Stefan Nowak is the Co-Founder of SN2apps, an independent app developer and a Corona Ambassador. He’s been developing with Corona SDK for over three years and recently collaborated on a holiday book app, Angel’s Great Escape: A Christmas Story, with author Kirstie Rowson.
Angel’s Great Escape: A Christmas Story
The story was originally written by author, Kirstie Rowson, who is an events manager by day and is currently working on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. She founded And So We Begin to fulfill her desire to self-publish children’s stories, and soon realized that turning them into apps would allow her word to come to life.
Angel’s Great Escape: A Christmas Story is a classic holiday tale about a magical Angel and her friends, Fairy, Reindeer, Snowman and Teddy who have been abandoned by Mr. Mean and his son. The tale requires them to escape to the house of the Good family, where a bare Christmas tree awaits them.
Kirstie lined up a spectacular narrator – Alan Titchmarsh, a national treasure in the UK, and a TV gardener who has, over the years, branched out into TV and radio. His warm voice is ideally suited for this cosy story! Of course, beautiful pictures are essential for a children’s book app, so Kirstie turned to award-winning illustrator, Kristyna Litten, to bring images to her words. The icing on the cake was an original piano score, Leap of Faith, composed by Ginny Walker and played by Lisa Faye.
The last step was finding a developer to put these assets together! I was recommended to the agency, J & J, that Kirstie had appointed to manage the development, by someone I’d met at a Meetup event. Point to note – networking is not a waste of time! Fortunately, I was able to demonstrate my capabilities by showing them my other published titles, including The Lettermen book apps, as well as unpublished proof-of-concept and prototype work, all done with Corona SDK.
Using the code framework I had developed for The Lettermen apps, I was able to take the page images and create an initial page turning prototype in a matter of hours. The original Photoshop files had each layer exported so that I had individual files for the backgrounds as well as each individual character, some with different poses for simple animation. There was not going to be the time, or budget, to do anything too sophisticated but I wanted to show that some of the key interactions were possible early on. Just a few simple transitions and image switching were enough to convince Kirstie that her vision could be realised, and the deciding factor was the creation of falling snow, courtesy of Particle Candy! The challenge now was to create appropriate interactions for each page, the highlight of which was to be a snowball fight between the mean cat and the decorations.
The hardest initial task was handling multiple, and a variable number of, paragraphs of text for each page. My default swiping gesture for page turns had to be replaced by arrows as it conflicted with some of the interactions, like dragging and dropping characters. My existing code design used a single data-driven Lua file for the pages, managed by tweaked version of Director. In the end I adopted a separate Lua file for each page as this was easier for handling the interaction objects, with the Director clean function clearing up the assorted timers and event listeners so as to keep memory usage under control.
We were soon able to get an early version into the hands of some testers with young children, including my own 3-year old granddaughter (yes I am that old!) which highlighted a few issues. Having the left and right arrows for navigation, rather than swipe gestures, to change pages caused some problems as arrows can be pressed in rapid succession or even at the same time! So some time-outs were added to prevent over-enthusiastic screen-tapping which crashed the app during page transitions. This is always a tricky thing to manage with Director. We also needed bigger snowballs for little fingers to flick them in the snowball fight!
We wanted to publish cross-platform, particularly as the new Kindle Fire HD and NOOK HD/HD+ tablets that were imminently launching in the UK. I was able to test on my Google Nexus 7 and HTC Flyer tablets, plus a US NOOK Color, and the Barnes & Noble UK rep, