You know what it feels like when you discover the next big thing? That shout it from the rooftops, why didn’t I think of this, doesn’t everybody recognize the brilliance kind of sensation? I recently met with Suzanne Xie, CEO and founder of Hullabalu, a company creating a new kind of interactive story experience for kids, and I had just that type of moment.
Though still a millennial, this is Xie’s second company. In her “youth,” she created and sold Weardrobe, one of the largest communities for style bloggers and user-generated fashion content. Then she turned from street fashion to kids content. Hullabalu features original characters, illustrations, music and activities, centered around a clever panda named Pan.
Since launch, the suite of The Adventures of Pan apps have hit number one in book apps in the App Store in 38 countries including the US, China, India and Saudi Arabia, with children all around the world spending what amounts to more than 70 years’ worth immersed in their stories. The apps have also collected more than two billion touch points from kids around the world.
Obviously, the stories resonate with kids, but to me, what makes Hullabalu so different are two aspects: An obsessive focus on analytics to constantly iterate content, and a proprietary animation engine that enables the product engineers to streamline the design process, making 2D art into 3D-like graphics in record time. Which led to a sit-down with Xie to understand more about Hullabalu’s early success.
Give a little background: How did you develop the initial concept and stories?
The main story arc is drawn from a combination of personal experiences and deep love of some of the classic adventure stories of the last 50 years. I, along with my team, mapped key plot lines from various stories from our own childhoods and identified our favorite themes. From these themes, we took Pan and sent her on an important, life changing, coming of age journey that can hopefully serve as an inspirational tale for kids everywhere.
You created a propriety engine called Pegasus, what makes it unique?
As a small company with a big vision, we knew from day one that technology would enable us to tell amazing stories. We started by building our own proprietary world engine, called Pegasus to drive natural physics in our animated world. This allows us to create dynamic environments on-the-fly, breathing life into our fantastical world. We also built an animation infrastructure, Artemis, letting us create interactive scenes in a fraction of the time it would take a traditional studio, and creating faster implementation of art to code. With Artemis, our asset preparation, coloring, and character animations work through our own engine without manual drawing. This speeds up our production process for future stories, and increases the amount of content available to our fans.
We often say content is king. How do you measure the importance of your content against the complexity of your platform?
This is a tricky balance and it’s a constant give and take. Telling stories in an interactive manner has always been a challenge and is becoming more so in the digital age. There are certainly times that we want to devote more words and structure to optimize the plot, but also realize that our audience loves interacting with the characters in real time. Because of this, we try to create patterns of spontaneous discovery, which can lead to serendipitous plot evolution over time. We’ve found that there are many ways our stories can evolve and still reach the same end-state. We think it’s also a key to our success in this medium – respecting the process and giving tribute to the many inherent iterations of Pan’s adventure.
Describe the three traits that you identified as key in creating your central characters.
I’ve always drawn inspiration from courage in all walks of life, from my parents taking a huge risk to come to America from China to the soldiers who fight every day to the protect the freedoms for which they came here. Just as important as courage is perseverance, the ability to endure through adversity when things get tough. Many times, you can take risks and be brave, but it’s being able to persist through challenges that separate those that succeed in the long term. Throughout the stories, the common thread that ties all the heroes together is integrity. It’s not always easy to do the right thing, but it’s doing the right thing and being a good, trustworthy person that matters most to our characters. Sometimes, these characteristics and life lessons are just as valuable for kids as they are for adults, and it’s meaningful for us to share them in a magical format that truly engages children.
Personalization is a key draw for today’s kids. How do you use analytics to personalize each story?
We are seeing exciting ways to apply new technology to traditional story experiences. Two in particular that are interesting in the interactive medium are personalization and adaptation. We’re just starting to explore ways to personalize. Right now, there are places in the story where the kid has to help our main characters by preparing different battle gear or designing a boomerang. Whichever design they choose gets carried through the rest of the story. Our newest update will have unique avatars for kids to choose from as they travel through the world of Pan. In the future, we’ll also introduce adaptive elements in the story experience.
“Soft learning” is a phrase you use to describe the emotional connections kids make with your characters. How do you translate that type of learning back to the parents?
Our primary hope is that kids witness and understand Pan’s motivations and choices. Our characters, whether it’s Pan, Chase, or Locke, all have their strengths and weaknesses. As kids choose their favorite heroes, a great opportunity arises for parents to engage with their children and discuss why they admire a particular character, and what traits make them successful. Over time, we intend to provide easier and more translatable ways to structure those discussions in our parent’s section of the app.
As a CEO of a startup, what do you do to engage and motivate your own staff?
First off, they engage and motivate me! Seeing their passion and dedication keeps me energized and excited. I think we all lead in our own ways through our intangible commitment to Pan’s journey. It’s rarely just one person pushing the product along, or motivating people. We all feel a sense of mutual responsibility to help Pan reach her goals and save her parents. Many people don’t know this, but the voices of Pan, Chase and Locke are people on the team.Another thing that our team likes doing is taking personality quizzes (MBTI, for example), so we can empathize and work better with each other. Just like kids who favor one character over the others, we all identify a little bit more with one of the main three over the others.
Right now, Pan and friends are only playable on an iPad. Is that going to change anytime soon?
Yes! We’re working on bringing Pan and friends to iPhone, Apple TV and other platforms in the coming year. Keep an eye out!
What are your next challenges?
We’re constantly building and trying new things. Augmented Reality is fascinating, and there are many ways to apply it to the characters we’ve created. We also love a good physical book, so we hope to bring our stories into that medium as well (or IRL, as the kids say!). Just yesterday, we released a special limited edition Pan plush for the holidays (hullabalu.com/plush)!
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