2nd Playtest

Friday, October 12 was our second playtest at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum.

We’ve built out a lot more of the egg slice of our game, implementing a lot of what we found the game needed from the last playtest.  The game now takes the player from when they arrive on the farm to look for eggs up through the knowldge evaluation back at the grocery store.  Interactive objects highlight and players can solve puzzles using their visual vocabulary cards as dialogue.  There were also portions that were not completely implemented and there were no glows to indicate what the next step was; in some places, the team managed to implement sparkles, other places nothing.

Unfortunately, the team arrived at the museum a little late and many families were in the process of leaving so we did not get as many playtests as we would have liked; nonetheless, the results seemed promising.  Kids stayed engaged and knew that the highlights showed them what to do next.  Surprisingly, sparkles worked less well than highlights.  There were also two moments when the temporary dialogue was too long and kids lost a bit of attention.

The team feels that this test, however, was great proof that we are heading in the right direction with the changes that we are making.

1st Playtest with Kids

On Monday, we had our first playtest with kids at the Children’s Museum. It was a rough build for which we had developed all of our assets in less than 2 weeks, a slice of our intended whole experience that was intended to walk a player through every interaction of exploring the origin of one common grocery item. In this case, eggs.

Now, the first few weeks of our project included a good deal of research into how 4-6 year olds interact with our technology. But watching actual kids try to play our actual game (with a fair amount of both failure and success) was informative in a way that any amount of research could never be. As a team, we’d never worked with a demographic so young before, so having this shared experience where we have seen, live, how kids use their hands with an iPad, and how they WANT to interact with this technology, really helps us conceptualize and plan for further iteration.

Major takeaways included that we need to do more to direct the player’s attention, include a few more tutorial graphics and spoken words, and build our interactions more solidly around what kids want to do.

The Market Space

iPad games for the pre-K to K demographic is a very competitive market space at the moment.  This means that there are a lot of examples for the team to look at, but moreover that the outstanding games in this space do what they do very well.

The team has looked at the following games:

Daniel Tiger

Elmo Loves ABC’s

Duck, Duck, Moose


Marble Kids Museum

Today, one of our programmers, Michael, visited the Marble Kids Museum in Raleigh, NC to learn about our demographic.  The museum is aimed at young children, and is designed to facilitate learning through play and interaction.

The Museum had exhibits about the farm as well as the grocery store, which where next to each other, but not explicitly connected.  Overall, the museum was designed to let kids play first and learn second, learning through osmosis rather than through explicit lessons.

Susan Neuman is aware of this philosophy with teaching young children, and intends for our team to try a more directed and intentional approach.  She believes that kids are far more capable than what we give them credit for and that challenging-but-achievable activities will encourage them to excel.

To Prototype or To Iterate

Up to this point, the question of whether or not the team would be prototyping multiple game designs or iterating on a single game design was up in the air.

Originally, the team came into the semester interested in the idea of rapid prototyping and the ability to try out different art styles, game mechanics, and general designs.

  • The original project description and original client that had attracted our team advertised prototyping.
  • Our client had changed to Susan since then, but given that Susan was interested in expanding her educational research into what would be a new space for her (iPad games), we figured that prototyping would allow us to research what would work best.
  • Our team has two members who are familiar with and worked previously with rapid prototyping.

However, the team has made a choice to iterate on a single design for the whole semester.

A couple of factors swayed us towards this decision:

  • The team’s idea for the first prototype had a lot of potential and instead of making a small part of it, the team became excited about building the whole thing.
  • Moreover, the idea for the first prototype, learning about where food came from, really resonated with Susan and our advisors, especially with the push to teach kids about healthy eating.
  • Most importantly though, after discussing with Susan today, she made it clear that she would like to have a single very polished project to demonstrate at the end of this semester.

Sesame Street Smarts

Our producer, Albert, visited the Sesame Workshop in NYC today to get advice about design.

He asked them about such things as their own experiences with whether or not kids ages 4-6 prefer:

  • A world populated by adult or children characters
  • Human, animal, robot characters
  • Adult or child / male or female voices
  • Cartoony illustrations or real pictures

What did the folks at Sesame Workshop say?

