When Emil Overmar looks across the App Store’s Kids section, a place increasingly dominated by his technicolour brand, Toca Boca, he sees a lot more games than toys. This, believes the producer, is back-to-front; 20 million downloads would seem to agree.
“I guess a lot of kids’ IP [holders] moving onto iPad start by thinking of the character, and then they get a studio to try to make something fun out of it,” he says. “When grown-ups design stuff for kids, they know that they themselves like books, movies and games. Grown-ups never play with dolls or dress up as someone else. Making games sounds like the obvious choice because we all know games are fun. But what if there’s no point to it and it’s still fun? We embrace that.”
And kids embrace it too. Five very catchy notes lead into every app, the Cheshire Cat grin of Toca Boca’s logo turning into a frying pan, a purse, a vacuum cleaner, or whatever’s about to be toyed with. “Toca Boca!” it chimes, usually a split-second before or after the kid sitting in front of it. “We should have intros that are like The Simpsons,” says Overmar, “something that you look forward to.”
The intro ends and your kid has a job. In Toca Hair Salon, they run a barber shop. In Toca Store, they work the tills while a friend or relative does the shopping. Toca Train, Toca Doctor and the recent Toca Tailor are even more self-explanatory; while in Toca Kitchen they have to sate the appetites of some very fickle guests, not all of them human. “We don’t need levels and we don’t need rewards,” declares Overmar, “it just needs to feel good feeding that cat a fish. It takes guts to stand up and believe you can deliver that.”
On the surface, you might struggle to see what separates Toca Kitchen, say, from Cooking Mama. But that’s because you’re a grown-up. Only when you see a child dump the competition in favour of Toca Boca time and time again do you realise how big the difference is.
Overmar names Little Computer People, the lauded 1985 life sim, as the brand’s inspiration. “I never had a videogame as a kid, so I was always the worst one. All of the games were about: the more you play, the better you are. So your friend plays Super Mario for 45 minutes and you play for two and you die, then you hand back the controller. So I wasn’t that into gaming until I realised there were games that weren’t games.”
Neither of Toca Boca’s founders, in fact – the other being former web agency CEO Bjorn Jeffrey – are game developers. Overmar was previously “a user experience guy” at an agency building sites for major Swedish clients “like H&M, big banks, food stores, stuff like that”. Jeffrey worked with smaller clients in the south of Sweden. The two met during a meeting with family-run publisher Bonnier, Overmar as an R&D developer and Jeffrey as an advisor. Bonnier was a print publisher wanting to go digital before the tablet market exploded. Overmar recalls, “it seemed like an impossible task. We very much believed they were doing it wrong.
“But it was a really fun time. We created a concept video for magazines on iPad before there even was an iPad. Social e-reading; what will newspapers become in a tablet world? We were a funded startup inside a big company with the freedom to do what we wanted. I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay at Bonnier, but when I heard that ‘Yeah, we could something with kids,’ I was like [clicks fingers] this is what I want to do.
“So I did the research and looked at what was out there. I was disappointed with the quality and the strategic thinking behind a lot of it. So the idea became: if this is a big company with lots of money, we should make the toy brand on touchscreens. Let’s make a new Mattel, a good company that’s not just maximising the pink and blue area of the toy store.
“We started with the idea that in the ’80s, parents’ and children’s culture sort of split. A lot of new programmes were coming – He-Man, Transformers, My Little Pony – that parents didn’t like. Earlier, play had been more about simulating what parents do, preparing for the world of adults, instead of this fantasy land where everything is Ninja Turtles or Star Wars. So the themes have been influenced by seeing the generation overlap in these classic play patterns.”
16 people now handle all of Toca Boca’s production in Sweden; another three take care of marketing in New York. The success of products like Toca Tailor with teenagers has inspired a delicate broadening of its creative play for 2013 titles. Building its characters and figuring out how to do that is another thing. And merchandise? Maybe, says Overmar, when the numbers are even bigger.
“Right now we’re at 20 million, so maybe we need 100 million,” he thinks. “Maybe 200 million downloads to be at the point where you can put that product out. But we’re preparing for it.”