Diminutive Subjects, Design Strategy, and Driving Sales: Preschoolers and the Nintendo DS

J. Alison Bryant, Anna Akerman and Jordana Drell

Extended Abstract

The gaming industry is constantly evolving - new platforms, new mechanics, and new consumers. From a game creation standpoint, innovation is usually thought of as coming from a strictly creative/artistic place - the brain child of one or two tech-inspired folks who think of research (if they think of it at all) as an afterthought. We see this consistently in the video game market, where research on games is typically done in two places: 1) sometime close to the end of the product cycle in order to get feedback from consumers so that marketing can develop a strategy; and 2) at the very end of the product cycle to "fix bugs" in the game. While both of those types of research are important, neither tends to aid in the innovation process or to aid in designing games for new consumer markets.

In the spring of 2007, our game producers had a hunch that the Nintendo DS -- with its new features, such as the microphone; small size and portability; and its relatively low price point -- was ripe for creating games for preschoolers. There were a few games on the market at the time which had characters that appealed to the younger set; but our game producers did not think that the game mechanics were appropriate for preschoolers or beginning gamers. What exactly preschoolers could do with the system, however, was a bit of a mystery.

We started the creative process for creating DS games for preschoolers, therefore, with research. After consulting with our producers, we decided on three key objectives for this research: understand the range of physical and cognitive abilities of preschoolers in the context of handheld system game play; understand how preschoolers interact with the DS, specifically how they handle the various forms of play and game mechanics offered by the games currently on the market for this platform; and understand the expectations of the parents of preschoolers with regard to handheld systems and the purchase and play contexts within which game play occurs. The research team decided that in-home ethnographies with preschoolers and their families would yield us the richest data with which to arm our producers, so we began by conducting 26 ethnographies in 3 markets across the U.S.

The findings from that initial project were used by our game development team as they worked with the game studio to develop our first DS game. In addition, throughout the game development process, we did extensive usability testing and garnered feedback from preschoolers about whether they were enjoying the various elements of the game. The result: a ground-breaking game that is both age-appropriate and fun for preschoolers, and has yielded great consumer response and industry awards for us.

This paper will chronicle the research and design process that our preschool games group has developed over the past two years, discussing the roles of both exploratory and formative research in creating new titles for this youngest set. Moreover, in addition to a set of best practices from a process perspective, we will also discuss our key findings and design tips when it comes to preschoolers and their cognitive abilities, motor skills, and design preferences. By understanding the unique needs of preschoolers, we can continue to improve the games that we create for them, and to better integrate educational and other "serious" content into games for them.