The making of App Club Myanmar (Burma)

Burma App ClubNearly three months had passed since I moved with my wife to Yangon, Myanmar. We’d moved here to escape the English winter with a place to stay in her family’s house in the Yangon suburbs. Hearing there was a mobile phone boom about to happen in Myanmar, I had brought a new MacBook Pro laptop to work on and, at first, I worked at home on my apps. The main challenge in Myanmar is the painfully slow and unstable Internet – try to imagine that here even emails have to L…O…A…D… My next hurdle was discovering that Google’s Android developer console was blocked in Myanmar, due to the sanctions that block payments to the country, so that meant I couldn’t directly upload any Android apps, unless I used a VPN. But on a very slow internet this was a chore.

In the first few weeks I had to walk 20 minutes down our dusty main road in the blazing heat to the Internet café to slowly upload my app files to the company I work with in the States. The two worlds of Yangon and Silicon Valley could not be more different. It was a lifesaver then, that cheap 3G Sim cards with mobile data top up began to be rolled out just at the time I arrived. I can’t tell you how happy I was to be able to get email at home on my phone, tethered to my computer. This was my essential link to the outside world.

Yangon, Myanmar - the Shwe Dagon pagoda can be seen in the background

At a monastery wearing our traditional Burmese 'Longyi'

We’d travelled over the Christmas and New Year period, and now that it was January, boredom was setting in. I badly needed a job – something local that would get me out of the house working with other people. I’d sent my CV to a couple of schools, but I had no teaching experience, and I wasn’t sure how good I’d be at teaching English anyway. There didn’t seem to be many design companies that hired freelancers either, and everything looked like a time warp. But one January day, feeling pretty hopeless, an email came into my inbox from Myanmar International School Yangon (MISY). My CV had been forwarded to the Director there, who was looking for teachers.

Back in the UK I am an associate with Excite-ed who, amongst other digital things, run app development courses in schools. So I replied asking if he’d like an App club teaching game design to the students? Coming from the first generation of gamers to play video games at home, I would have loved to do a practical game workshop like this, but IT in those days consisted of drawing a green line on a graph – hardly Super Mario Bros.. Our course aims to move kids from being consumers of games and software, to being creators of their own. Thankfully he was interested in my proposal, and there came my chance to trial the first Excite-ed app club in Burma.

Planning the course

I met with the school’s Director and we decided on a 10 week after school App class, available to pupils of years 6 to 10. The classes could only be from 3.45-5pm, which I thought was a little too short for the kind of workshop I wanted to do, but the kids had to get home, and can’t concentrate too long anyway.

I designed a flyer in English, with Burmese translation on the back and sold it as an “Excite-ed app development course for schools, taught by an experienced UK app developer and publisher.”

I’d noticed the Burmese were keen on wearing the union jack design on their clothes, so I put one on the flyer. It attracted attention and before long I had enough students to run three, hour long, afternoon clubs a week.

The kids were all Burmese, and fortunately spoke fluent English. The course aim was to get each class to actually make their own app game. I’d promised on the flyer “See your app running on an Android smartphone,” so I needed to deliver!

App Club Myanmar's Class B

App Club Myanmar's Class B

Game theory

I’d previously worked with Julia Bateson, MD at Excite-ed to develop the app game ‘Cybersafe’ with UK teenagers. They wanted to use children’s excitement of gaming to address their concerns, gained Big Lottery funding and we produced an app with three eSafety themed mini-games for 4-14 yr olds.  More recently, Excite-ed teamed up with Capita to run a digital game design competition across all the schools in Barnet and so it was agreed that I would run a similar project at MISY.

In the early sessions we looked at games kids are playing.  We analysed the games and how elements make them a good game. They were all playing very complex games, such as Clash of Clans, Minecraft, and the open world pixel game Terraria was popular. They certainly knew their game genres, stating that Terraria is a “sandbox game because it’s non-linear!” As connectivity was challenging, they used the ‘Zapya’ app on Android to connect their phones together and swap games – it worked like magic! One of the first questions I asked when getting to know them was “How many of you actually pay for games?” The answer was generally never – bad news for us app developers.

