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?

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Budgets and Pricing of Book Apps

The economic realities of making and selling tablet book apps are currently as vague as Hell. In the absence of any hard figures, though, we have anecdotes, and they tend to be pretty grim.

Ustwo have rather wonderfully been very upfront about their experience with their Nursery Rhymes With Storytime app. It cost £60,000 to develop, they say, sold over 37,000 copies and rose to be the top grossing app in the App Store’s books category. All very impressive, but unfortunately it returned only £24,048 in revenue.

(Of course, as anyone familiar with the UK Children’s market will tell you, Nursery Rhymes don’t work overseas. Sure, there is some overlap with American ‘Mother Goose’ tales and a few of the rhymes are known in a few Commonwealth countries, but they are essentially British, an unusual Victorian invention that romanticises the pre-Victorian era. This is the reason why nobody makes, say, a Humpty Dumpty cartoon series these days. With this in mind, gaining the top spot in the Book App charts is pretty impressive, although of course they may have been referring to a UK-only chart)

But anyway – such anecdotes are backed up by the gist of the talk at MIPJuniour in Cannes last week, where there was much scepticism from publishers about Apps.  Egmont’s Emma Cairns-Smith sums it all up neatly:

With an e-book you can sell it at pretty much the same price as the book, but as soon as you put that on an app you have to sell it at 99p. There are real commercial issues around it. It is far more expensive for us to make an app than an e-book, and yet we can charge far less for it. That’s the conundrum.

What should we make of all this?  It’s true that the user base for tablets is still young and that another good Christmas, plus the arrival of the Kindle Fire, should see a much larger market to sell to.  Of course, as we noted when we discussed the low barriers to entry in this market, that will be matched with far greater competition.

Then there’s the cost of producing these things. They should get cheaper, as off-the-shelf development software arrives.  And yet, and yet… there is a natural tendency to budget-bloat in the creative industries. People resist lower budget productions, as if they believe it negates the value of their work. They are professionals, and big budgets are a sign of status. It’s almost as if creative people judge their own sense of self-worth by the size of the budgets they work with.

I’ve been around a while now, and I’ve seen how this all plays out. In the independent TV boom of the early 90s, the rule was that any company that made one programme but still hired a receptionist would not last the year. Whereas in the first dot com boom of the late 90s, the rule was that any company that had receptionists with Apple Macs would be gone in six months. With all that in mind, take a look at Moonbot Studios, who did the Morris Lessmore app we looked at a while back:

MOONBOT studios Office Tour from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Damn, there’s a nice place to work, don’t you think? And I’m sure they’ll do brilliant things and have patient backers with very deep pockets. But while it doesn’t bode well for a company to have both a vague business model and a GIANT LAMPSHADE!!!, there doesn’t seem to be a rush to very low budgets happening, especially when you have to compete with such high-profile money-burners as this. Cheap and small, in a global marketplace, will equal invisible. At least, that’s the current thinking.

So what does that leave us with? Well there is the quasi-blasphemous idea of trying to sell apps for a lot more money. Evidence for this comes from Faber’s Waste Land App, which sells for £9.99 and reportedly made its development costs back in six weeks. We should be slightly cautious here; much of the video content for this app came from an old BBC documentary and, given the links between Faber and the Elliot estate, you have to question how much of its research and development costs were hidden.  But even so, it’s still an impressive achievement and supports Faber & Faber’s argument that good stuff is worth the money.

Of course, in this era of 99p ebooks, there’s a lot of disagreement about pricing digital content and the Waste Land example does go against the prevailing tide. To give my own example, I wrote a book called I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary five years ago, and while it does not sell a massive amount, it sells enough to remain in print – a sturdy ol’ backlist title. The ebook was initially priced at £2.99, where it steadily sold a few copies.  Occasionally, however, it goes down to 99p, and the sales figures shoot up like crazy.  Then it goes back to £2.99 and remains steady and unspectacular again. For that reason, it’s just gone back down to 99p.

I’ve tried to work out why this is. As far as I can see, it’s a good book and a total bargain at £2.99.  How can price be that sensitive?  My best guess is this: It’s not how good the book is, it’s how much the book is needed. People do enjoy reading about the life of Timothy Leary, it’s quite a yarn, but they don’t really need to do so. They don’t think that it’s going to affect their Twenty First Century lives a huge amount.

