The “Night & Day” changes involved in developing kids apps for Android

by Brad Spirrison

As one of the pioneers of creating kids-oriented applications for the iPhone and iOS devices, it was only recently that Night & Day Studios turned its attention to Android.

Night & Day’s top-selling Peekaboo Barn application -- which remains in the top 15 in the iTunes App Store education category nearly three years after its introduction -- is now available to Android users for a $2.99 download.

In this edition of Meet The Makers, we check in with the three principals of Night & Day Studios: marketing director Erin Rackelman, technical director Justin Hawkwood, and creative director/CEO Nat Sims. They discuss the technical and marketing hurdles of migrating a hit iOS title to Android, the secrets to creating an app shelf-life that lasts well beyond 12 months, and why -- especially when big developers creep into Android -- we still need “great weird little hits coming out of left field.”

Appolicious: After considerable success selling Peekaboo Barn to iOS devices, you recently brought the app to Android. From a marketing perspective, what are the biggest differences between platforms?

Erin Rackelman: First off, access. With no device UDID limit you can send unlimited complimentary copies to anyone in the press, in advance of approval. This is the most significant marketing advantage to Android.

However, we are seeing some differences between the buying habits of iOS and Android users. It appears that, so far, iOS users are more comfortable paying for quality apps, while Android users prefer to find free apps and then possibly upgrade them later (or live with ads as part of the app). We may be investing in more Lite versions as a result.

APPO: What about from a creation and technical perspective?

Justin Hawkwood: On the technical side, we decided to use a third-party SDK (Corona SDK by Ansca Mobile) with the expectation of using a single code base that could be deployed on both Android and iOS. While we are continuing in this path for now, the reality is that most third-party SDKs are "works in progress" and lack platform parity on some levels as certain features are available on one OS and not the other. This use of a third-party SDK also has other limitations, such as dependency on their bug/roadmap schedule, knowing that a feature existing in Android/iOS does not mean that it is immediately available Corona, and realizing that when the SDK publishers decide to stop supporting a device or OS version, we must also.

As for designing for the platforms specifically, there are several differences, but most notable is the screen sizes. iOS has two screen formats, iPhone and iPad, where Android has an unlimited variety of screen sizes. One of the main reasons for using a third-party SDK like Corona is that we can design for a guaranteed on-screen area and an overflow buffer around it which may or may not be on screen, and Corona handles the resizing based on a few settings.

Since most of our apps at this time are targeted for young children, we have not had to differentiate between the expected user experience of the OSs (such as the functionality of the buttons on Android devices), but it is an issue that is coming up more often.

APPO: Do you think we will see the same tipping point for toddler and children-related apps on Android that we experienced on iOS?

ER: Since kids' educational apps are our primary focus, I sure hope so!  We were one of the first developers in the toddler market in iTunes, and received a lot of negative (or at least surprised) reactions when we launched Peekaboo Barn in December of 2008. Since then the market has filled out nicely, and is projected to be one of the fastest growing categories within mobile. During these three years, parents have gotten more accustomed to sharing their devices with their kids and playing games together as a family. I believe the Android market will follow suit. I predict a slow but steady influx of interest towards kid's games.

APPO: What are your Android tablet plans and talk about creating a consistent app across multiple form factors (various Android smartphones and multiple screens on tablet devices).

Nat Sims: We believe that many developers (ourselves included) are still learning the best ways to take advantage of the tablets. There are three main differences we are seeing:

1. The tablet's domain of use -- that is, the context in which people use tablets -- tends to be more shared, family-oriented, and less of a personal device than the phone. This means people are more willing to pass a tablet around, and particularly, more willing to let a child monopolize the tablet for long stretches of time. This is great for childrens' apps.

2. The screen is larger. This simple statement conceals many interesting things an app designer can do. First of all, especially for kids, even just seeing the same image larger can have a positive effect for the player's experience. But if you can also see *more* of the same image, it opens up new possibilities for navigation and strategizing, which are key parts of development for all users.

