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Educational Digital Toy
Kari Triplett: Author of Donna’s Ducklings (2017), a children’s book with the same name.
· Content Creator
· Subject Matter Expert
Triplett, A. (2018). Donna’s Ducklings [Unpublished mobile game].
NOTE: Kari Triplett was a planned member of the team but due to a misunderstanding of her expected level of involvement, she did not contribute anything to this project other than the sound bite below and occasional feedback from user testing. That is why I am not including her name in the reference for the game.
“Join Donna and friends for games and play, while learning lessons along the way!” (Triplett, K., 2018)
Donna’s Ducklings (Triplett, A., 2018) is an educational digital toy for preschool-aged children focusing on the development of fine motor skills, counting, shape recognition, color recognition, and size differentiation. The characters and farm theme are loosely based on the story, Donna’s Ducklings (Triplett, K., 2017). Each area of the farm will have a unique activity focused on one or more of these early childhood development goals.
My wife recently published her first children’s book and has been having trouble marketing it. I intended for this game to be a digital companion to that book to extend the brand and help expose potential customers to the story through another medium. There were some concerns about existing royalty agreements associated with that particular book. As a result, the project was rebranded as Donna’s Ducklings (Triplett, A., 2018) and was intended to be an extension to the children’s story, Donna’s Ducklings (Triplett, K., 2017), which has yet to be published as of this writing.
The design of the game was inspired by Sago Mini Farm (Sago Mini Toys Inc., 2017) and Monkey Preschool Lunchbox (THUP Games, LLC, 2010). The planned design included a hide-and-seek game where the player is asked to search the farm for Donna’s ducklings who are hiding in random locations throughout the game. This feature would have led to game mechanics similar to Sago Mini Farm (Sago Mini Toys Inc., 2017) but this feature did not make it into the final version of the capstone project.
Capstone Game Scope
The original planned scope of the game included four areas of the farm each having a unique educational activity, a hide-and-seek game acting as a global mini-game, a Global Reward System awarding ribbons and stars for completing activities, an Intelligent Tutoring System to provide a more targeted learning experience tailored for the needs of the user based on gameplay, a Farm Map scene tying all areas of the farm together using a parallax scrolling effect, a Parental Gateway designed to prevent young children from entering a special scene intended for parents, a Dialogue Manager that would synchronize the display and animation of words on the screen to go along with the audible narration, and a cloud-based content delivery mechanism for possible future content updates.
Two additional areas of the farm were also planned in case the project had proven to be under-scoped. The project was not under-scoped, it was over-scoped. The scope was reduced by removing the Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS), the global mini-game, two of the four educational activities, and the cloud-based content delivery system.
The Dialogue Manager was removed earlier on in the project because the author did not provide the expected storybook content. With no story to feed into the Dialogue Manager, it was removed. To counter this loss, a Profile Management System was the added.
If everything had gone right, the game would have looked as described above. Of all the features that did not make it into the final version, the loss of the Dialogue Manager led to the largest departure from the original intent of the game. The intent was to give the game a storybook feel based on the children’s book by integrating storybook elements presented by the Dialogue Manager in a read-along format using animation to draw attention to each word as it was read aloud by the narrator. The ideal version of the game would have acted as an extension of and digital companion to the story.
Link to final screencast including demo of basic gameplay: https://youtu.be/gZGBjIWf7So
The Critique: What went right
Design & Aesthetics
Activities and interactions use repetition and multi-sensory feedback to help the user develop the desired early childhood educational goals. To exercise fine motor skills and hand eye coordination, the player is asked to perform various touch gestures. This includes dragging from one source to many targets, many targets to one source, one source to a specific target based on matching criteria and performing a pinching gesture.
Each activity is split into three parts: an introduction, intermission, and quiz. I felt that is was too challenging for the target audience to begin immediately by asking for specific shapes and colors without introducing them by name first. I also felt it was too simple to follow the introduction immediately with a quiz. The intermission separates these two parts by providing the user with an unrelated task intended to be fun while challenging the player to exercise specific fine motor skills.
The selected music tracks received only positive feedback. I intentionally picked these tracks for their energy. The theme song is fun and energetic like a galloping horse for the non-activity scenes. For the activity scenes, the background music is slower and more thoughtful.