The game brief

When designing games, kids naturally want to make a multiplayer Clash of Clans type game, so I had to explain that these kinds of games take a team of people many months to build and maintain. It’s important to keep it simple so the game brief was to make a Myanmar version of ‘Flappy Bird.’ It had to be funny with a storyline relating to Myanmar. The game was a good choice because all the kids knew it, it’s non-violent, and has minimal design assets. They got quite excited thinking about who would do what, and it was funny to watch.

Making the games

What were the kids capable of? I aimed high setting this goal, hoping that with my help, the kids would deliver the game assets. We spent some sessions drawing and learning to animate the main character in Flash, with some getting the hang of it more than others. I use Flash with Adobe Air to make apps, so it’s handy for taking animated assets straight into the game.

The 3 groups were all different and I learned many things from the challenges they threw at me! The recording session for the sound effects really helped to bring the class together, and it was a chance for everyone to contribute to the game if they wanted.

One game concept was about a villager in Myanmar who’s lost his Longyi, the typical skirt that men and women wear today was imaginative. The Longyi has flown off, and the Longyi avatar has to avoid it blowing into the poisoned tipped thorns in the forest.  A talented 10 year old, Phyo, produced beautiful hand drawn artwork with a classic feel, depicting the thatched houses on stilts, commonly seen all over Myanmar – an old fashioned well, palm trees and a cute Longyi character with eyes.  When testing the game, one class member asked him “Why are we doing hand drawn style?” Phyo’s answer was they were doing it like Doodle Jump.

Myanmar App Club Game Art

Myanmar App Club Character Art

Myanmar App Club Game Art

Myanmar App Club Game Art

Myanmar App Club Game Art

Myanmar App Club Menu and GUI Art

The other groups’ game concepts were ‘Lantern Legends,’ about the Taunggyi hot air balloon festival held every November, which I visited, and ‘Myanmar Ascending,’ about the legendary Burmese character ‘Zawgyi.’ By the end of the 10 week course three app games were successfully produced. A celebration assembly was held in school where the students and I showcased the games and certificates were presented.

Myanmar App Club game art

The artwork for 'Lantern Legends' was drawn directly in Flash

App Club Myanmar Class B

App Club Myanmar's Class B were the first group to finish their game assets.

I had been through one of the steepest learning curves of my life and was proud that despite many challenges along the way we produced the games. My next project is to run Excite-ed App Camps with Julia back in the UK summer 2015.

Flappy Longyi is available as a free app download on Google Play and online. Enjoy!

Flappy Longyi Game Promo Art

Flappy Longyi Game Promo Art

Flappy Longyi on Android:  bitly.com/FlappyLongyiApp

Flappy Longyi Web Game:  bitly.com/FlappyLongyi

Lantern Legends Web Game:  bitly.com/LanternLegends

 

 

Recent featured spots in the Appstore’s kids section

Appstore features don’t come along every day, so here’s some recent exposure we’ve had in the ‘apps for under 5s section’ since the Appstore’s new kids section appeared with the release of iOS7. Frosby Picnic Camp was surprisingly popular in Italy – perhaps due to the luscious food on display in the screenshots? It also got to no.1 in Hungary, beating Mickey Mouse for a day! With all the great apps on offer, this at least proved our app icon stood out.

And on Vlad’s Bats’ 2 year anniversary, Apple asked us for promotional artwork, which they used for Halloween 2013! The app received promotion in many countries, including the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy, many Asian countries and more.

Here are a couple of screengrabs for prosperity:

Vlad's Vampire Bats Appstore feature banner in Canada

Vlad's Vampire Bats Appstore feature banner in Canada

Frosby Picnic Camp Appstore icon feature in Italy

Frosby Picnic Camp Appstore icon feature in Italy

Frosby Picnic Camp Appstore icon feature in Hungary

Frosby Picnic Camp Appstore icon feature in Hungary

 

Inside the Appstore’s new kids section

I recently wrote an in-depth article for the EduGames Hub website about the new kids section of Apple’s Appstore, and what it means now for discovery. The good news is that there are more places to be featured in now, and there are lots of shiny new apps to choose from each week. The list is still curated by Apple, so nothing has changed in that sense – quality wins the game.

