“Toca Band. In da house. Get down!” squeaks a fast and tiny voice through my iPhone. I’ve just tapped Toca Boca’s twitter link and rap music is spilling out into the F cable car as it trundles up the hill in San Francisco’s SoMa district. An iTunes single release for a kids app? Why not? Toca Boca digital toys make their own rules, as the insistent mini rapper figure only goes to show. “We’re rockin’ it…. Come on!”
Demonstrating the app over a latte, Toca Boca CEO Bjorn Jeffery proudly explains just how far Toca apps are “rockin’ it”. The Toca Band YouTube trailer has had 300,000 views in three weeks and, just 24 hours into its launch, the Toca Band app is second only to GarageBand in the Apple Store’s music category. Two days’ later, it’s at No 1.
“Toca Band is a facilitator of making music,” says Jeffery. “It’s a fun way of making believe you are making your own song.”
To play Toca Band, kids choose from a range of characters with individual harmonies and melodies to slide onto the iPad’s “stage”. Magically, each of the 16 voices or sequences fits in seemlessly with the others.
“Being completely free and creative didn’t really work very well. It’s important that it sounded good straight away,” adds Jeffery.
Getting the different musical loops to be in sync was the biggest technical challenge. Toca Boca employed top Swedish electronic music composer, Hakan Lidbo, who in turn brought in other musicians, such as the opera singer for the ‘grandma’ character to record the different loops. The rapper, called “Stikk Figga”, is actually Toca Band’s own play designer who had a previous career as a real rapper.
Alongside Stikk Figga is a chef drummer, a ballerina-inspired bubble playing keyboard, and, Jeffery’s favourite, an orange cat with a mouth filled with bouncing balls that swirl around to space-age harmonies. “It’s just a weird thing,” he laughs.
Toca Band follows a pattern Toca Boca has set itself early on: creating apps that encourage play that is open-ended with no rules.
But however random the characters may seem, they are all part of a very strict creative process that Jeffery says is key to the company’s success so far.
“It’s easier to be creative when there are constraints,” explains Jeffery. “From a business point of view, we are very strict. An app has to fill a certain list of criteria or it won’t work commercially. Our designers perceive that as completely free.”
Based in Sweden, the Toca Boca team is a subsidiary of the Bonnier group and has 17 employees working on three apps at any given time. The ideas for the “digital toys” (“we don’t make games” insists Jeffery) often come from Toca Boca’s own “play designers”. These specialists in interactive digital toys test out the ideas using very basic mock-ups of the apps – Toca Tea Party, for instance, started as paper cut-outs of a teaset on an iPad-sized piece of card.
“A guiding principle through all our apps is that you can’t get it wrong,” explains Jeffery. “This is why it works so well for children with special needs. The children don’t get frustrated because they can’t fail. There is no winning or losing.”
Working to create apps that please kids this way means Toca Boca apps have international appeal, beyond any particular educational curriculum. Global sales figures are impressive: since it’s launch as a company in 2011, Toca Boca apps have combined sales figures of over 16 million downloads. The apps have sold in 130 countries, with 25% of sales in approximately 110 countries combined, a much broader range, says Jeffery, than apps by many American-based studios.
Sales are in no doubt boosted by the fact Apple itself has been quick to promote Toca Boca as a developer of quality apps. Apart from the top featured listing in the AppStore, you’ll find Toca Boca apps on the demonstration iPads in the kids area of any Apple retail store. Significantly, Toca Boca was featured in the WW2012 conference Keynote on IOS6.
However, the US market is still one that Jeffery is keen to exploit further. To this end, he has relocated from Sweden to San Francisco to head up a marketing team. With the likes of Stikk Figga to play with, you can’t help feeling that Toca Boca is something we are going to hear a lot more of.
Claire Comins is a freelance writer and the Editor of Lily iPad magazine