But when a book offers something that people feel they need, then the price point stops being so important. Then they are prepared to pay a tenner for it. The Waste Land app, I would suggest, sells to academics and poetry lovers who feel that they need to understand the poem better, and that if it costs a tenner to do so then so be it.

So for those developing apps, the question isn’t “How can I make this cheaply enough to get my money back?” Instead, the key question should become, “What would make this app sell at a Waste Land price point?” Because all the signs are that the book apps that sell are going to have large budgets, and they will need to be recouped.

Writers, Animators and Morris Lessmore

One of the few certainties in life is that, when an animator is left alone to do their own thing, they will immediately set to work on a dialogue-free short about a lonely man in a room.

It’s not easy to say why this is. Animators have a reputation as solitary creatures, but the ones I know are social butterflies compared to writers and programmers. It may well be that animation is hard, so melancholic pathos seems more appealing when all that is needed is a second of stillness followed by a droop of the eyes.  Whatever the reason, a dialogue-free animation about loneliness can still be a perfectly valid thing.  The opening sections of Up and Wall-E are both variations on this theme, and for me they are my favourite part of those films.

Yet the fact remains that animators’ fondness for this form is noticeably greater than that of audiences. If in doubt, ask a commissiong editor how they react when they hear the phrase “animator’s passion project”.

Which brings us back to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. As I mentioned in this post here, this animated storybook is let down by a story which I believe I described as “hokey old arse”. It goes like this: Morris Lessmore is a young man who likes order.  Some vague unnamed event happens which turns his life upside down, so he finds solace in reading a book about Humpty Dumpty. He then moves into a library, spends his entire life with books, grows old and dies. The twist at the end is that he had been writing a book himself, about his life, which a little girl finds at the end.  All this is smothered in the message “books are magic” and “everyone is special”, but as each entry in Morris’ book presumably reads “sat alone and read books again today”, it’s possible that the whole thing is essentially sarcastic.

It’s not a story that seems aimed at picture book-age children. There is no antagonist, other than the process of ageing, and the main character is an entirely reactive protagonist that it is hard to care about. There are no jokes. The emotional core, a bitter-sweet meditation on ageing and death, is not something that five-year olds will relate to. The sections about caring and repairing books will reinforce, to a young mind, the idea that books are hard work. There is something to be said for stressing the value of books to that age group, but that is best done by exposing children to good stories rather than bad ones.

So, why was so much work put into bringing that particular story to fruition?  It’s entirely possible that developers Moonbot were being very clever, and that the target audience was never intended to be children. It’s possible that the book exists to make as big a splash for the studio as possible, and that the target audience was always animation lecturers, Apple early-adopters and excitable journalists.

Then again, they may have made the fatal mistake of showing the story to their 5 year old children, asking them what they think, and hence genuinely believe that it’s a story children love.  Children at this age always give the answer that adults want to hear, and it is to the childs great credit how accurately they can deduce what this is. (Rather awkwardly, the only real way you can tell whether a children’s story is a success is to wait thirty years and ask the now-grown reader if they remember it, then watch to see if their face lights up.)

But while Morris Lessmore claims to be a celebration of the magic of stories, it is a celebration of the magic of images. And that is no bad thing. It is an “animator’s narrative”, where a string of lovely, striking, memorable images are strung together and called a story. Look at the care and craftsmanship that has gone into the visual side of Morris Lessmore:

The Making Of Morris: Part 2 (Animation We Cherish) from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

Now – all this raises an interesting point about the current state of tablet books.

If you look at who is working in the medium of tablet books, then you’ll see that illustrators and animators are doing themselves proud.  Also present and correct are coders, digital developers and eager start-up businessmen. All these people have stepped up, experiemented and are trying new things.  What you won’t find are that many established writers. Indeed, looking at most of the tablet books I’ll be talking about over the next few weeks, the majority are adaptations of existing printed text.

Why is this? Writers are usually quick to sniff out a chance of an audience.  They have been quick to embrace Kindle self publishing and experiment with Twitter novels, but there is a noticeable lack of writers writing specifically for tablet books.  In part, this may be due to a lack of contacts or programming skills. Digital developers tend to work more closely with illustrators than writers.

