Dr. Panda Games
Play Concept Designer
I worked at Dr. Panda Games in Chengdu, China on various projects from September 2015 to May 2016. All of them are mobile/tablet games for children from 3-8 years old.
The work I'm most proud of is the app and physical product Dr. Panda Plus: Home Designer which I led the team on and fully designed both the app and the physical product.
- Created physical and digital prototypes to test ideas.
- Used various 3d modelling and 2d art software.
- Visual scripting using Playmaker in the Unity engine.
- Playtested, researched and worked with core audience of children from 3 years old upwards.
- Leading R&D team
- I was given 3 programmers and 4 artists to lead and produce Dr. Panda Plus: Home Designer.
What I learned
Dr Panda Plus: Home Designer
When the Design Lead asked if I wanted to spearhead an augmented reality project, knowing my experimental background, I leapt at the chance to do so. From talks with the Design Lead and the COO about their own ideas and existing apps, I picked on the idea that I know would bear the most fruit. A digital dollhouse app. It was about taking an existing experience and making it more magical and engaging, which in turn gives the children more chance to learn and practice physical and cognitive skills.
From the idea, I expanded it into a proper concept. I worked out and focused on three core player groups: Those who currently only have access to the app, Those who currently only have access the physical product, and Those who currently have access to both. Ultimately, I wanted to make sure that both the app and the physical product were able to be used on their own. This is not only to allow parents and children to get an understanding of the full experience before buying, but also to ensure that some part of the product was always able to be used.
After all, this is about augmenting reality not replacing it.
Often augmented reality apps are about mediating the physical world with a digital interface but that places digital play over physical play. Why would I do that when I can create an experience that ensures both physical and digital play supporting each other? Digital rules are codified and immutable by players. Physical play are only goverened by social constructs which players can modify to ensure that the play is suited for them. By having both at a level playing field, my product becomes immeasurably more accessible to the situation. Whether it's three 5-year olds playing together at a nursery, a parent/carer helping a 3 year old play at home, or even an 8 year old playing by herself as she's in a plane, the product can just be used partially or as a whole, depending on what they want to do. And this is without talking about how much this also helps physically or cognitively disabled children with playing with the product.
From this mindset, I prototyped several different physical designs, from foam block puzzles/figures to the drawable flashcards which were chosen and presented them to the COO. She gave me a team of three programmers and four artists and I took charge of designing and leading the production team with oversight from the COO and the Design Lead. With the expressed idea that the app could break some of the existing Dr. Panda games' structural rules to ensure that learning was done in a clearer way and a rather wide target audience of 3-8 year olds (with English speaking parents), I designed two modes of play: a learning-based 'Quest Mode' for young children and supervised play and a creative-based 'Free Mode' for older children to practice higher cognitive skills such as storytelling and ideational thinking.
At the end, the project was handed over the COO to complete logistical pipeline of the physical product. After about a year, the product is finally released and I am pleased to see that all of my core design choices was kept intact for both the app and the physical product. It's honestly one of my proudest work and I was incredibly pleased to read this review from an Occupational Therapist at playful-living.com who understood the design work behind it and sung praises for it.
It might not surprise anyone, but turns out children are a highly different audience than adults. What I found fascinating however was the way that kids confronted technology and just how different their mental model of the world is compared to an adult's.
I took a dual approach with the audience, opting to use academic papers such as Jean Piaget's research and Benjamin Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning when figuring out broad swathes and using live playtesting experience when working on minor details.
The most interesting takeaways were:
A) How young children have this working semiotic knowledge of phones and apps and how to interact with them. Since our games used no language, we have to work hard on creating experiences that are intuitive for anyone around the world and we relied on the semiotic language of the phone interface. Skeuomorphic design was king when adults were learning what computer interfaces are and is still king for kids that are going through the same experience.
B) Just how much making apps for kids clarified how liminal 'Play' is and how Play only exists when a player engages with the game. One of my most memorable moments was when I was making levels for Dr. Panda School (a dollhouse app) had to clearly explain to an artist who was just trying to do her job and make everything look nice why I have put an egg on the floor of the kitchen within the game. Making things be nice and orderly didn't attract kids to engage with it. Putting something out of place forces a kid to grasp that "The egg is not meant to be there" and begin play with the egg by putting it away or creating a story for why it's on the floor or simply laughing at the egg being on the floor!
The following is a small gallery of the games that I worked on with a small description of what they are and what I did.
Dr. Panda Plus: Home Designer
An augmented reality product, combining a free app and a physical product that contains laminated flashcards and markers to colour the flashcards. A digital dollhouse, the app supports young children on spelling and gives the older children a magical playground to express their own creativity.
I was the lead on this project. I worked closely with the head designer and the COO to design and produce this product. The project was then handed over to the COO at a beta stage for her to finalise the logistical chain of the physical product.
Dr. Panda Cafe
A calm game about running your own cafe with a focus on roleplay. The aim is to give children a safe space to practice caring for others, themselves and their surroundings.
Whilst most of the games I've worked on were pitched by others, this one was pitched and concepted by myself. The game (with minor changes to the progression mechanics) was designed in full and I handed over the documentation to the head designer who worked on implementing my design when I left.
Hoopa City 2
Sequel to Hoopa City, a city building game that's one part a puzzle game about combining elements, one part a creative tool and one part roleplaying playground.
I worked together with the team to concept and create prototypes of many of the buildings and its insides.
Dr. Panda Farm
A variation on the clicker game genre that aims to teach children the process of how everyday foodstuffs are created.
I created the original prototype with Unity and Playmaker.
Dr. Panda Racers
A simplified racing meant to give young children the same sense of adventure and speed.
I helped prototype the car creation mechanic and provided various temporary art assets.
Dr. Panda School
A 2d virtual dollhouse that is focused on roleplay.
My work was on level design and placement of objects to best inspire play and allow children to create their own stories.
Dr. Panda Firefighters
A firefighting 'simulator' where kids can experience and understand the everyday life of a firefighter.
My work was focused on the level design of the burning houses, creating opportunities for the children to save the animals.