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

8/23/12Follow @wroush

As any game designer will tell you, games with fundamentally new mechanics don’t come along very often. After all, there are only so many plausible ways to move a ball down a field, gamble with a 52-card deck, relabel the properties on a Monopoly board, or knock over a tower with avian missiles. So a lot of the creativity in game development comes down to recombining older elements.

And that’s what Nukotoys has done this week, in a spectacular way.

With two kids’ titles that debuted on Tuesday—Monsterology and Animal Planet Wildlands—San Francisco-based Nukotoys has married 3D video game action on the iPad with old-fashioned trading cards reminiscent of Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering.

The games are bound to get kids even more interested in these two big brands; Animal Planet is one of the most trusted TV networks among parents, and the Ology titles—Dragonology, Egyptology, Wizardology, etc.—are perpetual children’s bestsellers. But here’s the diabolically clever part: kids can transfer animals or monsters on the Nukotoys cards directly into the games by physically pressing the cards to the iPad’s screen. To keep the game worlds growing, kids (i.e. their parents) have to buy more cards.

It’s the first time a company has engineered such a literal crossover between old-fashioned physical toys and the digital world of the iPad. “The core idea of the company is combining the real world and virtual play,” says Nukotoys’ co-CEO Rodger Raderman. With the cards, kids are “able to take to these devices enormously quickly, which has never been possible at the ages we are talking about because there has always been a keyboard in the way.”

Monsters battle for control of a snow world inside Nukotoys' Monsterology title

The whole setup is possible thanks to a special ink with capacitive properties, meaning it conducts a charge (the same way your finger would) when it comes in contact with the iPad’s touchscreen. Each “Nuko card” bears an invisible code printed using this ink. The company’s apps, which are free, are programmed to monitor the touchscreen for these unique patterns, and then activate the corresponding creatures inside the games.

The Monsterology cards show mythical creatures like chimeras and cockatrices, while the Animal Planet cards show actual species, with an emphasis on African megafauna. Kids can also access the critters by buying virtual cards, but that just isn’t as fun. Also, Raderman says the creatures on the physical cards have extra abilities.

The two apps went live in the iTunes App Store at the beginning of this week, and on Tuesday Nukotoy’s card packs made their debut at Apple stores, Toys R Us, Walmart, and Target. Apple stores are selling premium boxes containing 28 cards for $19.99. The other retailers are offering smaller, foil-wrapped packages—$1.99 for a three-pack and $3.99 for a seven-pack.

I met with Raderman a couple of weeks ago to get the whole scoop on the products’ launch. The games have been in the works almost as long as a major feature film, which somehow feels appropriate given that Nukotoys’ first, aborted project was a movie tie-in—and that the Nukotoys building in San Francisco’s North Beach is across the street from the headquarters of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studio.

Raderman is what you might call a serial new-media entrepreneur. His first startup, back in 1997, was iFilm, a website that hosted short, independent films. MTV eventually bought the property for $49 million. He went on to co-found Obscura Digital, which is still in business, building advanced visual displays such as projection systems that can 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 more than year of work creating the games and the collectible card sets.

There are 60 cards in the Animal Planet series and 100 in the Monsterology series. To encourage kids to keep buying card packs, Nukotoys makes sure some cards are rare; the more endangered the animal or the more powerful the monster, the fewer of their cards are in circulation.

The games themselves, which are built on the Unity 3D engine, are aimed at kids who are old enough to read but young enough to be interested in cheetahs, giraffes, and dragons. (Which could be pretty old. I’m just sayin’.) In the Monsterology game, players work their way through 10 levels by pitting the monsters from their cards against other monsters in the game; ultimately they must take on Vidious Mulderbane, an evil wizard who is trying to take control of the Oloverse, the world in which all of the Ology books are set. In Animal Planet Wildlands, which is aimed at a slightly younger crowd, things are a little tamer—the game is mainly about building collections of animals and letting them race around the savanna.

The Monsterology 3-card pack

Both games have an educational component, but it’s not front and center. “There is an interesting infographic about what parents would say to game developers,” says Raderman. “In the middle is ‘Be educational,’ but even bigger than that is ‘Be fun.’ We are aiming for fun first, but in Animal Planet kids are learning about animals and in Monsterology they are learning about mythology. Plus, there is this magical moment of tapping a Nuko card and bringing it to life in the game, in a way that hasn’t been seen before.”

Penman and Raderman share the CEO role at the 10-employee startup, which has plans to sell more types of virtual items within the games, introduce Pokemon-style tabletop games based on the cards, and even tweak the behavior of the existing games over time.

“We are interested in creating a new type of toy that really takes advantage of this fantastic platform and can evolve over time and become more interesting as the child uses it,” Raderman says. “You have a physical product that is the key to some action or content, but what that content is can change depending on how long they’ve been playing or who their friends are. It can constantly be upgraded according to feedback we’re getting from parents or kids or bloggers. If I tap a Cyclops on Monday it might do something completely different by Wednesday.”

So in the Nukotoys world, at least, there’s more to a Cyclops than meets the eye.

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

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