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In Kids' App Market, Toca Boca Plays the Long Game

You've never heard of them, unless you're a parent. But they have been quietly making reliable games while other studios struggle. What's their secret?

Toca Boca via Instagram

In today’s parenting world, rife with discussions of “screen time” and “safe screens” and “oh my god, that stupid Disney Princess game, help me,” there is at least one app studio parents can reliably turn to. For the last five years, Toca Boca has been quietly making games that delight kids and please parents.

Toca Boca’s games have a few shared traits: They offer open-ended play, appeal to all genders, and once customers buy an app, they (and their kids) won’t be forced to make all sorts of additional in-app purchases in order to advance in the game.

It shouldn’t be this hard. But few studios have figured out how to keep parents happy without pissing off developers. You’d think that with powerful corporate backing behind them, Nickelodeon and Disney would have powerful app skills, but the former spits out formulaic re-skinned racing and gem-dropping games and the latter is a heaving cesspool of in-app purchases that can make a single app cost $13 or more. Night & Day Studios is the only other app studio that delivers predictably adorable games, probably due to partnerships with organizations like Sesame Workshop (more on them in a future article).

It doesn't really matter if you play the game "right." Example: Some kids will spend ten minutes purposely dropping dishes just because it's hilarious.
It doesn’t really matter if you play the game “right.” Example: Some kids will spend ten minutes purposely dropping dishes just because it’s hilarious.

In an interview with Re/code, Toca Boca CEO Bjorn Jeffery talked about the particular “perfect storm” that sets Toca Boca apart from other app makers. Part of it is a cultural difference — both the culture of Sweden, where the company was founded, and the culture of Silicon Valley, which stands in stark contrast to the mood around Toca Boca.

In an earlier interview with Jeffery, my colleague Eric Johnson came to the conclusion that “Toca Boca is part of an endangered species of studios making primarily paid games for mobile devices, instead of the free-to-play titles that have come to dominate the ecosystem. And without any in-app purchases, the apps (generally $2.99 on iOS, with a smaller selection of titles available for $0.99 each on Android) are one-time purchases — how quaint!”

That was in 2013. The idea is even quainter now, and the price point has barely increased.

The proliferation of free titles is “more true than ever before,” said Jeffery. “As the world has turned into a free-to-play jungle, we’ve stayed free. It’s hard times in this market.”

The "fart" function on Toca Dance has been popular in certain circles.
The “fart” function on Toca Dance has been popular in certain circles.

He acknowledges that Toca Boca games will never appear in the top-grossing categories where Supercell and Clash Royale dominate. “We’re playing a different kind of game — no pun intended,” he added. “We’re trying to build something different from a gaming company making a lot of money. We’re trying to build a brand that survives over time.” The two types of games are just different categories.

And while a few kids’ games have had long-lasting success, once you eliminate free-to-play apps (with their irritating in-app purchases), Toca Boca dominates App Annie’s top ten kids-app list for iOS with seven titles. Two years ago, they had three in the same category, so they’re doing something right. It’s just not the same things as Angry Birds.

Part of what makes Toca Boca games so lovable is also their business downfall, in a sense. A parent might buy an app for $2.99 in 2013 and still have the same app, with no additional payments, on her phone three years later. “My hope is that you’ll keep that in mind,” said Jeffery. “When a parent needs to find a new game easily, in an airport or on a Saturday morning when a kid needs a treat, [that experience means] they will go looking for another Toca Boca game.”

“It’s a slower way: Building a company, building a brand. It’s the way that we chose; it’s not the way to make quick money.”

Taking the Longer Road

How do they manage to avoid the pressures of quarterly earnings reports and the demands of investors? Easy: They don’t do them or have them. Rather, they were created under the umbrella of Bonnier, a behemoth of a media company now owned by the seventh generation of the same family in Sweden.

Toca Boca began as a research project within Bonnier. Jeffery and his co-founders “were looking at the future of books, the future of magazines, and what would happen when iPads came out. Our exploratory project into those questions grew and became its own company.”

That gives Toca Boca “a special kind of protection — more like an arts patronage,” he said. “We plan for generations, not quarters. The overall mind-set is very different. In Silicon Valley, growth supersedes everything else.”

He acknowledges that this slow pace is a privilege and a luxury. But you can’t argue with the results. The games are more like Monopoly, a teddy bear or Legos: Classic toys that meet up with kids’ developmental phases and therefore can be put into play every time a kid somewhere reaches that phase.

When parents play along, they are often amused by things the kids wouldn't think of.
When parents play along, they are often amused by things the kids wouldn’t think of.

So what comes next? More of the same, but slowly. There’s also an idea hatching in New York, where Toca Boca has established an outpost looking at how kids interact with video.

Those irritating homemade videos — for instance, of kids opening endless blind-bags and Shopkins — that other kids will watch for hours at a time confound parents with their mesmerizing power. “Video is not emulating anything of what TV is supposed to be,” said Jeffery. In the Vine/Snapchat/YouTube ecosystems, the video maker is “talking directly to the viewer,” leading to “a whole generation of kids who don’t discriminate between what we used to call TV quality.”

“YouTube has an infinite supply of stuff to watch,” he said, “Before, kids got content that had been edited by someone at Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Now they can choose whatever they want, and they can make reaction videos, which never happened before.” Rather than running away shrieking in horror, as many parents do, Toca Boca is inspecting the phenomenon from all sides to see if there’s a way to make something that tickles the same fancy and grabs that huge market.

Whatever they come up with, they won’t do it in the next quarter, though. Or maybe not even the next. It’s very Swedish.

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