Five years and 30 apps in, Toca Boca is growing up – and taking its players with it
After 30 kids’ apps in five years, Toca Boca is growing up – and taking its audience with it
We’ve reached peak colour. The room in which we meet Toca Boca co-founder
Emil Ovemar is painted from floor to ceiling in bright, pastel yellow; down the hall is the world’s reddest room, its most blue, and two of its pinkest. Vintage toys line the shelves. There’s a gachapon dispenser in the cafeteria. There’s an adultsized go-kart, an office pug, and beanbags are everywhere. Toca Boca’s impossibly colourful new Stockholm office feels not like a development studio but a child’s fantasy playroom, blown up and spread over a few thousand square feet.
The concept of the tech startup officecum-playground is hardly new, of course, but this is about more than Silicon Valley Peter Pans with basketball hoops above their bins and scooters for navigating halls. Since 2010 Toca Boca has been making apps for children aged between three and six. Its first product launched on the App Store in 2011, and in the five years since it’s released 30 apps and notched up over 100 million downloads. Now, it’s broadening its reach, targeting kids between the ages of three and nine, and expanding its business beyond mobile app stores. But the principles are the same: the only way to make things for kids is to adopt a child’s perspective on life, and if that means filling a meeting room with armchairs that are so big that a six-foot adult can only just dangle their feet over the edge, then so be it.
Ovemar met his co-founder Björn Jeffery in 2009 in the R&D department of The Bonnier Group, Sweden’s largest media company. Their employer had tasked them with finding a way to make money out of digital content in the smartphone era, and Ovemar – then a parent to children aged three and five – felt that kids were the answer. After convincing the higher-ups with a prototype, the pair set up Toca Boca in 2010, focusing squarely on three-to-six-yearolds and the newly launched iPad.
“When I looked at what was in the App Store, and what my kids were playing with on my iPad, I felt no one was taking it seriously,” Ovemar tells us from across a chunky table in the yellowest room in
Sweden. “Adults were making games, books and videos, because that’s what’s adults do. But I saw how my kids were using their iPod Touches and my iPad. They’d build a cinema for Lego Minifigures, or use FaceTime to play hide and seek.
“I saw how they were using these native apps to play with the device as a toy. They didn’t see it as a scary piece of technology: it was just another way to play. We came to the conclusion that we should make digital toys. Using all these capabilities – mic, camera, touchscreen – how can we use this piece of technology to play?”
Speaking to Ovemar, it’s clear that Toca Boca benefited enormously from its early decision to focus on a largely unexplored sector of the app market, and from the way its early experiments led to it devising a set of principles for the design and distribution of its products that in turn helped establish its brand. The studio puts a child’s perspective at the centre not just of its interior design, but everything it does: entire projects have been cancelled after one of Toca Boca’s regular testing sessions (see ‘The kids are all right’). Humour is important, but an app should be funny to all age groups for the same reason – Ovemar points to the way Dreamworks weaves jokes for adults into family films as an example of something Toca Boca would never do. Nor is it interested in fantasy worlds: only reality is universally relatable, so Toca Boca products are set in hair salons, on train tracks and in schools. Diversity is a particular point of focus for Toca Boca in 2016, but since the start it’s avoided gender boundaries, making games both boys and girls can enjoy.
“I wanted to define digital toys,” Ovemar says. “The store was empty: there were no shelves. We needed to define what shelves should exist in a digital toy store, then fill them with products. Why would we limit ourselves to [following] physical toy stores, and how they divide everything into pink and blue aisles? Apple has been very helpful, and listened. Now we have age ranges in the Kids category [on the App Store], but it doesn’t do Boys and Girls categories. That, for us, was important.”
The phrase ‘digital toy’ is key. Toca Boca is not, and has never been, a game developer. Ovemar and his staff say they make toys, products, experiences or apps – but not games. It’s a key distinction. Videogames may be essentially toys, but they come with a set of conventions and rules that have no place in a company targeting such a young age group.
There are no game designers at Toca Boca – at least not in name. Instead, there are play designers, and Ovemar admits staff that have joined from traditional game development have had to be coached out of their old mindsets. He recalls, for instance, that the initial concept for Toca Hair Salon involved a queue of customers, each asking for a different colour and style. The player would then be scored on how closely they adhered to the request. Anyone who has ever tried to coax a three-year-old into doing something specific, with precision, will know that it is a fool’s errand. “They don’t have to do anything – they can do whatever they want,” Ovemar says. “Without adding incentives, we have to trust that kids are creative, that they want to explore things without being pushed to beat a high score.”
Toca Boca’s work varies wildly in style, subject and theme, but all 30 of its apps are defined by a very pure celebration of the pleasure of play. They don’t do challenges, progression systems or difficulty spikes. There can be no tutorial text in a product aimed
“We have to trust that kids are creative, that they want to explore things without being pushed to beat a high score”
“I guess it’ s harder to take out your dolls from under the bed as you get older, but playing on iP hone is OK”
for children as young as three. The user interface must be simple enough for a toddler to grasp. And with no level structure or IAP paywall with which to gate off content, the entire toybox must simply reveal itself to the player as they muck about with it.
It’s a focus on the fundamentals that is mandated by Toca Boca’s target market, but whose appeal spreads far wider than that. Glance at the App Store reviews of any Toca Boca app and you’ll find enthusiastic missives from players who almost apologetically admit to their advancing years. “No jokes, I am almost an adult,” reads one review of Toca Kitchen 2. “I love it, and I’m ten years old,” says another. A third: “As a 17-year-old, I enjoy this game. I don’t know why I downloaded it, but I’m glad I did.” Adults are at it too: we lost a chunk of our flight to Stockholm to the breezy musical toy Toca Band.
