits to reach the end of each level.
Cassie's crayon art wasn't as precise and exact as that plan would allow, though, so during TO Jam, Creighton turned it into a point-and-click adventure game using an in-house engine of his called UGAGS (Untold Graphic Adventure Game System).
The change helped Ponycorns come together, both in development time and philosophy. The final version can be played in about five minutes, and even less time in subsequent playthroughs – a critical virtue for Creighton.
"Kids love knowing the answer, and they love repeating experiences," he says.
"The reason why [the adventure] genre died was because it wasn't replayable. But its weakness is its strength to another audience. So if we make graphic adventures for kids, they'll totally dig it."
Creighton hopes Games by Kids will be playable by the end of the year. In the meantime, Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure is available on RIM's PlayBook and an iPad version launched on July 12.
Games by Kids
Untold Entertainment strives to develop games meant for both kids and their parents to enjoy – so much so that one of the bullet points in the company manifesto is "the use of entertainment to improve, rather than degrade, the human condition."
It is a marked shift from so many of today's popular video games, which are often viewed through the scope of an assault rifle.
"I think a lot of games have us focus on negativity, on violence, on crime, on individualism rather than collaboration," he says. "And I just wanted to do something different."
It's an approach that comes naturally to him, having worked at YTV for seven years making Flash-based games and video supplements to children's programming on their website.
But now, after jamming with Cassie, he wants to move forward on the concept of collaboration by developing the family toolkit that he is calling Games by Kids.
It's designed to be easy to use and manipulate without prior game development or programming knowledge.
Creighton likens it to a science kit that a family can use to conduct simple experiments on a lazy Saturday afternoon – and he promises that it will engage both the parent and child alike.
"I get these board games to play with my kids, but I can't play with them because – and I know this sounds terrible – I have trouble playing with my kids when the games aren't intellectually stimulating.
"These games are roll a dice, move forward. There's no strategy, no decision making."
By contrast, he says, Games by Kids challenges and entertains a kid on his or her intellectual level — and adults likewise.