Writing an app for kids

What we learned from Chicken Cha Cha Cha

When we started working on Chicken Cha Cha Cha for iPad about 10 months ago, we were in search of something small. A project that wouldn’t take a year, but four to six months. It turns out it wasn’t one of those. But in the end we’re immensely proud again to have invested the polishing work a board game like Chicken Cha Cha Cha deserves to be a shining gem on the app store.

We have a history of overdoing things. In a good way. When we were late in the development cycle with Carcassonne we decided to postpone the release for 4 months to finish network multiplayer in time for the first release. Most studios would probably have released at that point and promised to add multiplayer in an update. From a rational business point of view, that might even be the smart thing to do. But we didn’t. We finished the game first, and shipped it then. We poured all the love into the thing that we wanted to. We went with our guts. And our hearts. And it turned out to be the right thing to do.

Animating chickens

Animations: Fun, but hard work.

When we started taking on Chicken Cha Cha Cha we realized that we wanted to translate the experience of the board game into two dimensions, while keeping the magic of the original. The board games has iconic wooden chicken figures, that we had to emulate with something equally characteristic. So we decided to have the kids control cartoon chicken that fit right into the colorful world of the game and its board.

Animating these characters proved a challenge. After all, this was our first foray into animation. We teamed up with an animator from Berlin that had worked on children apps before and had our illustrator Marcel working on simplifying the character designs inspired by original board game art, so they would make a good animated chickens. In the end, doing all the animations turned out to be a project taking up months in itself. Every little thing the chickens do, be it blinking or jumping, added up to a few hours of work. And those chickens do quite a bit of stuff…

Testing with Kids

Play testing with kindergarten kids proved to be vital.

As far as game logic goes, the game was prototyped and playable within a few days. Filling those scaffolds with life and making it easy to use proved again to be the challenging part. And this time we had to rethink our usual approaches as we were making the game for kids. That proved to create new and exciting problems.

We involved two kindergarten classes in our development process to get those things right.

Only actually trying out games with kids gives you the insight to make a game that is approachable and interesting for different age groups. So we visited the kindergartens with beta versions of the game, played with them and watched them play with each other. One of our first observations was, that kids do not touch the iPad in the way we adults would have expected them to.

In fact they touched them differently than even Apple and its operating system would have expected them to. When a kid touches a button, more often than not they move their finger a bit creating a drag gesture. So we worked on creating a more robust system to tell taps and drags apart, that works better for kids.

The first sketch, just after hatching.

But we did not stop there. In terms of interaction design Chicken Cha Cha Cha proved to be unconventional as well. When the game is played with three or four kids on the same iPad, things can heat up quickly and chaos looms. To avoid kids controlling chickens of their opponents we strayed for the usual road of optimizing user experience by reducing the number of taps needed to interact. In fact we added one tap. To make its move the kid has to tap its chicken first. That way it is a lot clearer whose turn it is, and which player should make the next move. It plays on the possessive instict of “Hey, don’t touch my chicken!”. As we animated the chicken to stand up when this activation tap is made, the mechanism even integrates nicely into the world of the game.

Designing an AI for a kids game was different as well. With Lost Cities and Carcassonne we took great care to create artifical intelligence that plays fair and has no knowledge beyond that of a human player.

With Chicken Cha Cha Cha we went a different route and emulated a benevolent AI that plays a little bit like a parent would.

The easy “computer chickens” as our kindergarteners called them, sometimes deliberately reveal a card that the kids will need to remember in the future. Not for its next move, but for the one after that, or even the one after the next one. That way the game becomes easier to play for the kid without being spoiled. There’s nothing better than a happy kid’s smile after it won against a well written computer player.

Parenting needs

Concentrating on kids and parents alike. (image credit:

Apart from development centered on kids — which of course has loads more of implications than fit into this article — we also concentrated on making the app compatible with responsible parenting. And even tried to make it as easy, as possible.

With iOS 6, Apple introduced a technology called “Guided Access” that allows you to lock your iPad to one application. Pressing the Home button — or even the power button — isn’t possible anymore without entering a security pin number first. Chicken Cha Cha Cha includes a parents section that explains this mode to parents and uses it to restrict the number of games that can be played. The parent can choose how many games should be allowed and then lock the iPad into Chicken Cha Cha Cha. After that the kids won’t be able to access other apps and e.g. surf the web.

Once the number of allowed games is reached, night falls and the chicken go to sleep. We decided to add this scene to make it easier to explain why the kids can’t play anymore. The chickens need rest and so does the child after playing for a while on the iPad. We hope little touches like this one make Chicken Cha Cha Cha an experience as pleasant as the board game. For kids. And for parents.

Chicken Cha Cha Cha is in the app store starting September 12th.

We hope you like it,

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