In the summer of 2015 I visited my family in Japan and I had a great opportunity to make a different kind of game for my niece and nephew. I had just a few weeks to complete it so I had to make some quick decisions, and while I think some worked I also think some did not.
I will take you through the what, why and how of this prototype and I hope you come out with a better understanding of how I approach videogame design and development.
As a gift to our niece in Japan, my wife bought an English children’s book that is about spelling the names of various farm animals. Every page of the book displays two different animals, each with a simple sentence like, “The dog barks.”
Sticking out from the right side of the book is a palette of buttons, one for each letter of the alphabet. Pushing a button says “A” or “B”, and so on. When you spell the name of one of the animals in the book it says, “C…A…T…that spells Cat, meow”.
This is a pretty interesting book, but I thought that a videogame could do it better.
As a challenge to myself I wanted to create the essence of this type of book but to improve on it in a way that only a videogame could.
There are a couple of very obvious ways that a videogame can improve upon this book so I’ll list them first:
1) The game should have interesting animal art and animations.
2) The game should have high quality and varied sound.
Animals don’t have to be static pictures like they do in the book but they can move about. Further, the book is limited by a very cheap speaker and low memory for sound, whereas the ubiquitous tablet is, relatively speaking, not.
The biggest weakness of the book, in my opinion, is that the reader does not actually have to spell anything at all to enjoy the book. Readers can flip through the pages at will and look at all the great pictures. The animal sound is withheld for those who spell, but that isn’t much. It seems likely to me that a parent would be the one to encourage the child to spell the animal names rather than the book innately doing that.
A videogame, on the other hand, is more versatile. It can make it so that if you don’t spell you don’t get to see any animals. In other words, a videogame can encourage the child to spell without the parent’s help. So I’ll add this to the design list.
3) The game must encourage the child to spell on their own.
I think it’s best if you play the prototype now before continuing as from here on I will go into details about what I did and didn’t do and that may spoil the fun of discovering it for yourself.
You cannot use Chrome so please use Firefox or Safari instead. Unfortunately, you’ll also have to install the Unity Web Player if you haven’t before. It is safe and you can trust it, but it is annoying.
The game should have interesting animal art and animations
This is the first design goal from above. This is not something I will be able to achieve until I work with an artist, so I kept things simple for the prototype. For the boxes and letters I went with a childlike hand drawn style and for the animals I simply traced over images of the real animals I found on the internet. I also included user interface animations such as boxes wiggling, images growing and sliding, and stars shooting out of the player’s touch.
Interesting note: A traced copy of a squirrel and a box is the difference between game designer art and programmer art.
The game should have high quality and varied sound
This is the second design goal, but it was the last thing that I did. It is much easier to create sounds when the project is as complete as possible because the timing of actions in the game are likely to be set.
Since we were in Japan I did not have access to many of my important tools such as my microphone and keyboard, but for the purposes of a prototype, I thought it would be okay to use the low-res recordings from cellphones and I could create simple musical chimes programmatically.
For the various voices in the game I asked family and friends back home to record using their cellphones and then email me their recordings. I was inspired by a very old PC game of The Magic School Bus where various vegetables said their own name in a funny way (unfortunately not something I can convey well through text). So I asked everyone to give me their kookiest, crazy voices and I went through and picked my favourites. For the animal names, however, I decided that a straight reading worked best.
The game must encourage the child to spell on their own
This third goal is where the meat of the design work came in and it was the most important step. If this goal was achieved then I believe there’s a good reason that a game like this should exist.
First, to encourage the child to spell on their own I felt that the letters had to be the most prominent thing. So the first thing you see when the game starts is a box that gets filled with various letters. The player may not realize that they are going to be spelling right away, but it will become clear later on.
Second, spelling is very hard. With this game I’m targeting 4-6 year-olds who are learning to read and write. I thought it would be more fun if it was very easy to spell an animal’s name, but more challenging to spell a specific animal’s name. This way, players who aren’t good at spelling can still get a lot out of the game. With the book you can press C and then press Z and then…nothing will happen. So with the game the only letters that appear are letters that will definitely lead to spelling an animal’s name.
How does it work?
To begin, the first letter of each animal name drops. Once the first letter is selected all the other letters explode away (because explosions are interesting) and then a new set of letters fall in. These new letters are all the second letter of the animals that begin with the first selected letter. This continues until a full word is spelled.
Once the player has successfully spelled an animal’s name, that animal is revealed. I believe withholding the animal’s image makes for a more powerful motivator to spell.
After the first animal is spelled a new feature is revealed — the storage box. It’s where the spelled animals go. It’s also where I think I missed a big opportunity.
But I will return to that later.
When the player clicks on the storage box they see that there are many animals that haven’t been revealed and hopefully the player understands that to reveal them they must spell them. Clicking on an unlocked animal in storage shows the picture, pronunciation and spelling. Clicking on a locked animal shows the silhouette and the pronunciation, but not the spelling.
I felt it was very important that the animal pronunciations of locked animals serve as the hint for finding them. With the current design it will be very easy for kids to unlock many of the animals by randomly selecting letters, but it is very unlikely they will unlock them all without specifically targeting the animals they want. Further, in order to include more interesting animals like “lynx” and “wolverine” the silhouette is not enough information — not even for an adult.
This pretty much sums up the components of the prototype. Next it was time to test it with my niece and nephew.
My niece was 8 and my nephew was 5 at this time. They both speak Japanese but have learned the alphabet in school. They knew their ABCs.
They both seemed to really enjoy clicking around and hearing the various sounds and seeing boxes fly around. When the letters gathered and spelled the animal name they waited in anticipation for what the animal looked like — my designer art did not seem to bother or deter them from playing (not yet, at least). Then they repeated the process of clicking around and they got 2 or 3 more animals before I told them they can click on the box that appeared in the lower corner.
