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The Toca Boca studio grew out of the research and development unit of the Swedish media group Bonnier. In an expanding field, they have quickly become one of the most successful producers of apps for children. They prefer to describe their apps as “digital toys” rather than games, a distinction they feel emphasises their open-ended nature – the apps don’t involve prescribed tasks or goals which need to be achieved.
They released their first app, Helicopter Taxi, for the iPhone in 2011. It allows children to “fly” between different locations – beach, factory, hospital, hangar – picking up and dropping off passengers. The child chooses places at home to represent these locations. The app then uses the phone’s camera so that on the screen the child sees an animated helicopter hovering in the room in front of them. The child can then fly the helicopter between the different places. It lands when the phone is put down in the selected location and a passenger is picked up or dropped off.
Helicopter Taxi was soon followed by more titles, including Toca Doctor, Toca Robot and Toca Band. Last December, the studio released a sequel to one of their most successful apps, Toca Hair Salon, which allows children to cut, colour and style the hair, mane, beards etc, of various characters, including a lion and a bear.
In their latest, Toca Builders, children use six characters with different functions to create and paint blocks and then build whatever they want.
The apps’ success with children owes much to the fact that they can be used without parental help, offer a considerable degree of freedom and have highly expressive characters. Parents appreciate the lack of adverts and the absence of in-app purchases (IAPs) that can lead to children unexpectedly running up large bills.
Designing for kids
To ensure that an app will be easy to start playing with straightaway, the products are designed with input from children rather than by looking at other successful children’s products.
Each of the studio’s artists has a personal style, with influences drawn from vintage toys, old animation and Japanese pop culture. Mixed together, these form the child-friendly look and feel of Toca Boca.
The apps feature a combination of the everyday and magical or fantasy elements. Settings or scenarios are often recognisable but monsters, animals and anthropomorphised objects also appear as characters, sometimes alongside human counterparts. Toca Boca believes this encourages greater creativity and stimulates their users’ imaginations.
Choosing the right characters
None of the apps uses words. This means that they are accessible to children in as many countries as possible but it makes creating interesting characters with clear personalities a priority in the design process. This begins with the experience that the studio wants users to have. Artists then sketch multiple character ideas in response to this. A second set of sketches is made after discussions about which characters will work well together and provide an interesting mix of personalities. The final design may be 2D or 3D, animated or not, depending on the overall style of the production and the technical limitations on the project.
Bio: Studio started in 2010, with 19 apps released to date. Products available in more than 130 countries. Forty million apps downloaded worldwide