Play Nice

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

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