Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Angry Birds vs Phonics - The Great App Debate

Watching recent traffic on Twitter regarding e-books, apps and electronic media formats has been quite an interesting exercise for us at ReadItDaddy. With the only other previous smart device at ReadItDaddy Towers being an iPod Touch, we've been out of touch (see what I did there?) with the whole "app" phenomenon as Apple's harsh hardware lifespan rolls over older kit on a yearly basis.

Now we're back in the game with a brand spanking new iPad, it's interesting to see how much (and how little) has changed.

More and more children's books are becoming available as e-books or "apps" as major publishers take a look at their best-loved and top-selling IPs, butter up their authors and delve into the sometimes murky world of electronic entertainment.

It's not all plain sailing though, and publishers, authors, illustrators and app developers aren't exactly big fans of their core audience's 'penny pinching'. Apps are unique in that they have the sort of unrealistic pricing structure that would've had publishers running into the trees screaming a few years back, vowing never to set foot anywhere near the App market. But now they're feeling 'forced' to compete with other publishers who have various ways of dealing with the pain of cheap app pricing and an app-buying public who think £2.99 is a little on the expensive side.

Some publishers use the tried and tested marketing trick of luring buyers in with 'free' apps, that are underpinned by extensive in-app purchases. It's a trick that works for a while. Joe public sees the word 'free' or 'lite' and instantly feels safer in the knowledge that the ludicrous price they paid for their chosen app-friendly device can at least be offset by cheap or zero-priced content. But there's a catch of course, in-app purchases are anything but cheap and as we've seen in the games industry, DLC, microcontent and asset-stripping of full priced titles to produce after-sales price bumps is about as popular a strategy as smearing yourself with honey and diving headlong into a red ant nest.

The other method publishers and developers use is to come up with a fairly 'samey' template for their apps. Grab the original art assets from a book, slap them together in a touch-friendly user interface, slap a few funny noises in there, perhaps a 'memory match' game or (ugh) a 'dress the character' drag and drop game and you're on an instant path to fortune and glory.

Or are you?

You see, kids aren't chumps. They want variety that extends beyond just changing the visuals, they want challenges that will stimulate their developing minds, and they seriously do not want dressing up games or memory match games. These are kids that have to be wooed away from that most sugary-sweet of app addictions, the Angry Birds series. These are kids that are so tech savvy that you can't hide your WAP passwords from them, they'll have already been in and changed it so YOU can't lock them out (thank you http://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2012/07/is-this-the-best-or-the-most-evil-parenting-trick-ever/ for at least giving me a smile this morning with that one!)

Even at the tender age of 4 and a bit, Charlotte will tell you in no uncertain terms that £2.99 for a slimline app based around a book character is not going to cut it and though there's the assumption that if you've got enough disposable income to afford an app-ready device in the first place, you can darned well front up the money for apps, you're not there to dictate to your core market, you're there to win them over.

Some publishers really do 'get it'. HarperCollins Children's Books get it. They offer full-book samples of some of their best loved children's books knowing that parents will appreciate a full-fat freebie with no limits or in-app purchases and then recognise that publisher as offering quality products in future. NosyCrow get it. They offer visually bright, exceptionally slick and reasonably affordable apps and enlist great illustrators, voice-over artists and sound engineers to boost their app quality massively.

Others (and we'll be kind enough not to mention the culprits here) don't get it. They still can't see past the low app price threshold and still don't really understand the digital market. It's OK though, in the one industry that has fully embraced digital downloads and virtual offerings (the games industry), some of the leading lights there really don't get it either and companies like Rovio (the Angry Birds developer / Publishers) thumb their noses, and point and laugh at them as they struggle to offset unit development costs with real solid sales.

Authors and illustrators want changes more than anyone else, and this is where the dim light at the end of the tunnel may exist. Ask an author or an illustrator for idea on how to digitally enhance their books and they'll come up with a ton of great ideas, because by hook or by crook most authors and illustrators are already playing in the vast digital playground, are already hearing first hand from their best customers how great or how awful their work is, and they're already upping their game when it comes to working with their core audience not against them.

If we can get authors and illustrators to pass on the message to developers and publishers, pretty much everyone can come out of this smiling but all sides need to understand one salient fact. No one is stupid in this, and though the old saying goes 'there's one born every minute' or 'a fool and their money are very soon parted', a parent and their budget are glued together like dried weetabix on a child's breakfast bowl.