It’s playtime: Toca Boca heads for America

Mention the name Toca Boca to any parent with an iPad (s aapl) or iPhone, and you’re likely to hear them start raving with delight. Since launching last year, the Swedish games studio has become a big hit with families thanks to its sequence of simple, open games — including best-selling titles like Toca Hair Salon and Toca Kitchen.
The company’s apps have been downloaded millions of times, grabbing attention by combining different elements of play into small, self-contained games that are simple, colorful and fun to mess around with.
Now the Stockholm company, a subsidiary of Swedish media group Bonnier, is targeting bigger things — and planning to open an office in San Francisco next month.
“After the past year we started thinking about what we were lacking — and what we could improve,” says Björn Jeffery, Toca Boca’s CEO.
“Generally speaking we don’t think there’s anything wrong with the product. We think it’s about visibility,” he adds. “The product will still be developed in Stockholm, but opening a San Francisco office will give us proximity to Apple, the iOS marketing system and the U.S. market.”
So far getting traction in America has been slower than elsewhere, but breaking in could be a big deal. Toca Boca has already developed a significant following in a range of international territories, from its home base in Sweden (where it has had eight of the top 10 paid apps in iTunes) to unlikelier climes such as Kuwait, where it boasts that it has 40 percent of the top 10 paid apps. While the reasons for some of those successes remain elusive, the team thinks it can ramp up success by concentrating on expanding in particular areas.
“We don’t quite know why Kuwait loves us so much,” chuckles Emil Ovemar, the lead producer. “But it’s testament to our growing fan base: each product does better than the last one, and Toca Kitchen has had 90,000 sales — none of them are free downloads — since we launched it on December 15.”
With its 14 staff working on short, self-contained cycles, Toca Boca has released 10 apps in the past year. But describing its products manages to be both incredibly easy and yet strangely complex. The company doesn’t like to call the things it makes “games,” but prefers to label them “toys”: environments that children can explore either on their own, or as part of a wider playtime. They’re more like building bricks or playsets than rules-based games.

Ovemar says this idea came out of research the duo did once they had finished up working in Bonnier’s R&D department — which was responsible for developing and building things like Mag+, the company’s system for producing tablet-friendly magazines (featured here in point 8 of our article ’10 Features That Would Make iPad a Hit’.)
“Mag+ went into the production phase, which is whole different machinery, and we were wondering what to do,” says Jeffery. “So we started thinking about what happens when a tablet like device enters the home. Before the iPad it wasn’t necessarily an outside bet that tablets would appear, but nobody knew what people would do with it.”
“I got my kids, who are aged four and six, an iPod Touch each to see what they’d do with it,” says Ovemar. “They did things like play timed hide and seek, or take photos and make movies. They used the screens to play, not just to sit and stare at… I realized they were toys — albeit expensive toys — that allowed for free imaginations and free play. Most developers make apps for adults: they don’t encourage pretending and free play.”
Accordingly, Toca Boca’s approach to games and play is one that comes from lots of different directions: members of the team have worked in children’s public service broadcasting and iOS, although they have avoided hiring traditional video games producers. The result is a sort of 21st century Fisher Price meets Sesame Street.
Being part of Bonnier — which owns newspapers, TV channels and magazines around the world, including significant U.S. publications such as Parenting and Baby Talk magazines — has so far been a hands-off experience. But Toca Boca does not see its future as a series of tie-ins with other Bonnier properties.
“We really created a company within the corporation; a startup within a big company,” says Jeffery. “There are good things and bad things about it, but Bonnier is a very decentralized company … they funded the business and then let us grow it. The risk otherwise would have been that we’d become an in-house app developer for Bonnier children’s books — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what we wanted.”
Jeffery will head the new American office, which will initially be based at Bonnier’s base in San Francisco’s Financial District — but says Toca Boca plans to move out into its own space soon.