Child's play: Free-to-play is a no-no when it comes to apps for kids, says Toca Boca's Emil Ovemar

It's all about building trust

Child's play: Free-to-play is a no-no when it comes to apps for kids, says Toca Boca's Emil Ovemar
The launch of a new 'kids' section on the App Store for iOS 7 undoubtedly demonstrates the increasing importance of children's apps within the mobile development scene.

But with that importance comes responsibility. Few issues have dominated the last year or so of life on the App Store as much as the numerous cases of children unknowingly amassing huge bills via in-app purchases.

Interesting, then, that Toca Boca - the leading Swedish children's studio whose stylish and accessible games and apps have sold more than 40 million copies in just over two years – has chosen to skirt F2P releases in favour of launching fully paid apps.

Paid apps, the company believes, help build trust between a developer and its consumer base – i.e. the parents who will ultimately pay for the download. But is this an assessment the wider industry should take on board, too?

We spoke with Emil Ovemar, co-founder and producer at Toca Boca, about whether developing apps for kids really is child's play.

Pocket Gamer: Why did you guys decide to focus on making games and apps for the children's market?

Emil Ovemar: I've always loved toys and playing. Especially playing with kids who generally love to pretend and make up things much more than we as adults do.

We saw the potential of play experiences on the newly launched iPad and the iPhone. All of a sudden new interactive play experiences were possible for children but the digital toys me and my kids longed for did not exist. Therefore we took on creating the products we dreamed of and believed in.

What are the most common mistakes made by designers wanting to make games for children?

Not understanding the minds of children. You need to do your research, dig deep, play a lot and be really honest with your testing. If you can't pick up subtle cues that guide you to great products you won't succeed.

You need to look for that spark in children's eyes. If your product can't ignite that spark you are not trying hard enough or your concept does not work. Adult logic can't be your guiding star.

Children have their own logic and that is what I love about designing for kids.

What is your creative approach when designing a new game or app?

The concept needs to fit the Toca Boca brand of course. We are focusing or play patterns that stimulate imagination and creativity. We don't make games: we make toys and understanding that definition is important for everyone in the team.

We also design for kids, not girls or boys and that guides us in our design decisions. We try a lot of things with kids and we're honest to the results.

Toca Band

Another important thing is that make sure we have well defined core. We rather go for a magical small experience than a good enough larger experience.

The last guiding principle is that we go for the smiles. If it's not fun than we scrap it. Fun comes before other aspects.

How do you test games with children to refine the game experience?

We often make paper prototypes to be able to play through the experience with kids.

It's very rough at this stage but we garner invaluable input at that point: what is fun about the concept, what ideas do they get and what should the interaction roughly feel like.

When we have a concept we believe in we make digital prototypes and iterate to get kids' feedback and to evaluate the production time needed to get something we believe is magical.

If the production is started we test 3-4 times with kids during development to just observe and pick up areas of improvement and see if that special spark is there.

If there are major changes that we see will make a difference we make sure to do them, otherwise we wouldn't be honest to the testing and then the point of testing would be a waste of time.

What lessons have you learned through your experiences at Toca Boca?

Kids have all the answers. Just put your product in their hands and observe. They don't necessarily explain how they feel but when you are skilled enough to pick up the details in their reactions, all the answers are there.

Kids are capable of so much more than you know. Technology is just something to play with for kids.

Nothing is special about it; it's all about the software and the experience. If they care about your product you can really give them superpowers by challenging them. If you design interactions and experiences that they find interesting nothing seems to hard for them.

Toca Hair Salon 2

Have confidence in the core of your product. Don't worry about features. Get your core thing right and make it magical.

It's hard to relax and believe in the small but polished core but it is always the right decision. Scale up from there but never move forward without the magical core.

What do you think makes your company so successful in the field?

We are okay with taking risks and failing. We strive to innovate and have the best products because children deserve magical products.

To be able to do that you need to take risks. We are lucky to be in situation where we can take risks, having a CEO that understands that risk is important to be successful in this field is fantastic.

Also we have incredible designers and developers. That leads to great products. Great products is not enough though and because we have brilliant marketing and brand people we can reach out to the people that like our products.

Can you give us any idea of sales figures?

I can tell you that we have reached 40 million downloads since our first product launched in March 2011. We are profitable and have been for a while.

Do you think the free-to-play payment model works with children's apps or is it always better to go paid-for?

For us paid is better. We want to create a quality brand that parents trust. As a parent myself I think quality is worth paying for when it comes to apps for my kids just as I pay for toys, books, movies for them.

My kids play some in-app-purchase games since I know how to handle device settings to be safe. None of them have game mechanics I like my kids to play with, however, so I'm no free-to-play fan when it comes to my own children.

The mechanics are defined by the business model and digital toys should focus more on children's play patterns I believe.

User-created content from Toca Builders

It's becoming harder for new players to get visibility in the paid charts. You need to have or create a strong brand to succeed. We launched at just the right time to be able to do that but I'm not sure if would be possible today even if you have great products.

What is the crucial thing to get right when designing a game for children?

A magical core play experience. If you get it right you at least have a great product. Then you can try to get people to find it.

For us that core play experience is a complex combination of interaction design, graphics, characters, programming and sound. It's really where technology and art meets. On top of that you need to understand children.

Do you primarily market to parents or to children? How and why?

We market to parents and that can be tough in the app stores. Kids are the ones playing with our products and parents buy them. We design our products so that we like them ourselves. That way we make sure parents can find them interesting and more interested in what their kids are playing with.

We create trailers for our products and try to reach parents so they know we have new quality things coming up that they might want to share with their children.

Focusing on quality helps if you want parents share their app recommendations with other parents. Hard work has lead to our apps climbing the charts and of course being there is good when new parents look for things for their children.

Quality has also helped being discovered by Apple who are really good at promoting quality things.

Advertising for paid apps is not really working so we try to build a relationship with the parents. We have much work left to do though.
Thanks to Emil for his time.

Contributing Writer

Simon Parkin is an author and journalist on video games. A core contributor to Eurogamer and Edge, he is also a critic and columnist on games for The Guardian. He is probably better at Street Fighter than you, but almost certainly worse at FIFA.


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Keith Andrew
"My kids play some in-app-purchase games since I know how to handle device settings to be safe. None of them have game mechanics I like my kids to play with, however, so I'm no free-to-play fan when it comes to my own children."

I don't really agree, Nicholas.
Nicholas Lovell
I also think that your headline "Free to play is a no-no" is a misrepresentation of what Emil actually said.
Nicholas Lovell
"Advertising for paid apps is not really working". This is very true, and the primary challenge for anyone trying to emulate Toca Boca's success.