Inspiration is just as likely to come from unlikely sources as it is from the most obvious places. In the case of Touch & Learn, a British studio devoted to creating educational games and apps, it relies on a little of both.
The surprising part of the equation starts with the Touch & Learn’s founder and CEO, James Lewis. With experience as a Hollywood art director responsible for the look of work as wide-ranging as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Band of Brothers, he’s not the first person who’d come to mind as a creator of kids’ apps.
Yet his motivation is both simple and easy to understand: he’s got kids of his own, and he watched how easily they were enthralled by mobile devices.
“I’m a bit of a tech geek, and I got the original iPhone,” Lewis said to Gamezebo. “Once I got over the fact that I didn’t want to damage it and it wasn’t so precious, I let my daughter, who was 18 months old at the time, just interact with it. It blew me away how intuitive the phone was. And then we got the first iPad and it was the same thing.
“I work in all aspects of design. I’ve done film, interior design, exhibition design, so I never like to pigeonhole myself. So we started mulling about for ideas as to how we can turn this into a business venture.”
The answer came after consulting with his wife, a teaching professional by trade, and pondering his own frustration with what he saw as a dearth of high quality games and apps with an educational bent. That led to the birth of Touch & Learn, which has cranked out nine titles for iOS and Android over its first three years of existence.
But Lewis has bigger plans for the company’s most recent release, Fun Town. Not only does he intend for it to try erasing the distinction drawn between games and educational apps, he also sees it as the start of its own brand.
It certainly approaches the idea of teaching through play in a much different manner than Touch & Learn’s earliest efforts, which were much more conventional learning apps that focused on letters and phonics. Fun Town encourages children to interact with it as they see fit, learning concepts like matching and number sequences as an offshoot of what they’re doing instead of being led through them.
“I just wanted something to be a little more whimsical, just fun for the kids,” Lewis said. “You want them to return to an app, and it’s just really interesting seeing which ones they do return to and which ones they don’t. They get bored very, very quickly, and it was just creating something engaging for a child, that was stimulating in terms of an experience, that had an interesting art style.”
At the same time, Lewis recognizes the importance of having Touch & Learn’s products appeal to the people who matter most in terms of what shows up on family smartphones or tablets: the parents. He touts the philosophy of his company’s avoidance of the freemium model, saying it contributes to parents’ assurance that their kids are playing in as safe an environment as possible.
“If it’s free, I don’t even look for it to say it’s going to have in-app purchases, I kind of know it’s going to have them,” Lewis said. “It just struck us as a massive no-no to get anywhere near them. Ethically, I don’t think kids should be making purchasing decisions within games. I also just think parents are quite upset about it. I’m a real believer in one-purchase products that a child can then play completely safely.”
He’s also cognizant of the “games as a service” approach that today’s apps need to have, whether paid or unpaid. Lewis says updates to Fun Town are already in the works, particularly in the form of more interactive elements on the street that makes up the game’s main portal into its various mini-games and activities.
Lewis’ motivations include his desire for Fun Town to evolve beyond a single app into something bigger, as well as the idea that customers simply deserve some value for their money. It’s easy to see the artist’s twinkle in his eye, even over a voice-only Skype connection, when he talks about things he’d still like to see added.
“You’ll have people popping out of windows, window cleaners, birds,” he said. “We’re going to have little cats running up drain pipes, more vehicles in the town, so a lot more interactivity on the street. I love those little hidden features; I think they’re great fun. I’ve got a list as long as my arm of additional shops, and also those finishing touches I know we want to add as well, just to take it to that next level.”
That brings the discussion full circle, back to the source of ideas that Lewis relies on the most – one that more companies should probably tap if available to them. That would be his six-year-old daughter, who came up with the concepts for three of the mini-games in Fun Town, including the flower-growing puzzle in the flower shop.
Even after being disappointed by being told some of her ideas aren’t workable, she dreamed up the sweet shop, something that became a reality very quickly.
“In the sweet shop, she just narrated the whole idea to me,” Lewis said. “‘There’s a little girl, and there’s a little bubble coming out of her head, and she thinks the sweets she wants, and you put them in a bag.’ Within a couple of hours, we prototyped it, and she play tested it.”
As the audience for Touch & Learn products, kids also serve as the ultimate judges on what works and what doesn’t. Lewis knows he’s lucky to have two of his own on hand, giving their sometimes silent but definitely honest opinions on anything he might dream up going forward.
“It’s such a great litmus test, the kids,” he said. “They don’t stand for any rubbish, even if daddy makes it. They’re always polite, but if they don’t like an app, they just won’t get back to it. The nice thing about Fun Town is they do return to it, which I think is great. It’s a pleasure writing apps for them.”