The Numberlys – app review

The Amazing Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, the debut release from Moonbot Studios, was a milestone in book app development. It won numerous ‘Best App of 2011’ awards, and the animation that the short film it was based on received an Oscar nomination yesterday. (You can currently download this for free, BTW).

So what did I do when I wrote about it previously? I moaned. I said it wasn’t actually aimed at children. It was aimed at animation lecturers. What a miserable sod I am! But now Moonbot have released their next app, so I have another chance to marvel at their visuals without being a total Grinch.

This is the Numberlys, a story about how the alphabet was invented by some frustrated number-things:

And the Numberlys is a wonderful app, beautifully created and full of original touches. It’s not wonderful for the audience you would think it is aimed at, admittedly. But for a completely different audience? For them, it is wonderful.

Because you’d think it was aimed at 4-6 year olds, wouldn’t you? Being an ‘alphabet app’ and everything, listed as suitable for ‘4+’? But if you were making something for that audience, you probably wouldn’t do so in black or white. Or, indeed, include no visual imagery that four-year-olds can relate to, or even understand. 1920s German expressionist cinema, modernist architecture, the dehumanising impact of mass production – these are not part of a four-year-old’s life. There is a truly lovely sequence, repeated a number of times, of cogs, pistons and steam funnels. This will be utterly incomprehensible to this audience. They simply won’t understand anything about what they are looking at.

As a tool for teaching the alphabet, it goes against all the educational guidelines you can imagine. All text is shown IN BLOCK CAPITALS THROUGHOUT, for a start. It’s in a lovely art-deco font so it works for visual impact, but this is not how children learn to read. There are no lower case letters in the app at all. When letters are referred to audibly it is always by their names (‘ay’) and not their sounds (‘ah’). Each letter of the alphabet is revealed in order over the course of 20 minutes or so, so it is not trying to teach the order of the letters by repetition.

At one point in the app, it has an intermission. It displays a grey screen and the word INTERMISSION, and plays background music at you until you click past. I was reminded of how Monty Python put an intermission in (I think) the video release of The Holy Grail back in the ’80s, which was very funny in context. The context being, of course, that the audience was old enough to remember a time when intermissions were common in cinemas, and so would recognise it as being out of place in the VHS medium. Four-to-six year olds, however, do not have knowledge of out-of-date cinema practices. Nor can they even read the word INTERMISSION, which is displayed in caps and not spoken aloud.

So, for alphabet-learning children, it’s a total non-starter. But go a bit older than that, say 7-12? Then it’s terrific. The character design and animation are first class, and the characters are totally engaging. The music is even better – there’s an award-worthy musical score if ever I heard one. The imagination on show, the craft, the humour – all wonderful. More importantly, the pacing and the variety of the interactive elements is really well done (there is an interactive element for the creation of each letter in the alphabet. They are too tricky for 4 year olds but perfect for older kids). The ‘comedy German’ voice over – think Borat-style almost-racist – really appeals to this age group. They are also, of course, more comfortable with fantasy worlds that have no elements of their own world to relate to, and so the homage to 1920s German expressionist cinema should not trouble them.

In fact, the app is so perfectly suited to this age group that they will probably overlook the fact that it’s about the alphabet.

Still, you have to wonder. The “who is this for?” conversation – do they not have those at Moonbot?

What would a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ mean for mainstream publishers?

Rumours abound this morning that Apple will announce a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ at their media event on Thursday. These are, of course, just rumours, but they have a certain, inevitable ring to them so let’s run with them for a moment.

Such an announcement seems likely to be couched in terms of the academic textbook market, if only to avoid worrying mainstream publishers who are in dire need of pills for their nerves as it is. “First they came for the academic publishers, but I did not speak out because I’m not an academic publisher…”, etc.  But a simple way for anyone to make epub3 rich-content books? How exactly would that impact on mainstream publishing?

To get some perspective on that, think about this:  Are book apps viewed more as ‘apps’ than ‘books’?

Not so long ago, the Kindle was dismissed as a non-starter because physical books had some qualitative aspect that readers needed – the smell of the paper, the sound of the spine cracking on first opening, the visual impact on a bookshelf and so forth. People simply didn’t want e-readers, it was argued, in much the same way that vinyl was inherently special and so would never be replaced by CD or download.