I also shared my experiences on the Android marketplaces: Google Play, Amazon and Nook. Brands must build up a presence on each store from scratch, so only one thing is clear – you won’t know which apps will be popular on which store until you try!

Click here to read the article.

Our 10 tips for making kids apps

I wrote the following tips for our app presentation at the ‘Contentertainment’ seminar at the Bristol Encounters film festival. We were so busy showing our apps that we ran out of time to go through these tips! It was kindly hosted by Wonky films : a Bristol based animation company who look at new digital trends every year.

1) Build a portfolio

Take a long term view. There are high points when you release an app (if you’re lucky) and your app can move very quickly out of the charts. Try not to cry too much at this point, but persevere and build up a portfolio of apps.

Therefore it’s essential to keep releasing new apps to get noticed and stay in peoples’ minds. You need quality and quantity to ensure your apps are more discoverable. If a customer likes one of your apps, they are likely to buy another one or more right after they discover you, so the more you have the better.

2) Find your Brand and selling point

Develop a portfolio of apps in a house style. Spend time on your screenshots and icon. Work to high standards and spend time on the details and little touches. It makes a difference and it’s what the Apple brand is all about. We play to our strengths and spend time on the graphics recording original sound effects.

3) When should you invest in marketing?

Wait until you have a substantial set of apps before you look into ways of marketing. It can be ineffectual, so better to spend your time making some great products.

Once you have a popular app, it will help to sell your other apps, so your sales should multiply. It’s a bit like the music biz – keep going until you get a hit.

Review sites are now inundated with apps, so you need to send your app for review months in advance. Many charge for a ‘speedy review.’

4) Testing is vital

People use touch screen devices in different ways. What’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to someone else. A 3 year old in the park once taught me about the 5 fingered swipe, and that my hit areas were far too small.

If you’re designing for the kids market, ask parents what they think, and what they would like to see. An understanding of the age range you’re targeting is key, and that’s something we had to learn.

5) Make it fun

Fun learning is a big selling point. Kids get bogged down with homework, so apps should be fun first, and education second. You want kids to enjoy it and play more than once. Add storytelling to your apps. Children love to be challenged, and give them a reason to do a learning task through storytelling. Emotion goes a long way!

6) Respond to your audience

If you’re lucky enough to get reviews, it shows that you have at least made an impact. You will get both positive and negative, which you can learn a lot from.

While most people loved our second app, many parents complained it was too short. Some wanted randomization. Take on board the criticism, but try to ignore those mean customers who leave 1 star!

Tactics: update your app with more stuff, and launch at the same time as a new product.

7) Is it worth Localizing your apps?

USA is by far the biggest market. Creating foreign language versions of your app is time consuming, and the smaller countries may not pick up on your app. On the Appstore you have no control over where your app is displayed, so it’s a risk. Unless you are targeting a particular country, adding multiple language support may not be worth your time.

8) What level is your gameplay at?

Kids perceive apps as a game. Book publishers are now competing with the games industry and indie companies are making fully interactive 3d stories. Kids of age 6+ are play Nintendo DS games and even Angry Birds on their parents’ iPhone. Their expectations are now sky high. For this reason we started out making apps for the 2-5 preschool age group.

9) Don’t rush it

Perfect and refine your app as much as you possibly can before launching it.

Particularly with Apple, you may have only one chance to get noticed and featured. Try to get it mostly right, even though bugs are bound to appear on your first version. Rushing an app to market that isn’t ready can lead to some unmerciful reviews, which could give your app a very bad start!

10) Experiment

Everything about the touch screen medium is experimental. The app game is a lottery in the beginning, but experiment, learn what people like, and hopefully you’ll stumble on a winning formula. The app market is so unpredictable, there’s just no way to bank on what will be popular with people. So the only thing you can do is have a go, and enjoy the journey.

Say Hello!

If you would like to say hello for any reason, please email us on our contact page. We may be hiring a Flash AS3 games developer and 2D game artist in the near future, so feel free to send us your work samples if that’s what you do!