“I guess it’s harder to take out your dolls from under the bed as you get older, but playing on iPhone is OK,” Ovemar says. “And that’s sort of sad in a sense, but it feels good to be able to offer kids a chance to not grow up too fast. We said from the beginning we weren’t going to do violence; we weren’t going to try to be sexy. Let’s not divide boys and girls into pink and blue; if they play with the same toys, maybe they’ll interact better with each other, and we’re doing something good for the world.”
And good for Toca Boca too, of course, though nothing lasts forever, and the decline in the paid app market means the studio must change tack if it is to maintain its success. Ovemar and company may have mastered the art of making digital toys for three to six year olds, but the problem with making games for so small an age group is that none of us are getting any younger. Older kids may still love Toca Boca products, but as the years roll by, the more options they will have when they sit down with a parents’ device for the day’s allotted screen time. Ovemar knows this only too well: his kids, three and five at Toca Boca’s inception, are now eight and 11. “It’s hard to compete when Clash Of Clans and Minecraft are taking over, and you’re competing with other games, with YouTube. It’s been five years since our first app. If you were five then, you’re ten now; can you stay with Toca Boca, or are we too young for you? That’s the challenge we’re facing now, proving that it’s fun to play on the iPad with Toca Boca, even if you’re ten.”
The solution lies in expansions into the physical world, with a range of toys and figurines of characters from the Toca Boca universe. The company is also moving into video: a New York division, helmed by former Sesame Workshop creative director J Milligan, was set up last year. Ovemar sees kid-oriented online video as a similarly blank canvas to the one Toca Boca found on the App Store in 2015. But Toca Boca wants to continue growing its app business, too – and that may prove to be an even bigger challenge than breaking into toys and video.
If the difference between two children aged three and six is stark, the gap between ages three and nine is staggering. Ovemar, however, believes a single app can appeal to both and all ages in between. The youngest can poke and prod and play with what’s in front of them; their elders can experiment, unfurling more layers of complexity as they burrow deeper down into the toy chest.
After the prolific experimentation of its first five years, the Toca Boca of 2016 is focusing on three apps that will be updated more frequently than its previous releases, each focusing on a different type of play.
Toca Dance is an example of creative play: you use the touchscreen to create a dance routine that can then be played back and saved as a video to the device’s camera roll and shared from there, if a parent agrees.
Toca Blocks, a freeform world-builder in which you sketch out a world for three onscreen characters to navigate, combining blocks to form new ones with different properties and even objects to be placed in the world, naturally has a creative element. It also involves what Toca Boca terms exploratory play, where you mess about with the tools at your disposal and see what happens – perfect for the upper end of the new target age group. Toca Life, meanwhile, is for roleplay, a digital doll house.
Toca Boca hasn’t been a regular updater of apps in the past – typically, it has launched a product and updated it once, before moving on to the next project. Now it’s tinkering with how it can better adjust to an era where players expect regular updates, without compromising its values. When IAP is off the table, conventional App Store wisdom doesn’t apply. “If we only have five apps, [their combined price] is the total amount of money you can give to us – even if you love us so much you play for a hundred hours, there’s no way you can give us any more,” Ovemar says.
While Toca Blocks is being updated in reasonably traditional fashion, with new block and object types given away for free, Toca Boca’s plan is to expand the base functionality of one app into a new one it can sell separately. Future Toca Dance releases will offer more songs, characters and shapes to throw; Toca Life is now a series of three apps, set in a school, a town and a city. It’s the sort of approach that will have analysts the world over shaking their heads, but there’s a clear reluctance to do anything that risks compromising the strength of Toca Boca’s brand: quality, playfulness and, above all, trustworthiness. Toca Boca defined a small sector of the mobile market on its own, honourable terms, but it has hardly had a pervasive influence on a sector that only gets grubbier and more moneyhungry as conditions get tougher.
It may not work – but it may not matter either. “The paid market [for apps] is very much declining,” Ovemar tells us. “We’re not declining with it, but it’s definitely going down. So we’ll create these new types of products and we’ll just have to see. Can we make more money on apps? Is it even important, or is it just a good way for people to experience our brand so we can sell them other things? We’ll just have to find out.”
Indeed, though there are cautionary tales. Rovio, for all its success in taking
Angry Birds from the touchscreen to the toy store, laid off a third of its workforce last summer and is about to release a CG movie three years in the making to a market that has largely forgotten about it. Shortform online video will be a little quicker to produce, but Ovemars acknowledges the concern – albeit with the understandable confidence as the head of a company that, six years ago, found a gap in the market, cornered it, and defined it forever.
“There aren’t really any good examples of a brand starting in apps making it work across mediums,” he says. “Cut The Rope, Rovio… you can’t really say they’re successful examples of how to take a touchscreen brand into the real world. There are no examples of how to do it.
“Maybe we’ll be the case study. They’ll point to us and say, ‘This is how the new Disney got started’.” If the past five years are any guide, it might just happen.
“Even if you love us so much you play for a hundred hours, there’ s no way you can give us anymore”
One of Toca Boca’s earliest apps, Toca Kitchen launched in 2011, and was successful enough to spawn a sequel
By teaching the periodic table, TocaLab strays perilously close to the dreaded ‘edutainment’ tag. It’s playful enough to get away with it
Frida Schlaug and Mårten Brüggemann are programmer and play designer on freeform world-builder Toca Blocks