Inside Nukotoys’ Project to Build a Monster iPad Hit for Kids

8/23/12Follow @wroush

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show movies inside domes or on the sides of landmark buildings like the Sydney opera house. (Obscura’s Dogpatch headquarters in San Francisco was just named by Inc. magazine as the “world’s coolest office.”)

After getting Obscura off the ground, Raderman co-founded Veeker, a video sharing startup that helped people share video clips across their browsers, phones, and Facebook accounts. That idea sounds like a no-brainer today, but the startup’s mistake was launching in 2005, two years before the iPhone appeared. Raderman calls Veeker’s failure “an education in timing. You don’t want to be so far ahead of the curve that you have to count on a change in people’s behavior in order for your business to succeed.”

Around the same time that he was starting Veeker, Raderman began writing children’s stories. At first they were just for his young daughter, who’s now 10 years old, but eventually, Raderman says, he started paying more attention to how children’s literature overlaps with television shows and merchandise—think Sponge Bob, Dora the Explorer, or Thomas the Tank Engine. “I became really interested in the power that these kids’ franchises have, and the role they take in kids’ lives,” Raderman says. “I thought it would be a really interesting challenge to create one of these franchises.”

In Animal Planet Wildlands, players can tap multiple times to create herds of animals.

That was when Raderman met Doug Penman, the co-founder of a children’s entertainment company called Catapult, which had helped turn a New Zealand TV show called The WotWots into a line of Hasbro toys. Raderman and Penman created Nukotoys and threw in their lot with a team of Hollywood writers and producers who were working on a concept for a big-budget film about cryptids—legendary creatures not generally accepted as real by the scientific community, such as werewolves, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness Monster.

With some funding from the movie production company, Raderman and Penman started working on a PC game based on the film world that would merge physical and virtual play. “We built a beautiful 3D world, and the idea was to take it to studios and sell the movie and the game as a package,” Raderman says. “We created an electronic controller that would let you wirelessly move your avatar in the world, and we had RFID cards that you would scan over the controller and objects would drop into the game, like a grappling gun. It was a magical effect.”

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the controller alone would cost $200. For that kind of money, “people were going to buy an iPod touch or a Nintendo DS,” Raderman says. The company was still fiddling around with a game that used smaller, cheaper RFID readers when the iPad hit the market in 2010.

It was obvious right away that Apple’s tablet was great for kids. “It’s a pure human-computer interface; touch and it responds, which is how kids learn,” Raderman says. “So we redirected our efforts to develop mobile games as apps for kids that interacted with these real-life trading cards, using a technology we discovered that enables you to simply tap the card to the screen to bring whatever is on the card to life inside the app.”

But the cryptids movie never got greenlighted, which left Nukotoys without a story to enact on its platform. The company could have come up with its own characters and game worlds, but that’s a forbidding prospect, Raderman says. “A lot of social and mobile gaming will start with original IP,” he says. “But to get shelf space at Toys R Us, you basically need a recognizable brand. So we went looking for licenses that would let us best express this new kind of play pattern, of physical and digital together.”

That led to deals with U.K.-based Templar Publishing, owner of the Ology series, and Discovery Communications, which owns Animal Planet. And the deals led, in turn, to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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