3. The devices keep getting more powerful. The line is being intentionally blurred between tablets and laptops. As always, the price of the hardware keeps falling; with tablets, this means that for many children, their first computer and perhaps only computer will be a tablet. Typing and especially mousing skills are rapidly becoming obsolete, but this doesn't mean we should give up on the more complex interactions one expects when using software on their laptop.

See Justin's answer above for some details on the difficulty of working with multiple screen sizes. We had already confronted the design challenge of making an app work for both iPad and iPhone (since the two devices have different proportions of width and height). Adding in at least four more aspect ratios for Android made the math that much trickier.

APPO: What did you do to drive downloads of the Peekaboo Barn Android app upon launch?

ER: We have always had a grassroots marketing approach. We have a lovely group of mommy bloggers who actively cover our releases, many of whom I connected with in 2008. We even have some dads! They have been invaluably supportive as we've grown. I got the word out to them and our PR department got the word out nationally. We are doing a little advertising. Since we are new to this market, we are experiencing a bit of a learning curve, but as we release more titles into the Android Marketplace I expect sales to go up exponentially.  We have four other kids' titles coming out for Android (Richard Scarry's Busytown AdventuresCaillou's World, Counting With the Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Lucha Libre) in September which should significantly boost our overall exposure in Android.

APPO: How about driving downloads over time?

ER: As a studio, we strongly believe in our products and expect longevity over time. We've spoken to many studios who believe apps have a three, six, or 12 month shelf-life if they are lucky. We believe exactly the opposite. A good product should continue to fascinate and delight children and adults for years to come.

We actively listen to feedback from our users, and in fact, just added a feedback survey on our website. We take feedback seriously and are integrating our customer's suggestions all the time.  Case in point: I believe Peekaboo Barn is a top 10 educational app almost three years after its release because of this strategy. We've added looped mode, more animals, and more features at the suggestion of our users. The most overwhelming request we get is to add other languages. We've gotten requests for Korean, Maori, Dutch, and so on!  In response, in September we will be releasing Peekaboo Barn 4.0 which will have 10 language options and the ability to record your own voice, so any family across the world can customize the app to their native tongue.

APPO: Are there additional ways you are monetizing the application outside of download costs?

ER: For the iOS version of Peekaboo Barn, we are by adding two language packs: Eastern: Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Hindi and Western: Italian, French, German, Dutch, and Swedish. We will be adding this to the Android version very soon.

APPO: What are the three biggest challenges and opportunities that you see in the mobile media space currently keeping you up at night?

NS: Pricing: More and more potential customers expect great games at the lowest possible prices. It's the same thing that happened to music and now movies: expectations for "free" media (which is actually supported by advertising) drives a certain kind of business model that focuses on quick hits and large volume of sales. The companies that can do best in the environment are the very large ones that can afford to take losses on some projects, invest a lot of money in development of splashy titles, and then release them for free or 99-cents. This can have the effect of driving out the smaller developers; it's what happened to radio and television. Of course, speaking as a consumer of apps, I love the wide availability of great titles for not much money. At the same time, I think we all want to see more great weird little hits coming out of left field (take Trainyard for example), but we all need to earn a salary for our work. So, tip your waitress, and support your favorite app developers!

Behemoths: The energy of consumers in the app markets and the potential for large rewards in revenue and brand recognition makes app development very attractive to very large companies. These behemoths have deep pockets, great brands, and amazing channels for marketing. What they don't necessarily have is experience making great apps. This has largely been the domain of the smaller developers who live and breathe app design and customer feedback -- geeks for great apps who want to make more and more. We at Night & Day have been very lucky to partner with large companies such as HarperCollins and McGraw-Hill who see the value in trading their capital and marketing muscle in exchange for the expertise of our smaller teams. This is clearly the best path to success for both types of companies, and we hope the trend continues and expands.

Fluency: The more people (including kids) using apps, the more they can do with them... and the more they expect. It's a great struggle and a great joy to try to keep up!