Resources:

www.momswithapps.com       (very helpful global app community)
www.appbackr.com        (crowdsourcing for funding your apps)
www.mattwasser.co.uk      (my Flash tutorials and design work)
www.digital-storytime.com      (eBook review site with a good blog)

 

A day in the life of a kids app designer

My average day consists of juggling many disciplines, meaning I’m constantly switching ‘heads’ to tackle all the different tasks I need to get done. There are so many aspects to being an app developer – and as I’m used to seeing a project through from start to finish and I like variety, I find it suits me! I’m currently making fun, educational apps for preschool kids, which I’m doing for 2 reasons. Firstly, I enjoy drawing and animating cute, Japanese inspired characters, and secondly, this age group requires the right level of programming that I’m can handle. If your audience is above the age of 5, the level of gameplay and expectation quickly rises!

Creating an app has a number of phases, but since I handle everything, I often tackle many of the jobs in one day, which could be: planning, illustration, UI design, icon design, animation, sound editing, video editing, coding, testing, research and marketing. Research is a hugely time consuming but important part of what we do, because designing for touch screen devices like the iPad is very new and constantly changing.

I had worked as a freelance Flash animator in London agencies for many years, but Flash as an online platform is sadly in decline. Barely a year ago I hadn’t even coded a button in AS3, but when I heard that it was now possible to create iPhone, iPad and Android apps in Flash and Adobe Air, I bit the bullet and decided to learn code, and bought an Apple developer license.

The App seller account setup was complicated, so I recommend that anyone wanting to make apps should think long term, create a brand and make a variety of quality apps in order to get noticed. Sales from app downloads won’t pay the bills overnight, so a lot of patience is needed.

The appstore is an extremely competitive market, and my first app, an interactive eBook story called ‘Vlad’s Vampire Bats’ quickly disappeared into the ‘Appstore black hole.’ There are thousands of children’s book apps out there, and customers are overwhelmed and spoilt by the choice! After 6 months, with several apps on the go, I released my second app Frosby Learning Games – a more commercial preschool app, containing a range of diverse learning activities, teaching colours, counting, size and dress-up games. Thankfully, Apple featured my app so far in the USA, UK, and China, and Australia, which was a huge boost! Getting featured by apple in iTunes, is the best advert you can get, and it’s usually the difference between getting 1 sale a day to 100+ sales a day.

But then comes the next challenge – to maintain your position in the charts. This means telling as many people about your app as possible, which in my case means running promo code giveaways on mum’s blogs and Educational based Facebook pages. Another aspect is feedback from your customers. People have commented that they would like more games in my app, so I now have to give them what they want!

I make my apps as polished as possible, because I want my brand Frosby to stand out as high quality software. I use a good microphone and I hire an actress to record good quality voiceover and sound effects. I believe games based learning and eBooks to be a growing market, and the continued success of Apple’s devices will nurture that. I also hope that clients will consider using Flash in the future to make apps for their promotions, and bring their new or existing work to this exciting new platform.

Our day in the sun – Featured in New and Noteworthy in the USA!

Amazing news – Frosby Learning Games appeared today on the UK iTunes iPad Education section, right next to my idols and all round masters of the kids app genre: Toca Boca! I took a screenshot for the record. Then came even more amazing news – our app was featured in Apple’s New and Noteworthy section in the USA! Frosby Learning Games appeared today at 53 in the US Education for iPad charts in America, which is huge! It then rapidly climbed over 2 days to no. 17 in the US and 10 in the UK. Fingers crossed we get some good reviews now :)

Frosby iTunes New and NoteworthyOk, here are the reviews after one week in the UK and US charts. The UK has been kind to us, but the US (a much bigger audience) really varies, but I like that. Someone discovered a rare sound bug, which explains her 1 star review – this is very bad luck. The bug has been fixed on the next version, but her comment remains for now. Why do people do this? Anyway, a bug is not a complete deal break – most apps have them in the beginning, so hopefully it didn’t put too many people off. This morning a review came in (below) which made my day. The customer said he would pay $5 for it – and this is what quality apps are actually worth! Many people don’t realize what a great deal they’re getting on the appstore. Great apps selling for $1 or $2 have had a huge amount of work put into them, so need to sell in very high numbers to eventually make a profit.

By far the best children’s app I have found when it comes to variety, strong mental development and fun. The artwork is amazingly beautiful just like the snapshots show, lots of color and detail (not drabby and dull). Would pay $5.00 for this baby!

