As Lead Producer on Disney Friends, I owned the vision and delivery of an ambitious new game that blended four unique cinematic universes with a single, cohesive gameplay mechanic. We became one of the first Nintendo DS titles to incorporate speech recognition, but had to do so in a way that performed well, integrated seamlessly with gameplay goals, and could ship simultaneously in at least 6 languages.
I served as the Lead Producer on Disney Friends DS, from initial pitch to final gold master build. I led a 15-person team of artists, developers and game designers with a total development budget of 1.85 million dollars US. Disney Friends shipped in 2007 to extremely solid reviews for a game targeted at a young demographic.
As lead Producer, a number of my duties involved design deliveries – the initial game pitch, project vision, collaborating with my lead game designer on game design and mechanics, writing game text, etc. In addition, I owned all information architecture of menu systems and key functionality, and ran user research to evaluate our milestone builds. The rest of my duties included acting as primary liason with our client Disney Interactive, all project scheduling and budgeting, recruiting, and a variety of smaller tasks.
When the game shipped, we received average reviewer scores of over 7/10 (9/10 from USA Today) – particularly remarkable for a kids’ title.
“If you are a fan of these types of experiences you will be hard pressed to find a better offering than Amaze’s Disney Friends” -ZTGD
Immersive Visual Design
We championed a unique way of using the DS’s available texture memory stores to expand a 3D view to both screens during the 1:1 friendship-building portions of the game. This minimized UI elements and allowed kids to focus on the characters. This took significant partnership between design, art and development to find a compromise that maintained quality and performance.
Voice User Interface Design
In partnership with our game designers, I drove the creation of four separate voice vocabularies (one per character) to use the Nintendo DS’s built-in voice recognition system. Each vocabulary was extensively tested and customized in each supported language. This was the FIRST title to support this scale of voice recognition on the Nintendo DS – and we did so in 6 languages simultaneously.
We rapidly learned that the accuracy of the speech libraries dropped measurably with the addition of each new keyword/intent. We looked across characters to identify a desirable number of intents to be supported at any time.
Interestingly, in testing we discovered reticence from some kids to speak certain phrases aloud (“I love you” doesn’t sit well with 8-year old boys) so in some cases we designed alternatives to include all play styles.
While DS games don’t typically have a great deal of IA depth, they must adhere to strict hardware manufacturer guidelines, be easily localized, and must work with limited D-pad + button input OR touch (and occasionally voice) – an extremely early example of multimodal design.
User Research & Key Findings
I drove usability testing into our core process – difficult at an indie developer with limited resources. The first gameplay prototype was generated in 6 weeks (running on the DS) and placed in front of 30 kids, leading to major insights and changes to our core game design.
We also conducted 3 rounds of focus tests and some extended duration in-home journal studies. Between major studies, we conducted frequent ad hoc kid testing with milestone builds.
- Discovered play style differences in boys and girls that led to more inclusive design decisions.
- Showed that players spent surprising amounts of time in simple “activities”
- Found that even “expert” players needed basic tutorials on movement and touch interaction
- Prompted major redesigns of most ingame menus (Store, Pause menu, etc.)