Sony eBook ReaderBut that was then. Now readers buy more ebooks than physical books (from Amazon, at least). It turns out that readers didn’t love books because of their physical properties, but because of what they contained. And with their entire library now smaller and lighter than a paperback, and with books suddenly cheaper, readers suddenly began to love their Kindles in the same way they had previously loved physical books (something I can readily understand – there is a slight pearlescent sheen to the Sony ereader screen that I find most pleasing.) Serious readers now do much, if not most, of their reading on e-ink devices.

But not on the iPad. It’s not as good for reading as the Kindle. The main argument is that reading a computer screen for long periods will hurt your eyes (I held this view for a while, until I realised that I did actually read a computer screen all day, I just hadn’t noticed.) It is also too heavy and it keeps blacking the screen (both due to battery matters), and it’s hard to read in sunlight. Then there is the constant mental nag to check Twitter or some other distraction while you are reading, and the fact that you can never find the damn thing because your kids have been at it. And why put up with that when the Kindle is so good?

So despite (or maybe because of?) the extra things you can do with a backlit LED or LCD screen, a divide has opened up. E-ink readers are the hardware of choice for lengthy reading and tablets and smartphones are more associated with web browsing and apps. Those book apps that do appear, usually confusingly in the app store rather than iBooks, are either enhanced versions of established classics or short form fiction predominantly aimed at children. Book apps are more ‘apps’ than ‘books’. And by and large publishers seem pretty comfortable about this.

But will mainstream fiction remain apart from the social and visual tricks that epub3 offers? Consider, for example, the iPad version of The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman (disclaimer: this is published by the same imprint that published by Tim Leary biography). (Other disclaimer: it is also extremely short, at 14,000 words, which slightly ruins my argument a little… But ignore the length and lets focus on it as a piece of new contemporary fiction, okay?)

The book itself is fabulous. Here’s a promo vid:

The iBooks version and the Kindle version are the same price, but unlike most contemporary fiction the iBooks version actually makes use of the iPad’s screen. It doesn’t do much. But it does something. And that something is just enough to make the iBooks version a better buy than the Kindle version.

You can see what it does if you download the free sample. There’s an animated title page and animated reveals of the first letter of each chapter. And… well that’s it. As I say, it’s not much, but it is nice and it does give the impression that someone has made an effort, that the book is a little bit special. A little visual flourish between chapters works well because it doesn’t interfere with reading but instead acts as a little reward and gives you a sense of progress, much like a cut-scene in a game. And of course, it’s not hard to do – the lovely line drawings were done for the physical edition, and it doesn’t take that much more effort to play about with them in After Effects.

Here, then, is a simple, effective little addition that makes a piece of contemporary fiction more appealing on a backlit screen than an e-ink screen. If more modern novels do this and do it well, then we would see a shift from the novel being viewed as a static string of text, like a .pdf, into something that takes advantage of epub3 or HTML5. The book app could become more ‘book’ than ‘app’.

But we aren’t seeing that – yet. The Tiny Wife aside, traditional publishers are showing little interest in digital beyond kindle ebooks. The companies that are making book apps, meanwhile, behave and think far more like app companies than book companies, both in their culture (they are far more open than publishers) and their products (which are focused on short experiences).

Yet with a ‘GarageBand for ebooks’ available, and assuming Apple are reasonable about distribution (a long shot, I know), it’s easy to imagine epub3 versions of contemporary fiction becoming established on the iPad and Kindle Fire (and normal Kindles, if e-ink develops in the way predicted.)

The question is, then, will these enhanced novels come from the regular publishers, or from elsewhere? That, I think, is a question that only publishers can answer.

Interview with Jos Carlyle, Creative Director of Persian Cat Press

Jos Carlyle is the Creative Director of Persian Cat Press, whose first interactive children’s book The Gift will be arriving in the iTunes store in the very near future.  It looks like this:

I’ve been keeping half an eye on this project for a while, ever since I saw Persian Cat making comments on Twitter about merging interactivity and narrative on Twitter that struck me as pretty astute. I also like the way they have been reviewing and promoting other companies book apps. So I was delighted to get a chance to ask Jos a few questions as she came to the end of the development process to see how she set about creating in this new medium.

What is The Gift about?
The Gift tells the tale of a baby girl who washes ashore at the feet of a boy, and the wise creatures that the boy takes her to in order to work out what it is that she needs.

It’s about how, as parents, we work hard to build a world of protection and stimulation around our children; but that, first and foremost, our children need our love and affection in order to ensure they get the best out of that world.

Did it start life as an existing story which you then made interactive, or was it written specifically to be an interactive story?
The Gift was written specifically for interactive touch screen technology. It was written as a script, with directions for the illustrations and interactions as an integral component throughout.

