This panda loves to make kids laugh

A good game makes you happy. If you don’t laugh while playing, then I’ve pretty much failed.

Whenever Chinese developer Lin Yan works on a children’s game, she asks her team the same question: “Are children laughing when they play it? If not, we need to start over.”

Lin and her Dutch husband Thijs Bosma founded Dr. Panda in 2012. A statue of their bespectacled panda greets guests at the door of their office in Chengdu, Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. It’s also no coincidence that the area is the home of the giant panda.

Over the last seven years, the Dr. Panda series has been a source of joy for children worldwide, and a screen at the office entrance shows exactly how many. “We have users in 125 countries around the world launching Dr. Panda games an average of over 900,000 times a day,” says Lin. A former management consultant, Lin says she never thought she would end up developing children’s games. This unexpected change in career came about seven years earlier with a lucky break.

Tools for exploration

When the iPad 2 was released in 2011, the educational toy market was dominated by reading pens and educational tablets. Lin and Bosma saw an opportunity and created the first app in the Dr. Panda series: Dr. Panda, Teach Me!, which helps children to read using lively visual aids.

The app was a hit, something that Lin still chalks up to luck: “Trial-and-error testing kept costs low, and our first product was just right.” After this initial success, Lin and her team began adding gaming elements to their apps.

While working on the first 13 games in the Dr. Panda series, Lin would often browse toy stores for inspiration and observe children as they played. She found that much of their interaction with toys involved role-playing. “Toys are just toys to adults, but to children, they are tools to help them learn about the world,” she says. This realisation influenced Lin’s earlier titles, such as Dr. Panda Firefighters, Dr. Panda Hospital and Dr. Panda Airport, each of them featuring a role-playing aspect.

In Dr. Panda Hospital, children play as veterinarians where they can check blood pressure, give shots and care for cute pets in a welcoming environment. The idea behind the design is to help kids conquer their fears of going to the hospital.

“In one part of the game, a monkey has to get a shot, and during tests, we found that kids were reluctant to bring the syringe toward the monkey. Their hands would tremble a bit when they gave the injection,” Lin explains. “But when they removed the needle and saw the monkey was happy, they’d be happy too”.

Her latest series, Dr. Panda Town, has eight titles in the works. Each is an open world that offers kids a lot of freedom. They can explore and visit the town’s shopping malls, police stations, restaurants and schools at their own pace. They can even move items from one setting to another.

The game is also non-linear, so children have greater control over how the story unfolds. For example, they can wake up at Home, then decide to take their friends to the Mall to buy a swimsuit, and later go on Vacation to sunbathe on a cruise ship.

But it’s the game’s hidden Easter eggs – a duck that burps, a toy dinosaur that breathes fire, an ATM that spits out cash – that surprise the most and get kids laughing.

Back to school

Since the Dr. Panda series is created for pre-school children, text does not appear in gameplay. But designing games for children from different language backgrounds is no easy task. So, Lin and the crew consulted with their user base – by attending kindergarten.

Lin says her team learned a lot from their classroom observation sessions: “For example, three-year-olds have a maximum attention span of seven minutes. They lose focus after that,” she says.

Challenges cannot be too hard or too easy, so finding the right balance requires a lot of testing.

The team would often enroll children to beta test their games. They soon discovered that the kids didn’t mince their words. In fact, if they didn’t like the game, they’d just quit. “They weren’t considering how we felt at all,” says Lin.

During testing, the team largely focused on whether the children would give up while searching for clues. According to Lin, the perfect game design should be an intuitive one. “Even if they don’t know how to play, they can still figure it out as they explore.”

The whole process proved invaluable to the Dr. Panda team. They were especially influenced by the different ways children from different countries interacted with their games.

For instance, the team noticed that when interacting with a barbecue scene, American children would drag all the in-game characters near the grill. In the U.S., barbecues are often a group activity, and the children wanted everyone to join the fun. This led to the team to expand the space around the grill for storytelling or other activities in later versions.

The future of fun

Lin is not only a company founder. She recently had a child of her own, and says motherhood has led to a change in her perspectives on learning.

In the past, Lin was convinced the best form of learning was pure play. But after becoming a mum, she found herself buying flash cards and other educational tools.

This realisation had an influence on Dr. Panda, which is now developing games that focus on teaching skills like English and counting.

It also brought Lin to reflect on what led her to arrive at Dr. Panda in the first place.

Lin says her parents never let her play video games while growing up. Now she runs a gaming company. Lin was earning a steady salary as a management consultant in Europe. She never imagined that after returning to China, she would leave her Shanghai home to start a business across the country in Chengdu.

The whole experience was a series of unexpected turns that turned out just right.

This is what Dr. Panda hopes to inspire in children. Their games do not have set endings. Each world is left open for children to explore, because true discovery and learning is about the journey, not the destination.

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