But it may also be because writers do not yet see any potential in the format, or see how a tablet book could be a better narrative than a normal one. And if this is the case, then it could be a serious issue.

Because if tablet books are to prosper, they will need writers to take the lead.

Aside

Have a watch of this, it’s the most visually impressive tablet book at the moment: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by Moonbot Studios.

Amazing, wouldn’t you say?  Certainly there are no shortage of people reaching for the hyperboles.  Here’s Ben Machell in The Times:

“It is not inconceivable that, at some point in the future, a short children’s story called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore will be regarded as one of the most influential titles of the early 21st century.”

That’s quite some claim.

I’m going to have to start by mentioning the elephant in the room here.  As a story, and assuming that it’s a story aimed at children, this is a load of hokey old arse. I’m going to do a separate post later to talk more about that, as the problems here shed wider light on tablet books as a whole. I do recognise that the user review section on iTunes is full of gushing 5-star reviews and I’m not trying to be deliberately contrary, but the disconnect between audience and storyteller does need to be looked at.

So, that significant problem aside, what have we got? It’s a short story, one with 27 “pages” that takes about 15 minutes to go through, so a good length for a bedtime story.  Each page has a few lines of text, which by default are read aloud to you, and an animated picture that you can interact with to produce a surprising result.

What this is, essentially, is the ‘lift-the-flap book’ model of tablet books.  You read a page, and then look around the picture for something to ‘do’, and once that’s done you move on to the next page.  It’s a good model to work to; lift-the-flap books are always a hit with pre-schoolers, who like both the element of surprise as to what they will find, plus the element of control in that it was they who lifted the flap and caused the picture to change.  And here is a model that allows tablet books to be an improvement on physical books, as triggering an animation can be far more spectacular and page-changing that going from one image to the image hidden underneath.

So how does this work in practice?  There’s an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ feel to the interactive elements.  On most of the pages, you blindly stab about at parts of the image to see if they will do anything.  On some pages, the parts that will trigger an event glow briefly to highlight what to touch, but this isn’t consistent throughout. There are many times you find yourself accidentally turning to the previous or next page as you attempt to trigger actions in the part of the screen reserved for page turns.  Some items just need to be touched, others need specific swipe motions. Some images ‘reset’ after the triggered animation, others don’t. It doesn’t have that consistent logic that pleases preschoolers, especially boys. Having watch a number of people try it out, there is definitely a ‘stumbling blindly’ problem with the interaction.

Then there are triggerable events that are more like ‘mini games’ – a book opens to reveal a ripped picture that you must reassemble, a tune needs to be played on a piano, you can fly Morris around the page by tilting the pad and so on. There’s an admirable sense of trying everything out here, although by and large they do seem unconnected to the story – random diversions rather than necessary progressions.  The triggered animations are the same every time, incidentally.

The music, as you can hear in the clip above, it fantastic.  The voiceover made me cringe, although this may just be cultural, and it can be turned off.  (The issue of tablet books that read themselves to you will need to be a separate post, incidentally.  It is by-and-large the norm for children’s tablet books, but I wonder if it is has a negative impact on the experience.)  The app seems sensibly priced, at £2.99.

And it is beautiful.  The craft on display is unarguable (even if cruel-hearted animation folk like myself will take a certain pleasure in pointing out when it is less than perfect, such as when Morris’ arm glitches as he leaves the room of books – I know, I know.  We can’t help ourselves).  Visually there is a strong echo of 1930s Hollywood, of a romanticised, simpler world devoid of such modern horrors as iPads and tablet books. The visuals keep the ‘chuck everything in’ approach of the interactive stuff, and mix CG, models, and hand-drawn animation, but they all hang together very well.  The visual side is led by William Joyce, and it is a wonderful thing that artists of his calibre are working in this genre. It promises great things for the future.

The result is one of those ‘buy to show people’ apps, one which you use to show off your new iPad rather than read for pleasure. The Medium overwhelms the Message, but it does have the air of something new emerging, of something that will trouble the dreams of more conservative publishers.  In many ways The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is a triumph but, unfortunately, not in every aspect, and arguably not in the most important aspects.  Which I will talk about soon in a new post.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.