When Shelley Day and Ron Gilbert founded Humongous Entertainment in Woodinville in 1992, their focus was on developing computer software for young children from ages 3 to 8.
Now that the company’s initial customers have grown up, Humongous is growing up with them.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Atlanta earlier this summer, Humongous unveiled games that target an older audience, if only just a few years older.
Among the latest games:
* A new Junior Sports series, starting with a baseball game that features a cast of 30 kids who essentially serve as neighborhood sports buddies.
* A new product line called Big Thinkers that offers the skill-based focus of traditional educational software, but with the assistance of an entertaining pair of twin characters named Ben and Becky Brightly.
* A new character named Spy Fox, a sort of furry James Bond whose detective work is the latest addition to Humongous’ Junior Adventure series.
These CD-ROM titles, scheduled for release in the fall, are aimed at kids from ages 5 to 10. Some of these kids may have become familiar with Humongous through games that featured a talking fish and a talking car.
“This is for the same kids who used to play Freddi Fish and Putt Putt. We’re growing up with them,” said Brad Carlton, lead artist on the first Spy Fox title.
Humongous is not abandoning its original characters. It recently released a new adventure game called Putt Putt Travels Through Time.
An influx of cash has helped the company broaden its focus. Because of the success of its early titles and the $76-million acquisition of Humongous last July by New York-based GT Interactive Software Corp., Humongous has grown to 180 employees and is looking to do more.
Gilbert now divides his time between Humongous and a separate company called Cavedog Entertainment that focuses on action games for an older market.
Meanwhile, Humongous has begun developing cartoon shows for the TV and movie markets that feature some of the company’s leading characters.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo provided some of Humongous’ biggest customers an early, close-up look at where the new characters are taking the company.
Spy Fox is designed to appeal to kids who are interested in more cleverness and intrigue. The series plays up the fox’s interest in high-tech gadgets, fashion and in foiling the schemes of nefarious rogues.
Ben and Becky Brightly attempt to lead children toward fun ways to learn math, language, science, creative arts and thinking skills. The twins are able to fly through the air, stretch their limbs to unusual lengths and transform themselves into different objects, such as a train and a crane.
The exercises in Big Thinkers also allow for the collection of “smart stars” that each player can deposit into a separate “brain bank.” Collect enough stars, and you’re able to move on to bigger challenges.
Versions of Big Thinkers for kindergarten and first grade are scheduled for release in October. A version for second graders is planned for 1998.
Humongous also has begun developing a new line of sports games that it says are the first to feature and target kids from ages 5 to 10. The first title in the series, called Backyard Baseball, has much of the same realism as today’s baseball software games, but it combines simpler operation with a neighborhood cast of 30 characters. These range from a girl named Stephanie Morgan, who has a short attention span, to a wealthy boy named Jorge Garcia, who tends to whine, to a pair of twins, Ashley and Sidney Webber, who don’t play as well if they’re not on the same team.
“There’s no Ken Griffey Jr. in this game,” co-designer Mark Peyser said.
Each character has a distinct personality and skill level that only becomes apparent over time. As is typical in real life, “you can’t predetermine the kids’ abilities,” Peyser said. “The game play gives you a fuller picture.”
The user can also generate playing cards for each team member, track statistics as the season progresses, and print out a team portrait.
Unusual player capabilities become available in Backyard Baseball. These include the ability to hit a ball underground and have it pop up in the outfield, a “crazy bunt” that eludes fielders, and an “elevator ball” pitch that rises into the strike zone at the last moment.
The same 30 children’s characters are scheduled to appear in a Backyard Basketball game and a Backyard Soccer game in 1998.
Humongous hasn’t forgotten its traditional core market. In Putt Putt Travels Through Time, users help the friendly purple car fix a broken time machine so Putt Putt can recover his sidekick, a dog named Pep, and some lost school supplies.
A more affordable game, Pajama Sam’s SockWorks (suggested price $14.95) challenges the user’s spatial skills. Sam, the young superhero, has dreamed up a machine that sorts his socks, and the player is prompted to successfully operate the machine.
Staying afloat in the competitive children’s software business requires some imagination. When it comes to entertainment and educational software, Humongous finds its niche somewhere between Disney and Edmark.
The acquisition by GT Interactive appears to be helping the company grow. Ultimately, the consumers decide, which may help explain why Humongous is courting a slightly more mature audience.