While I was at Disney one of the problems we kept running into was how to design extensible games for kids. When I say extensible in this context, I mean how can we design mechanics that can be repeated for incremental, systemic rewards over a long period of time? That’s the central mantra of most mobile games, but it’s hard to apply that design thinking to kids.
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I helped design a mobile kids game called Disney Build-It: Frozen, which was a building game where the player reconstructs Arendelle from Frozen building by building. Larger buildings can be built at-will through a small customization process, but smaller buildings have to be combined together and are rewards for building the big buildings.
Stripping away the Frozen-specific content, the game's origin was based around the restrictions Disney set for itself on kids game design (coupled with COPPA restrictions on kids data-privacy). The games made for adults at Disney followed the more tried and true incremental, numeric rewards system that games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga used. These are systems where currencies and leveling drive engagement, not content. This makes them compartively cheap to maintain, as compared to the DLC/Expansion Pack systems on console games.
Disney was interested in making games that fit that play pattern but it's difficult to design this way for kids. Part of the reason this is a hard problem though is incremental systemic rewards are usually numeric i.e. a score goes up, or money or something like that. Young kids that fit the target demographic can’t usually count past maybe ten, so rewards needed to come from some other motivational driver.
Enter customization and collection as our systems. From past experience we had already seen how kids respond to collecting things (see trading card games, Pokemon, Skylanders, etc.) and we observed how customization systems like in baking games were extensible mechanics because art assets could be modular. This lead to the overall design. Big structures, like the castles, reward players with small structures, like bells (pictured above), that if placed adjacent to one another combine to form a bigger bell, which in turn could form an even bigger bell.
A company called Nanu Interactive was outsourced as the developer while Disney designed, illustrated and managed the development of the game. I worked as a game designer, providing documents, running playtests and communicating daily with the developer near the beginning and end of the project to make sure art and mechanics were properly implemented.
As much as we had higher-minded ambitions, the amount of content needed to sustain a system like this is likely higher than we could create while still maintain a Disney art style. Additionally, the mechanical need to have the camera far enough back for a builder game often made the art too small for customization to be noticed. These issues aside, the core idea of using objects, over numbers, remains an interesting approach from my perspective.