The interactions I wrote into two categories: those essential to the story’s full realisation, for example you have to touch the rainbow to make it rain so that the baby has water; and those which are non-essential but which help add character to the world in which the story is set.

It’s been very interesting for me to watch people experiencing The Gift on screen for the first time, and to see them following the words of the story almost as if they are instructions as to which touch points they should be looking for. I feel that’s a direct result of The Gift having been written specifically as an interactive story.

Did you have any rules or insights into melding narrative and interactivity? Was the interactivity there to emphasis, punctuate, pace or for exposition, for example?
I’ve been writing stories for a while, including picture books and graphic novels. With these kinds of stories, alongside the actual text, you also have to think about which parts of the story will be told by the illustrations, and how to then convey that to the illustrator so that in the end the story is told completely via the two mediums.

I think this gave me a hugely useful insight into writing interactively. Being already used to working out how to split a story’s telling into words and pictures, it was quite a natural progression to split it further into interactions, movements and sound.

It took me around a year to work out how to write an interactive script before we started work on The Gift – and it’s a skill I’m still honing. I wouldn’t like Persian Cat Press to stand or fall by my writing alone, however, so we’re actively seeking and developing interactive writers all the time.

Are writing skills enough to creatively lead a production like this? Is knowledge of motion graphics/javascript/HTML5 etc important?
I think to creatively lead a high-level iStory production, you really just need to have the kind of mind that can see the overall picture.

Your core individual skill might be anything (writing, operations or design, for example), but ultimately you’re going to need all of those skills and more to realise the project, and that means you’re going to need a team.

So as the lead, you wouldn’t necessarily have to be the writer, you’d just have to be able to understand the writer’s vision and then see an overall picture of how it might be achieved.

What was the budget?
We were lucky with The Gift in being able to call upon the skills of a number of very talented and enthusiastic technical and creative people, locally from the north-west and beyond.

They shared our vision of a beautifully immersive, integrally interactive picture book app, and consequently were prepared to work with us on a cost basis, allowing us to create a high quality product at a very competitive price.

The combined cost of the services we bought in from outside suppliers for The Gift (illustration, narration, score and so on) was just over £30,000 – although that figure doesn’t include overheads such as permanent staff costs.

That we’ve produced an app of the quality of The Gift for such a relatively low price speaks volumes about the skills of our creative and technical network, the focus and commitment of the in-house team, and the strength of the story itself.

The Gift is arriving in the App Store a year after the first draft of the script was finished. What aspect of the production was the most time consuming?
We always knew that the script for The Gift would evolve and change as our knowledge and understanding of the sector and technology grew and matured. In all there were 16 drafts of the script, each one approached with the same attitude as we approached all other aspects of the production – careful, methodical, painstaking and adaptable.

An interactive script has to talk to a lot of people, and probably the most time consuming part of The Gift’s production was the planning and coordination of the several teams and individuals who worked on different aspects of the project simultaneously, many of which were dependent on several other elements of the production being ready in time.

Quality control also. This took up an enormous amount of time. When you’re producing a picture-book app for the age group The Gift is designed for, getting the fine detail right is crucially important. Parents who are prepared to pay for quality expect the very best – and we don’t aim to disappoint.

What are your thoughts on price points?
It’s clear that quality book apps tend to be underpriced when compared to their physical counterparts – especially given the resources involved in the creation of a detailed immersive environment such as The Gift – but we believe the quality of our product will stand us in good stead in the months to come.

We’ve thought long and hard about the price to put on The Gift and believe that we’ve managed to hit the right note with our opening price. We’re offering great value for money, with a beautiful and absorbing interactive experience unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere.

If there was one lesson that you learnt during production that you wish you’d known at the start, what would that be?
The lesson of stages and phasing.

When you’re commissioning high-level original artwork, typography, music and such, you can’t always wait until those elements are complete before you begin to build the framework into which they are to sit. But neither can you deliver bit-parts to your development team and expect the title’s vision to remain true.

The answer is clear stages and phasing. We thought we had a fairly good idea of all the stages there would be in producing a high-level app like The Gift – but there were still more than we anticipated. That lack of knowledge at the start of The Gift cost us time at the end. We have certainly achieved the vision, but its delivery is a little later than planned.

It’s a learning process, however. As a result of making The Gift we’ve worked hard to build stages and phasing processes into the production of our second picture book Owls Don’t Growl, and so far that seems to be working well.

The Gift will be in available in the iTunes store ‘next week’ (no news on pricing yet).