And this UK review was also exactly what we’d hoped for:

Wow! This app is real treat for the kids! Lots to do, many challenges, positive reinforcement, literacy and numeracy – all in a beautifully designed world that wanders from feeding moles to cleaning bus windows and dressing a snowman! Music is soft and gentle, not grindingly annoying like other apps, the voice is lively, fun and clear (my 4 year old now tells me “you’re great!”) My kids keep coming back to this again and again, yours will too!

Appstore Reviews UKMay 1st ’12 – We’ve now reached the top 10 education charts in Australia and New Zealand!

May 11th ’12 – The family app review site has given us the thumbs up!

Famigo Review

 

 

Making Apps for Kids – My Journey Part 2 : Interaction and Navigation

App no. 2: How to create a fun, educational app?

As I’m not yet a parent, my first app, an experimental children’s eBook story called Vlad’s Vampire Bats was me guessing what kids might like. Now that I was attempting an app with some educational value, I had a responsibility, and this required more research.

My next app: Frosby Learning Games, has been even more experimental to make than my first. It is a series of different scenes – teaching counting, size, colours and dress-up games where kids can learn parts of the body. I’m working with what I have – code that I’ve collected, modified and reused, some previously created characters and scenes, and brand new designs. I wanted to make something fun for kids, that covered a few early learning topics: counting, size, colours and single words through game play. There are now many specific counting and maths apps on the appstore, but I wanted to get away from categories, so the child would forget they were learning, and hopefully return to the app again for the characters and interactive touches. It’s also a showcase for my design style.

The addition to the team of an old friend and voice actress Julia Scott Russell was much needed. Julia has the gift of being able to create the most obscure cute animal voices I could think of. We recorded numbers both in her normal voice and ‘chipmonk’!

In Frosby Learning Games we went the extra mile to record unique sound effects to give some Hollywood production values. As a creative, rather than technical team, original sound is something we can provide that, like our characters, is unique to our apps. Sound in apps and games is often treated secondary to the visuals and ‘tacked on’ with cheap sound effects, but it’s a huge part of the experience. It does take a huge amount of time to record, edit and code though, so allow plenty of time to get right!

In three of the scenes, the child can ‘rub out’ parts of the screen, to clean off mud, dig a tunnel and de-mist the windows on a bus. It feels like this is the kind of experience that only tablet devices can provide, so we added a squeeky noise for an added sensory touch.

Frosby Learning Games Counting

Frosby Learning Games: Wipe away the mud with squeaky sound effects!

Finding an audience and getting feedback

Julia has helped shaped the app by user-testing it on friends’ children, and consulted her friend, Sarah Krafft, a nursery school teacher to help us understand how children of 3-5 might react to our games. The first review taught us many basics that being non-parents, we had no clue about! My first scene started with 3 molehills, with the question: “How many moles can you find?” She told Julia that there weren’t any moles there, and that kids of that age cannot even visualise a mole coming out of what looked like 3 poos on the screen! So we stripped it down, went over every scene and simplified everything. I broke scenes down that were trying to do too much in one go and made 2 scenes out of them. I always forget this rule, which a college tutor once told me years ago: “Break it down.”

Wording and Challenge

Another key issue was the caption text we had on each screen. 5 year olds cannot even read yet, so the text would only serve as instructions for parents. She advised us to change the wording too, and to avoid phrasing a sentence as an order. The voice over would need to be upbeat and casual, and not necessarily match the caption text exactly. Instead of “Find 4 mice in the cheese,” she suggested “Can you find 4 mice in the cheese?” “Can you” is a challenge, and kids like to be challenged with a task, and they love to compete, just like adults. When confronted with the task “Can you dress the scarecrow,” my friend’s 5 year old’s immediate response was “Yes!” and she immediately got to work, putting him together. Incidentally, even my letter 4 had to be changed into the simplified symbol with vertical strokes! Single words in the games would also have to be all lower case.

Here lies the difficulty of designing educational programs or games for kids. Children have different abilities and the difference between say 3 to 5 is huge. What is challenging for a 3 year old could be far too easy for a 5 year old. And above that, they are playing Nintendo DS games, or dare I say Angry Birds, which make your number counting app seem like a baby’s toy!