Once inside the box they clicked on both locked and unlocked animals and understood the difference between them — that locked ones needed to be spelled. The boy would point at a silhouette and say (in Japanese), “I want to get the goat,” and then he would return to the boxes and…he would have no idea where to start.
First, he didn’t know that “goat” was the word he wanted to spell because he was thinking in Japanese. Second, even though both my niece and nephew knew their ABCs they didn’t know that “G” made a “guh” sound. It was not going to be possible for them to find all the animals without my direct help.
My niece lost interest after finding about 10 animals. So I was down to one tester.
My nephew, however, was still very much interested. He was able to find about 20 animals before he started spelling the same ones again. He would constantly open the storage and pick a target and then return, but eventually I needed to help him by basically telling him which letters he needed to push. Even still he kept playing and unlocked about three-quarters of the animals when he encountered a game-ending bug.
Well that ended the day’s session, but I learned a lot.
For my niece, I really do think that the designer art affected her. Once she had seen most of the UI animations and a couple animals I think she felt there wasn’t much else to see. She was 8, after all. She knew what most of these animals looked like and without animations there really wasn’t anything new to see.
My nephew’s personality is quite different from my niece. When I visited his house he showed me his encyclopedia collection. For him the visuals were not as important as his desire to collect all the animals. Despite not knowing how to spell in English at all he stayed motivated until a bug ruined the play.
I have to assume that English-speaking children will perform much better at this game. While some parental intervention is likely inevitable, my feeling is that English-speaking children will get more out of this experience. I only had two testers, but I definitely felt the game had promise.
There are several design changes that I think are necessary going forward.
1) Spelling means putting letters in the correct order
When a letter in the game is selected it explodes randomly and then sits in the box. This is not good. It should move out of the box to a location where the letters can assemble in order. As the player selects letters they get added together outside the box. This is how spelling looks in real life and I think that’s very important to do. My sister-in-law played and once the letters started flashing she said, “I wonder what animal will appear.” She is also Japanese, but she can read English. That was a clear sign.
2) The missed opportunity: the storage box is a boring list
As I mentioned above, the storage box is where I missed the biggest opportunity to do something special. A difference in personality made my nephew use the storage box vigorously to track down his next target — like he was filling in an encyclopedia — but to my niece it was just a boring list. I think there’s a solution here that’s better for both of them. It’s something I thought of half-way through development but it was too late to try to implement a version of.
When we go inside the storage box I’d like to create a world where these animals live. It’s a landscape that can be scrolled beyond the screen. Locked animals remain as silhouettes, but they reside where they would actually live. The bluejay can sit in a tree, the goat stands on a mountain, the lobster is under the sea, and so on.
This is a very big change but I believe it’s the right thing to do. It just seems to elevate the experience far beyond what it is now. It’s more about using spelling to bring life to a world, and that is closer to what words are for.
3) Draw more attention to the storage box
I can do this without going into call-to-action overkill. Something I will keep in mind.
4) Make it The Imaginary Box of North American Animals
This is more of a marketing thing, but I would definitely expand things to be the Imaginary Box of North American Animals. Most of the animals are the same, but obviously there is a wider appeal. Crocodile would make a nice addition. I can also imagine a series of similar games: African Animals, Australian Animals, Dinosaurs, etc.
I think this game design has a lot of potential. I think a lot of children could really enjoy it and also get a bit better at spelling in the process.
I hope you were able to get some insight into my inner workings and as I continue to work I will be sure to make another post updating you on the progress.
Thank you very much for playing!
Minor Design Additions
One idea I’m playing with is setting aside a spot to display a target animal. Say, above the storage box and to the left of where the letters fall. The target animal is the last locked animal selected in the storage box. The target animal appears as a silhouette and when the player touches it the name of the animal is said as it is moved to the centre of the screen. This is the same feature as inside the storage box but bringing it outside may offer a convenient way for kids to listen to how the animal is pronounced easily without having to open the storage again.
Another idea is replacing 2 or 3 of the blank boxes with incorrect letter options. Perhaps this starts happening after half of the animals have been unlocked. I don’t think I want to make incorrect choices end the current word, however. Instead, selecting an incorrect letter might just make it poof away, as if it were a ghost. This and variations of it are something I will be considering.
Observing my Japanese players I almost felt that the book was a better help for learning to spell because readers could look at the word “dog” and then look for the letters that spell it. The equivalent in the game would be if locked animals showed a silhouette and the animal spelling. The player would need to commit the letters to memory, exit the storage and find them in the box. That’s something I will keep in mind going forward because I may be wrong and English children may need that, too.
Unity WebGL Export Issues
I really wanted to try publishing using the new Unity 5 WebGL export because I hate that people must install the Unity Web Player and that it is no longer supported by Chrome. Unfortunately, I came across two bugs in the export. One I could have lived with and one that was critical.
1) I used Unity’s new sound mixers and mixer snapshots. It seems that the feature of transitioning from one mixer snapshot to another does not work. This is a minor issue for the purposes of this prototype, but having the box collision audio fade out while transitioning to inside the storage box is a nice touch.
2) I dynamically change the sorting layer that a sprite is rendered on and this does not seem to be supported in the WebGL export. Further, I tried just changing sorting order but this actually caused a crash. To be able to do either of these is essential. In the storage box, when you click on an animal the animal grows in size and centres on the screen. A white background slides in to cover all the other animals and highlight the current selection. I want the current animal to render on top of the white background so I change its sorting layer. Since it wasn’t working the white background would totally obscure the selected animal. It is for this reason I had to revert to using the Unity Web Player.