With an infinite amount of shelf space available at the App Store, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for companies to stand out from the crowd. While big names like Disney and Nickelodeon can rely on brand recognition to get downloads, what’s an indie developer to do? They could take a cue from Toca Boca, the Swedish app maker topping the charts with its innovative and gender-neutral approach to app design.
To date, the indie developer has amassed more than 70 million app downloads, routinely holding down the top spots in App Store rankings.
To keep up this momentum, the company recently retooled its Toca Robot Lab app (US$2.99), relaunching a version of the 2011 game that’s entirely gender-neutral. And if anyone can attest to the importance of applying the concept to toys, it’s a Swedish company. The country made headlines last year when a Toys ‘R’ Us superstore in Stockholm removed all traces of pink and blue from its aisles, based on the belief that kids should be free to choose what toys they play with, regardless of gender preconceptions.
Toca Boca CEO and founder Bjorn Jeffrey talked with iKids Weekly about how his company is taking this innovative concept from toy aisles to digital shelves. He also gave us the scoop on Toca Ink, another example of the company’s creative capacity.
Launching November 4, Toca Ink is an exclusive collaboration with Virginia Elwood, a tattoo artist who turned Toca Boca’s characters into a temporary tattoo line for kids, available in its online store. As the company looks to extend the Toca Boca brand, it’s running an Artist Play Series that sees various creators interpret the app characters in new ways, starting with tattoos.
What was the inspiration for the original Toca Robot Lab and the redesign?
The original app came out in 2011. It was a play on classic construction toys, building on the idea that by using imagination, anything in the home could become Toca Robots. The pieces that you use to build with in the beginning look like something you’d find in a ship—old tools, light bulbs and scraps—and you put them together in your own creative way to make a robot.
In the spring, we were going through our own apps and critically reviewing what we already had. We felt Toca Robot Lab still had a lot of potential, but it was skewing too much in one direction from a traditional gender perspective. That led to us to update it with a lot more materials and parts, creating new play environments, and giving it a modern twist. It was driven from our own take on what we’d done, what was good and what we thought could be better.
Which direction was it skewing?
In this case, it was definitely more towards boys. I think the robot theme itself traditionally lands that way, but also maybe the color choices and the overall aesthetics gave that impression. I think this happens a lot in the overall app space. A lot of themes are assumed to be more for girls or boys, and then that means color themes, naming and all sorts of things skew in one direction.
Why is it important that your apps are gender-neutral?
I think it’s a philosophical approach at the end of the day. I don’t think that as developers we should be deciding what kids should be playing with. I think there’s a responsibility to question a lot of stereotypes and biases that exist in the toy industry. It’s very pink and blue, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t align yourself as a girls toy or a boys toy, which shelf do you want to be sold on?
When you enter a market like the App Store, there actually isn’t any blue or pink, so we could change the rules and just present the apps as toys, completely open to everyone.
You also approached the update as a chance to design from a kid’s perspective. What does that entail?
Kids aren’t limited to the traditional notion of what a robot can be. For them, a robot can be built from anything. You have to try and step out of your adult role and look at how kids approach any subject. If they were to go about constructing a robot, what would they make it out of? Adults think scrap metal, but from a kid’s perspective, it can be anything.
I think the classic metaphor is when you get a gift for a child, and they take the toy out and start playing with the wrapping paper and the box. It’s not about the money—it’s just about what’s fun and what isn’t. Trying to find those angles in each and every app is very tricky, but it makes for a great app if you manage to do it well.
How does this concept of open play tie into the app?
It’s not predetermined, and I think that’s also how children approach play. There are often rules, but the rules are being made up by kids themselves, and they can change with every single play session.
Toca Ink is part of Toca Boca’s artist play series, which sees various artists interpret Toca characters in their chosen medium. What is it about?
It’s an event that we’re doing in Brooklyn together with Virginia Elwood. She’s very famous in the tattoo community and she works at a studio called Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn. We thought it made sense to be connected with her and the community in that area, and of course to meet our own fans.
What’s next for the Toca Boca brand?
We always try to look at it holistically by believing in the power of play, that play has a value in its own right and that we should try to encourage it. The artist play series is sort of a concrete step bridging out of digital. If we existed in another realm, and had someone else look at us from the outside, what kind of product would they see? It turned out in this case to be something that is quite a long way from a traditional app, which is good fun. The brand has potential to go in many different places, but this is where we’re starting.