Is your educational game boring? Try uncertain rewards!

On one scene, in which you have to choose the right coloured ball of wool for a choosy cat, we found a way around the gap in age range and ability. The scene originally was setup so that the child would touch the coloured ball of wool that the cat was touching. If the child knows the colours well, then this would be insultingly obvious: it wouldn’t be a game. So we made it an ‘uncertain reward’: instead, we have no idea which ball the cat wants, and the child has to guess which one she wants. If they guess wrong, the cat makes an angry sound and his claws come out! Guess right and a speech bubble appears with the right colour.

Frosby Learning Games app colour cat

"Uncertain rewards": A promo screen from Frosby Learning Games.

To navigate, or not to navigate? That is the question.

The interactive dilemma: when to give functionality, and when to guide the user? People have come to expect full functionality in interactive media. They want to be able to turn sound on and off, and flick between pages at will, but what happens when your user is 3 years old? A 3 year old will press on anything that looks touchable. If they like the look of your arrow buttons, they’ll press it repeatedly, and skip through your lovingly made pages! In Frosby Learning Games, we decided to automate it. Since it is a series of games to be completed, the child has to finish the scene, before it moves onto the next one. But for certain scenes, such as the dress up games, I added an arrow, so they could stay and play for a while, before moving on.

Different strokes for different folks – here’s why you should leave your office:

A completely unpredictable aspect when designing for touch screens is that people touch the screen in different ways. Something magic happened in Regents Park one day, which changed everything. I was on the finishing touches of my app (or thought I was!), and was showing it to a friend. A 3 year old and her mother walked up to the bench we were on, and sat down. The girl pointed to the iPad and giggled to her mother. It was a divine moment – how perfect that my target demographic would appear like that to user-test my app! I put the iPad in her hand and watched. The good news is she was mesmerised. The bad news was how she touched the screen: she often used her whole hand, which set off the “5 finger swipe”, which scrolled into another app! I didn’t even know you could do this, so within a few seconds, she was teaching me!

I also discovered that my touch points weren’t big enough. Kids may have small fingers, but your touch points should be as big as possible, especially if the app is to be played on the iPhone. She also pressed the screen very strongly with her finger. She often dragged though an object, which meant that it wouldn’t move. One has to touch down on the object in its touch area first to move it. Even adults drag and touch the screen is different ways. Some move objects in a quick motion, and some slowly (as they should!)

I realized that I could improve some things, but at the end of the day, it was a new medium, and I couldn’t control everything. So I went back to my mac and spent another full week on tweaks…

My next chapter will be about Marketing and selling apps. It’s a hot topic that I have yet to fully understand. Once I’ve released a few more apps in the appstore I’ll be able to properly comment!

Frosby Learning Games is in the appstore now.

Here’s the taster video:

Promo Video

 

Making Apps for Kids – My Journey Part 1 : Design and Code

Should designers also learn to code?

It is now nearly a year since my adventure into app creation began, and what a year it’s been! Learning new skills is always exciting, if you really get into it, in the way that it becomes addictive and obsessive: there’s an infinite amount of things to learn. I’ve learnt to code, which is a new thing for me, and I hope this blog will inspire other designers to feel that they have the power to develop apps without having to hire a coder. Firstly, there’s the development costs involved. Secondly, there’s the fact that one has to relinquish control on the project. I’m sure there are many designers and animators out there who have great ideas for interactive projects, but feel powerless to start, due to their lack of technical knowledge.

Now, I can see myself working with programmers in the future, but I feel that the functionality that goes into a visual, animated app is actually very much part of the creative process. Designing interactive apps for the iPad is a medium that is barely established. The rules haven’t been written yet, and the game is wide open for experimentation. Call me a control freak, but in order to tell a coder what I want to happen, I would need to have a solid plan and detailed wireframe before I even started. That doesn’t sound too fun, right? And as Picasso once said: “If you know exactly what you are going to do, then what is the point of doing it?”

As a designer, if you’d asked me even a year previously if I wanted to learn programming, I would have said ‘No way – it’s ridiculously complicated’! It’s surprising how, at the right time in life, we can be ready to tackle anything.