Core Game Mechanics
Each young tester who played the game had at least one moment during gameplay when his or her face lit up. They also unanimously provided verbal feedback that the game was fun. The game mechanics in this game are deceptively simple. In reality, it was quite difficult to create the interactive sequences used in the activity scenes because of the branching logic used that also had to be forgiving of inaccurate input from target demographic all while remaining synchronized with narration composed of numerous audio clips that all had to come together in a way that sounded natural and made sense in the context of the user’s input which isn’t always the input expected.
I was able to create several reusable systems that will be very useful in future projects. For example, the physics-based touch system, a game-state manager providing automatic persistence of data, a profile selection and management system, a general-purpose event system, a two-dimensional sprite outline effect shader, and a simple yet powerful replacement for visual scripting languages that is entirely Unity-based with no third-party dependencies or unmanaged code.
The Critique: What went wrong
Design & Aesthetics
I was unable to find professional artwork for all visual elements required by the game’s design that would have been compatible with existing assets used for the animals and the farm. In those cases, I had to create my own artwork. For example, I created the treats, brush, and spray bottle used in the horse pen and everything in the chicken coop except the chickens and the barn used in the home icon. The game would have looked more polished if all visual elements had been created by a single artist or studio.
The project was over-scoped. Deadlines were missed because there was simply too much to do. I did a poor job of communicating these challenges with these advisors. As a result, the project scope was not adjusted until very late in the project at which point it was too late to do much other than just cutting features.
Bugs were allowed to pile up. This led to a situation where there were so many bugs to fix that fixing them became a significant issue in itself requiring several days dedicated to bug fixes alone. Also, fixing one bug often led to another creating a cascading effect. Unit testing was not used which sometimes made it more difficult to determine whether or not a bug fix impacted existing code.
It was difficult to schedule testing with preschool-aged children. In most cases, there was simply not a time or day that worked with my schedule and that of the child’s parents. In one case where the child did come for play testing, I made the mistake of allowing the child to play with my daughter before we started leading to a situation where the child did not want to stop what they were doing for the test which led to tears and being excused from testing. In the remaining successful attempts at user testing, very little useful feedback was given outside of my own observation of what the child seemed to be struggling with in the user interface. This is a difficult demographic to test.
I meant for this project to be a synergistic business venture and collaborative effort between myself and my wife who is the author of the children’s book with the same name. She did not provide the necessary story elements required to link this game to the book so the intended use of this game as an extension of the brand and marketing tool is not possible.
To conclude, I will quote from the artist’s critique that I, Aaron Triplett, wrote for this project:
According to the Artist Classroom (2013), Donna’s Ducklings would be best received by an instrumentalist critic who can appreciate the educational value of the game. The various artistic elements of the game may not be perfectly balanced or executed but the intent of the game is to teach or reinforce fundamental early childhood education goals in a way that is fun and engaging. Through user testing, I have seen faces light up and I have heard a great deal of positive feedback until the player realizes there are only two activities and quickly loses interest.
Repetition may be good for learning and retention, but monotony leads to boredom which spoils the fun. To be brutally honest, the game simply does not have enough content to hold a player’s interest for long. Adding the remaining activities will help, but I think the hide-and-seek mini-game where the players search for the ducklings will help even more. Unfortunately, the activities themselves are still too repetitive. To enhance longevity, the game would need to add a significant amount of content and variations of each interaction to break up the monotony.
I think the scope of this project was just too large for the time allotted. It seemed deceptively simple but turned out to be quite difficult to implement. The difficulty stems from the interactive cutscenes with branching logic having to deal with no input, partial input, or correct input piecing all of the bits of dialogue together in a way that makes sense given the potentially mixed types of input given throughout the interaction while synchronizing the animation, actionability, and visibility of each object in the scene including any dependent states or interactions. No single component is overly complicated but they all interact in a complex web that can easily become tangled (2018, Judgment section).
Foriero Studio. (2016). Farm Animals 2D Volume 1 [Icon].
Sago Mini Toys Inc. (2017). Sago Mini Farm [Mobile game]. Canada: Author.
THUP Games, LLC. (2010). Monkey Preschool Lunchbox [Mobile game]. United States: Author.
Triplett, A. (2018). Artist’s Critique: Donna's Ducklings [Class assignment]. Midland, MI: Author.
Triplett, A. (2018). Donna’s Ducklings [Unpublished mobile game].
Triplett, K. (2016). Buttercup the Unicorn. United States: Archway Publishing.
Triplett, K. (2017). Donna’s Ducklings [Unpublished manuscript].
Triplett, K. (2018). Soundbite for Donna’s Ducklings. Midland, MI: Author.