Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The future of book apps

I went back to work today and sitting waiting for me in my pigeon hole was my copy of Computer Arts.  I didn't have time to look through it as I had enrolments to do, the induction timetable to compile, the Diploma Student Handbook to write (as there are so many changes to the course and the team has changed and I am now the course leader, so I had to do a complete re-hash), I also wrote the Semester A HE module handbooks because my colleague needed to send them to UEL and to the external examiner this week.  Oh and I interviewed two students and started to set up the template for the tracking sheets as the course leader who has just left did not do them at all for last year...  All in all a busy day, as ever - but I did pop in the Computer Arts dvd when I got home because there were some animated shorts showcased on the disc; but also there was a 'design documentary' about studio life at a studio called ustwo.  The company are digital user interface designers, so I thought it would be beneficial to watch the short film.  

ustwo have made a range of nursery rhyme apps, that has got them noticed by the book publishing industry.  As profiled in the Apps blog, the studio hosted (along with the Literary Platform); a roundtable of book publishers in mid July of this year to discuss the opportunities and challenges offered by book apps.  

Stuart Dredge (guardian.co.uk) highlighted the significant themes that emerged from the discussions:
– Book-apps aren't just being made by traditional book publishers: independent app developers are also piling into the space, albeit often working with out-of-copyright content like nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Meanwhile entertainment brands like Disney - who have been involved in the books business before through licensing deals - are now publishing their own book-apps directly.
– Publishers are at an experimental stage with apps: they are trying different formats and content, but in many cases they still have to commission apps with a firm eye on delivering a return on investment.
– There is still a lot of "paranoia and secrecy" around sales figures for book-apps, not least because they're perhaps not doing as well as has been supposed. "Nobody wants to admit it's really not making as much money as we'd like..." ustwo's decision to go public with the fact that its chart-topping Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime was only earning £2,000 a day when it was the Top Grossing Book on the App Store was a welcome break from the secrecy – even if the figure was a bit dispiriting.
-  Three reasons why publishers aren't more involved in apps than they are, according to one attendee: "It's already a risk-based business – we are spending a lot of money on things that quite often fail. Second, margins are very small – publisher profit margins are much smaller than the development industry. Third: culturally books is still a quite old-fashioned industry..."
This highlights to me that although the publishing industry may be classed as an old fashioned industry - I think it is definitely on the brink of spreading its wings and utilising digital narrative in more depth.  This does not mean the end of books... that would be awful, the book is a beautiful thing, my house if full of them - but it does mean that digital hybrids should and will become more mainstream too.  Although we are surrounded by digital interactivity in all aspects of our lives, it seems we are a little slow to incoporate and participate with digital narrative.  This initally may seem strange, but when you ponder on how deeply embedded the written word is within our psyche, it is understandable that it will take longer to move away from it.  I am a believer that there is room for all and we should have no need to discard the book, but we can already see that less youngsters are inclined to read a book - even in education the younger generation often learn more effectively from interactive/digital environments - this will seep into their adult lives and they will demand more interactive and simple visual entertainment in their lives.  

On the subject of the 'dispiriting' revenue of £2,000 a day for the nursery rhyme apps - I think this would be a pretty good amount for an individual or smaller studio, so it really would depend on the recipients circumstance - for some this would be an excellent revenue.

ustwo are currently working on a new app called Whale Trail.  Within the short film on the Computer Arts disc, they discuss how they are making Whale Trail simple and easy to use and incorporating one touch game play.  Their aim is to make it non taxing, simplistic and something the user can dip in and out of, just for fun.

Screenshot of the character development for Whale Trail

I was really pleased to hear that this innovative studio are going down this route as this was exactly the market I am aiming at - simple, easy to use, to interact with for the fun of it - not complex or taxing.  I was wondering if I was taking the right route at one point and I experimented with a range of scripts to try to make more complex interactivity within my 'visual journey', but, as I got tangled up in trying to make the script work and it began eating into my time; I stepped back and took myself back to my original plan to keep things simple and of course you have doubts as to whether you are doing the right thing - but this has given me more confidence in sticking to the simplicity!

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