With Electronic Toys, Simplicity Is Everything

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Only a weirdo would use a thirty-year-old word processor to get real work done. (I know what I’m talking about: I used word processors back then, and don’t want to go back.) There’s nothing particularly strange, however, about playing thirty-year-old electronic games.

Such as Ms. Pac-Man, for instance, a game that’s still beloved and available on a bevy of modern platforms. Liking to play Ms. Pac-Man, in fact, is probably a good sign that you’re perfectly normal.

(LIST: Top 10 Tech Toys for 2011)

I thought about this week as I wrote about Sifteo Cubes for my new Technologizer column on Cubes are 1.5″ squares with color screens and a sense of the world around them—they know if you’ve tilted them, flipped them, or held two of them together. And they run a bunch of clever games, with more on the way.

I started my column by noting that the history of electronic playthings is rife with failures—including some pretty high-profile products that looked neat but weren’t interesting enough over the long haul to justify their sometimes lofty prices.  (Yes, AIBO, I’m looking at you.) But there are some electronic toys that’ll live forever, or close enough. Ms. Pac-Man and her spouse are two of them. So is one I mentioned in the Sifteo story: Milton Bradley’s Simon. I don’t think that Simon in its original 1978 form is available at the moment, but I’m sure it’ll come back—and Hasbro offers Simon Flash, a version that’s basically Simon crossed with a dirt-cheap version of Sifteo’s Cubes.

These games don’t offer rich gameplay. They’re not flashy. (Ms. Pac-Man might have been in 1981, but by 1984 or so it looked retro.) They’re just very, very simple, but still challenging. That’s the key to their success. It’s also why some modern-day games, such as Bejeweled, just keep going and going.

Is Sifteo’s creation simple enough to succeed? Well, it’s not one simple game—it’s a gaming platform, and so in some ways it’s the simplicity of the apps that’ll determine its chances. (It also needs to get cheaper to be a break-out hit: it currently starts at $149.) But you can tell that the company poured effort into removing complexity from the Cubes idea. You don’t need to set Cubes up—even though they need a wireless connection to a computer to work—and I learned the user interface by playing rather than reading instructions. For a very new concept, it quickly starts to feel comfortably familiar. That’s a good sign.

I’m not saying that Cubes will be around in 2041, although it would be pretty cool if they were. But I do think they have a reasonable shot at sticking around for a while—and given the spotty record of high-tech playthings, that’s an accomplishment in itself.

MORE: Sifteo’s Cubes: Blocks with Brains