CHARACTER DESIGN:  There may be a slight preferences for child characters over adults, but all distinctions are really trivial so long as characters feel friendly and funny.  The real test of character design, of course, is to put your characters in front of kids and ask them.

VOICE:   Voice-overs are similar: so long as the speaking is clear, it doesn’t matter too much what your actor sounds like.  Indeed, Sesame Workshop tests with scratch audio all the time and kids don’t complain when Elmo doesn’t sound “like Elmo.”

STORY:  Remind a child often where a story is going and why.  DON’T over-complicated.  Kids don’t find puns or irony funny; however, physical humor is good; things kids find funny also include unusual juxtapositions (e.g. small things with deep voices), as well as toes, baths, bubbles, and toilets (though avoid that last one).

USER INTERFACE:  Have a “back” and “home” button on-screen at the top always.  Don’t make important buttons hide.  Avoid putting anything interactive along the bottom because kids rest their wrists downs there.

INTERACTIONS:  Kids have no trouble with tapping, drawing, swiping, and dragging, but DO HAVE TROUBLE with pinching, tilting, multi-touch, flicking, flinging, double-tapping.

Everything’s a Fruit!

Content, while not the main focus of our team, is still important to have defined for the game we will be making, and the team has decided to make our game about:

Where does most food actually come from (a farm of one kind or another if you were wondering).

We’ll be taking kids to a grocery store filled with things they are familiar with (like eggs, apples, and bread), and then teaching them to ask the question of how it got there.  From a truck?  Where did the truck come from?  A farm?  What’s on the farm?  Chickens, trees, wheat?

The team has been doing research of what types of foods to address:

  • Produce?
  • Fruits?
  • Vegetables?
  • Dairy?
  • Processed foods?
  • Grains?

You’d think that these categories would be easy to teach, but, tell me, “What IS a fruit?”

Turns out there is the culinary definition that you are probably thinking about  (sweet plant products with seeds) as well as a botanical definition (parts of a flowering plant that spread its seeds), and as far as we can tell, that means a lot of things are technically fruits, scientifically speaking.

Almonds are the pit of fruit.  Fruits called “drupes” – a category that includes peaches.  Peaches and almonds are related.

Why Pad?

The team has settled on developing games for the iPad.  How did we get to such a specific choice?

  • First, our target demographic (ages 4-6) cannot reliably use more complex interfaces like keyboards and mice; therefore we want to develop for a tablet to take advantage of the intuitiveness of physical tapping and dragging.

Now considering tablets, iOS and Android are the two biggest contenders in the market, why the former?

  1. iOS has fewer fragmentation issues than Android.
  2. iPads are the more popular, and are more often adopted by educational institutions looking to incorporate tablets into their curriculum.

So the team will be moving forward with developing for and testing with the iPad.

However, the engine that the team will be developing in is Unity3D, which means that it is possible to build for Android.  While the team will not have the resources to work with Android, we are not excluding it entirely.

The Problem

The team will be tackling a very specific issue:

  • The early literacy gap between kids from upper/middle-class families and those of impoverished families.

Our client, Susan Neuman, has conducted research that demonstrates the existence of a knowledge gap between to those of affluence and poverty.  In particular, this gap often begins from a young age.

From preschool to kindergarten, children of families in poverty often do not possess the same verbal and conceptual foundations that children from middle and upper-income families have – concepts such as categorization and generalization (e.g. “An apple is a fruit.”, “An insect has six legs; an ant is an insect”).  These kids tend to have more unsupervised time and are exposed less often to such words and ideas in their daily lives.

The vocabulary and knowledge to discuss abstract ideas is fundamentally important:  Having the words with which to talk about new ideas as well as the familiarity with how to relate those ideas together is what allows kids to successfully learn in school.  Without this foundation then, disadvantaged very often fall behind in their education and this problem only exacerbates itself as they get older.

It seems that if this gap could be bridged at a young age, all children would have a better chance to succeed in their education.