For Toronto, Canada-based digital developer Sago Sago, staying nimble in a crowded app market is as natural as its mission to create open-ended play experiences for kids.
Launched in 2001 as zinc Roe, the studio was renamed Sago Sago in 2013 after being acquired by kids app giant Toca Boca. Now a sister studio to the Swedish company, Sago Sago has built up its own stable of digital toys for kids ages two to six. The studio has 12 apps on the market, with six more due out this year, and has amassed more than 5.6 million downloads.
“By the end of , we had seven apps in the store, we had already been featured as free app of the week, we had one of the apps selected as one of the best of that year from Apple, and all these things started happening,” recalls Sago Sago’s longtime president and CEO Jason Krogh. “It validated our initial plan. We’ve been on this gradual transition since then.”
Having spent more than 15 years in the industry, Krogh notes competition is more fierce than ever, as consolidation continues apace. Consider over the past few months, tech giant Google acquired Launchpad Toys, while Cupcake Digital scooped up Little Bit Studios, and educational game developer Fingerprint acquired Cognitive Kid and Scribble Press.
“There was this initial rush into the App Store, where companies were producing a lot of neat stuff and a lot of things were tried out,” says Krogh. “We’re in a period of consolidation now, where the more mature players are starting to see the value of this space. In some respects they were watching from the sidelines and now they’re ready to invest. I think we’re going to see more of that. I am bit concerned, because I feel like a lot of nice stuff is coming out of smaller independent shops that are really struggling.”
For Sago Sago however, the studio’s apps continue to stand out. Completely open-ended, the apps do not have any game levels or instructions. Instead, the focus is on kids taking the lead to explore and discover at their own pace. In step with its open-play design philosophy, the apps do not feature any text or voiceover.
“Our Forest Flyer app, which is probably our most downloaded, had a voiceover in the very first version,” explains Krogh. “We realized that when we had the volume off, the kids would start talking. But when the narrator was there, the kids just became passive listeners. When we took all the voiceover out, it totally changed. They came up with different stories, different things. It was one of those ‘ah ha’ moments, where we took all the dialog out of our apps. It’s brilliant.”
Featuring a roster of apps like Road Trip, Friends, Space Explorer and Forest Flyer, the series specifically focuses on experimentation and exploration, instead of instruction. Kids explore the world and can meet friends and eat snacks in Friends or tool around the forest in Forest Flyer.
“We’re all about the open-ended play,” notes Krogh. “Our apps do not have a beginning, middle and end. If you look at Fairy Tales for example, it’s just one big looping world and you go wherever you want. It goes back to that whole idea of the digital toy―we’re going to give you a world and you can invest it with your own stories, your own rules, that sort of thing.”
The studio puts an emphasis on autonomy, and a passing over a sense of control to kids. “A lot of games take the approach of issuing instructions and getting kids to do this or that,” notes Krogh. “Our big thing is autonomy and ownership. We want the kids to drive the process forward. We prompt them and give them some scaffolding, but at the end of the day, we want them to own that experience and to do their own thing with it.”
When it comes to designing for preschoolers, the studio has found many of its app ideas are inspired by the way that kids play. Largely because of this, the studio approaches its apps as digital toys, as opposed to mobile games.
“I’d say about three-quarters of our ideas come from a common theme in children’s play,” says Krogh. “We made the Road Trip game, and that was very much derived from the way young kids play with toy cars. Other times, we have a novel mechanic, like an interesting technical tool that we think is quite interesting, and that’s what sort of drives the discussion.”
In terms of the preschool landscape, developing apps for two to fives today involves more than bright colors and fun music.
“I think that for a long time, the preschool world in particular was in the Fisher-Price mode of primary colors, and there wasn’t a lot of change,” contends Krogh. “You see a lot of parents saying they don’t want the rainbow color palette. They don’t necessarily want the same googly-eyed characters that maybe have been around for a long time. They’re looking for things with a more contemporary style. You see it in animated shows. Yo Gabba Gabba! was one of the first examples of that. I think there’s a lot of opportunities there.”
Having worked its way up from indie status (although its creative approach is still very much indie), the studio is also exploring new avenues. Last year, the Sago Sago teamed up with Toronto-based toy maker Monster Factory to release plush toys based on its app characters, through its website and Amazon. Its next mobile offering, Sago Mini Toolbox, is due out next week.
“We’re definitely looking at how we can extend the brand beyond the screen,” notes Krogh. “We’re taking a slow and steady approach, developing some of our own products, but also looking at partnerships. The plush toys were done with Monster Factory―that was a nice way to test the waters. For us, it’s very important that the digital play be the first thing―it is the origin of what we’re doing.”