It's Christmas. You're home. Maybe that means at your house, maybe it means your parents' house, or some other property owned by a family member, at which various relatives gather to eat dry poultry and stale rolls. There are children. The children are animals. One, or two, at a time is fine; they just about get along. Three, four, or more, though, and it's feeding time at the zoo, albeit with less fur and more cursing. Carnage. Crockery will get broken, you know it, and you need a solution. Kids like tablets—the flat-screen kind, not the ones your dad takes for that clicking sound. Tablets and smartphones. You hurry to your app store of choice.
On Christmas Day 2015 on Apple's App Store, the shop's second-busiest day of the year, one company dominated the kids category paid app chart. One studio held every position in its top ten, ahead of anything by Disney, or any other company you immediately associate with tween-appeal (and below) products. Toca Boca, based in Stockholm, is a small team of innovators determined to revolutionize how apps for children, predominantly those under age ten, are researched, produced, and promoted. And even if you don't have kids biting at your ankles or swinging from the light fittings, right now or any time soon, you need to know about them.
"When we founded the company, we set up principles for what we wanted our apps to be like," co-founder Emil Ovemar tells me. He, alongside Björn Jeffery, set up Toca Boca in 2010, releasing their first apps, Toca Tea Party and Helicopter Taxi, in March 2011. "These are not games, they are toys. We have no feelings of failure, or anything like that. We were positioning ourselves as toys—you tap it, touch it, and it will reveal itself, and just like all good toys you don't need instructions. That was in place, from the start.
"Also, we're celebrating the weird. Not everything should be like Disney and Apple. Those are too perfect; we want our things to have flaws, and to be a bit weird, while also referencing the everyday. For example, in Toca Dance, it doesn't have this big American Idol type of feeling—it's a lot more 'homemade."
Toca Dance is its makers' 31st app (according to their own website), and—as its name implies—is a dance simulator of sorts. The user controls and records the movement of performers (who can be dressed as pizzas, poops, or ice creams, if you like) in time to a selection of specially written tunes, and then watches their troupe of (up to) three perform a show. During the playback, the child—or anyone, really—can activate stage effects like fire or dry ice, change the background, or throw projectiles at the dancers, from toilet rolls to eggs and tomatoes. Once it's over, the app saves everything for watching, later. It's a lot of fun, just like every Toca Boca app before it. And, like most of its predecessors, Toca Dance didn't just pop into life one day, like a light being switched on.
"The idea of a dance app has been around since at least 2012. Whenever we would talk about a Toca Boca dance app, I'd show people the Daft Punk video for "Around the World"—that's what I wanted it to be like. That was my vision.
"We go through a lot of iterations, with all our apps. We prototype a lot of concepts, and we test them with kids. A lot of ideas are scrapped, but some we move further with. We always have various things as works in progress, but I love testing them. In Toca Dance, we knew we needed to invest more time in the actual dancing part, because it wasn't quite right, and taking just a few more weeks made all the difference. We had to choose what to prioritize, but most of the time we're totally focused on the quality, as that's what's so important for the brand."
Of course Ovemar should promote the quality of Toca Boca's output, even if it was actually lacking against the company's peers, but in this instance it's impossible to not acknowledge that these are market-leading apps, always ahead of the game. And that means that the vultures are always circling, looking for whatever scraps they can pick off and repurpose as products of their own.
"There are a lot of clones out there, of our apps," says Ovemar. "The most stolen concept of ours is Toca Hair Salon. But I'm not really worried. Nobody else has our knowhow, our resources, or our money to produce the same level of product. People might steal our ideas, but they're nowhere near as good at executing them. That's why having trailers on the App Store is a good thing—you can see what's the better experience, compared to the flat, static, badly animated stuff. We invest so much in our quality that I'm not really worried about people stealing our ideas. We clearly have better artists and programmers."
It was Toca Hair Salon that really broke the studio to a massive audience. The hair-styling (shave, color, wash, grow—it's really tactile, and hugely satisfying to just fiddle with) toy was a domestic success, but the team knew that they needed to go beyond Sweden to really guarantee longevity for the Toca Boca brand.
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"We realized that, to be sustainable, we had to also break the US. A key part of that was making Toca Hair Salon free, for a week. All our apps are paid-for ones, but we made that one free, to see what would happen. And it went into the top ten for iPhone, and people wrote about it. That was a real breakthrough—people found out about Toca Boca and realized that this was a quality product. That happened just six months from our first launch.
"Toca Hair Salon is still our biggest seller, and it started with a card that had 'hairy hippy salon' written on it. That was the only description, but we knew there was something there. You're going to play with hair, but it's not Barbie, it's not about beauty, it's about having too much hair. How that'd be done, we didn't know—but we picked that card and said, 'Let's make a prototype of this, whatever this thing is.'"
"I think it'd be a lot harder now to establish a brand like ours, though, and spend the time and money on building the brand. We had the chance to do that, to produce high quality products for kids, which was unusual at the time. It'd be really hard to establish the brand without trying the freemium approach. We've managed over 30 apps in five years, and enjoy a huge user base. Whatever we put out, people want to get it. But that would be so much harder to build today without free products."
One of the company's aims is to close the gap between what kids enjoy on their screens and what parents think of those interactions. "With our apps, children and their parents can be in the same room, talking about what they're playing," Ovemar explains. "It's more of a joint experience. The kids are in a more relaxed, playful mood, rather than just being focused on beating the game they're on. We also try to connect with parents through making our apps more based in the real world, than brands like Transformers, or My Little Pony. So in Toca Dance, there's dubstep, and parents might hear that coming from the tablet their kid is playing with and wonder, 'What is that?' So we're creating openings—visually, through audio, or interaction wise—for parents, so they can have this interest in what their kids are playing, and feel more engaged themselves."
Toca Boca has the financial backing of Bonnier AB, a Swedish media group, which allows it something of a safety net versus other, relatively small developers. It also didn't harm its early visibility, and ability to bring in the best talent—"We have long-term support to spend time on research and hiring the best people," Ovemar says, "and we've given ourselves all the building blocks needed to gain that visibility." But if the end results weren't good, people wouldn't download them, however much money was thrown at them. And the fact is that millions and millions of people muck about with Toca Boca productions on a daily basis.
"When we hit 100 million downloads, that was a fun number, but it's so abstract," Ovemar says. "But to me, it's more rewarding when kids contact us, or send in drawings, or when you hear the Toca Boca theme when you're on an airplane. That's when you really feel you've made a difference. That, and we've also heard about kids with autism, whose lives have been improved by using our apps. That matters to us, greatly. So, too, does user feedback—we're always responding to the expectations of the users, and that's a massive driver, going forwards."
Being market leaders carries certain pressures, of course, but Ovemar isn't flinching. "People are looking at what we're doing, and they're trying to compete with us," he concludes. "They're inspired by what we do. It's a shame that not a lot of people are investing the same time into their products, but that's what we do want to do. We make clear, simple things, without the need for instructions, and in doing so we raise the bar for everyone else. I know we're pushing that level, and I hope that we, and others, can keep giving kids the quality that they deserve."
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