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TabTale’s CEO: The Magic Formula for Kids’ Mobile Games

Children under age 13 spend an average of two hours a day playing mobile games. We talk with TabTale's CEO Sagi Schliesser about how to engage and interact with this young audience.

Pepe Agell, Blogger

June 5, 2015

11 Min Read

This post originally appeared on Playbook, Chartboost's blog dedicated to the business of mobile gaming. 

For mobile game developers, the kids gaming market is full of promise. Children under age 13 spend an average of two hours a day playing mobile games, and they (read: their parents) are the second highest spenders when it comes to buying games and making in-app purchases.

But creating mobile games for the tween-and-under set also comes with some unique challenges: indie studios face stiff competition from huge corporate names like Disney, purchasing decisions are made by parents, and content for kids is subject to much stricter regulations than other categories.

CEO Sagi Schliesser and his team at TabTale, an Israeli publisher that creates interactive books, games and educational apps for kids, have cracked the code — combining their technical aptitude and deep knowledge of education and children’s psychology to become a global leader in the kids gaming market. (They’ve also developed a proprietary platform that allows developers to quickly build high-quality, kid-friendly content.)

In his chat with Chartboost Head of International Pepe Agell, below, Schliesser shares some strategic tips for developers eyeing this tricky market.

Pepe: Your team has a very well-rounded technical background — do you think that’s a prerequisite for indie developers trying to build a game for kids? Or is it possible to just jump into the app store and provide good content?

Sagi: I think it comes down to having some technical expertise — either in kids psychology or coding or creative game design. My partner, for example, has a background in engineering and education. My wife and I both have experience with children’s psychology, and I was the CTO of an enterprise software company. You need to bring all these elements to succeed in the long term. But if you’re willing to live with a one-hit wonder, you might get lucky with just a few of these elements.

Pepe: TabTale has evolved so much over the years. How has your vision for the company changed with time?

Sagi: We started out with interactive books, but they weren’t a huge economic success. We got a lot of downloads, but not much revenue. We felt good about creating content for kids to read with their parents and school teachers, but it wasn’t going to support the business.

So we moved onto educational games, and then casual games. We knew that kids are driving the downloads mostly, not the parents. The parents are approving purchases, but if the game doesn’t appeal to kids, it won’t matter. So we’re always trying to find that magic combination of creating appealing content for children that also has value for the parents.

Pepe: What should game developers keep in mind when building mobile games for kids?

Sagi: There are two distinct categories in the kids market. The first one is aimed at kids between ages 1.5 to 4, so they’re very young. In this case, the parents are the decision makers, and we’re competing for their attention with very high quality brands like Disney, Toca Boca and Sago Sago. For this group, you need to come out with very clean, very high-quality content. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but whatever content you do put out there, it has to be really good, because parents are looking very carefully at what’s out there.

When you advance into the next group, between 4 and 8 years old, the content is mainly dictated by what kids want to see and download. These kids are more independent, and they like to experiment. They’re less dependent on their parents to download, but they still need them to pay for apps. For this group, the strategy is more about getting above all the noise. There are tons of companies playing in this category, so you have to be more innovative and provocative to drive downloads. If you’re not creating something interesting, you’re not going to get the download.

Pepe: How do you innovate for kids in such a crowded market?

Sagi: We’re looking at what kids are playing in their physical lives and then make virtual manifestations of this. So if they’re playing doctor and patient, having tea parties or building model airplanes, we try and give it some virtual manifestation. Some are more successful, some less. One thing to keep in mind: The more niche you get with these activities, the fewer downloads you’ll get.

Pepe: How do regulations for children’s apps come into play when you’re developing games? Can you share any best practices for developers?

Sagi: In the U.S., we’re working with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which dictates what children under the age of 13 can do or see online.

I think the best thing to do is get good legal advice about what you’re allowed to show and what you’re not. My rule of thumb is “better safe than sorry.” If you have a doubt about some of your content, just don’t do it. Whenever we’ve been doubtful that our content might violate regulations, we’ve just stayed away from it. We don’t want to expose kids to anything that can harm them.

One thing that we’re doing that doesn’t relate to any specific regulation is that we’re only offering non-consumable in-app purchases for kids’ games aimed at 2 to 13 year olds. We don’t believe that kids can make sound decisions about buying and spending consumable items like coins, for example, so we only have non-consumable products, like new levels, which won’t expire or decrease with use.

Pepe: What are the best ways to monetize kids’ games? Are we always talking about free samples with extra premium content? Or is it a combination of free-to-play with advertising?

Sagi: It comes down to the two age groups again. For the toddlers, the parents are making the decisions, so the paid model works quite nicely. We try to advertise as little as possible, or only show ads for that target audience, nothing generic.

For the older group, the paid model is very tricky. If you want to make money here, it will mostly be through in-app purchases and advertising. Again, most of the ads here tend to be for other games — it can’t be a generic ad for a new car or something.

Pepe: What are some other monetization models that you’re exploring?

Sagi: We’re looking closely at a subscription model. We have a huge portfolio of 500 games, and we release at least six kids’ games each month, so we think that would be really valuable to parents and kids. We’re trying to work with app stores to find a good way to meet the demand of being a good subscription partner for them.

Pepe: Where do you want to see the mobile games industry in the next five years?

Sagi: I think the industry is going through a lot of turbulence. At TabTale, we want to be situated not only in the kids’ game market, but we also want to be a global player with casual games and see success with kids in older age groups, too.

I also think augmented reality will become more prominent, but I think what will happen first is that console games will be moving toward the mobile market, especially with RPG games.

Another trend is all about making mobile games attractive to women, since they’re a really active audience. At TabTale, we’re looking at investing in great, sophisticated games that address women gamers’ needs. This is where we want to see the app store go, with a lot more women’s games like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. We want to play a significant role for that audience.

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