Using Flash to make iPad apps

For me, the impetus was the announcement that the Flash software could now export to iPad and iPhone as stand alone apps – something many people seem to have missed. This doesn’t mean that you can see Flash in a web browser on the iPad or iPhone, but through the Adobe Air plugin in Flash, you can create and sell apps. I’d been working as a freelance Flash animator for years in London’s ad agencies, but my main interest was to somehow get my character brand: Frosby, off the ground. I started by making an interactive Flash website, with the intention of building a virtual world, but handling this alone quickly became too much. Later, having worked in a company that owns the online world ‘Bin Weevils.com’ – I saw what was needed to keep a site of that size going: a team of animators and developers, constantly adding new content to keep thousands of demanding 6-12 year old kids coming back. I put the project on the back burner for a couple of years, and I’ve recently returned to it.

Flash is still the best tool for creating educational learning programs and games online, but as an online platform it’s fading away, due to the shift to mobile web.

This has created a double-edged sword. Steve Jobs has famously been declared as the man who killed off Flash. But on the positive side, he did create the Appstore, which allows designers and developers a chance to directly sell their digital content as apps, which is a revolutionary step that has customers now willingly paying for content. Although for how long and at what price is the next question. Whatever the outcome in this fast moving economy, I could not resist having a go, and have jumped excitedly onto the Apple platform: “If you can’t beat them, join them!”

Since I’d started with Flash and loved using it, I wanted to re-use my knowledge for app creation. But here’s the catch: the programming language had completely changed, so I had to learn Actionscript 3 (AS3) from scratch: the coding for buttons, how to turn sound on and off through code, to more complex interactivity, such as drag and drop and a counting and point system that would enable me to make basic games.

Frosby Learning Games Scarecrow

A Drag and Drop Scarecrow game from my kids app: Frosby Learning Games

In my college days, as a graphic design student, I’d been more into filmmaking than design, and I learnt the whole process from start to finish. I would spend hours editing the footage I’d shot to a soundtrack – the patience needed to tweak a time-based project is unbelievable, but boy was it satisfying to get that sequence perfect! And then came interactive media…

Get ready for time-travel

And now, I feel I’m close to those short film days again, but with a new dimension to deal with: Interactivity. This element is truly mind-boggling – I think of it as being like time-travel. A film, painstaking as it is to make, is at least linear. It moves in one direction, from beginning to end. The viewer is led down the exact path the director wants him or her to take. With interactive media, if the user is on page 2 of a story (the present) they can navigate back to page 1 (the past) or forwards to page 3 (the future). The implications of this can get hugely complicated. When the user presses the button to move on, the present doesn’t exist now right? Not exactly. Let’s say on Page 2, the child can press a little bee character, who flies down onto a flower and sings a song. Half way through the song, the child gets bored and changes page. The sound, which is playing through time, has to be told to turn off, and furthermore, what state is page 2 in, when we navigate back to it? It needs to be back at the start of it’s sequence. Imagine your pages are filled with interactive objects, and you can see how every small detail has to be managed and thought about. To give the viewer the exact functionality you want them to have, when buttons are touchable and not, or for how long, becomes a real craft – it really is engineered entertainment!

App no. 1: Creating an interactive eBook story: my approach

My first app, Vlad’s Vampire Bats is about a lonely vampire with a curse – everything he touches turns to bats. It was a concept that I thought would work for touch screens, so I wrote and illustrated a linear story, as one would a picture book, with at least one or more interactive elements on each page. With some AS3 code I found on forums and tutorials online, I managed a few nice touches: the child can drag a flaming candlestick to light up the room, they can pick flowers, and feed baby bats in a bat sanctuary. In my apps I try to find a balance between the linear direction of the story and play: at some points there should be scenes where the user can play with something. It could be a touchable animation with a funny sound, or something that’s immersive and entertaining. This is what the medium is best for: creating a pleasing sensation in the world you’ve created that’s an end in itself. I added a looping animation on as many scenes as I could, for replay value. The child can then move on when they’re ready, at their own pace.

Vlads Vampire Bats

A screenshot from my first eBook app: Vlad's Vampire Bats

So what have I Learnt about designing an educational app for preschool children? I’ll cover this in my next chapter: Interaction and Navigation.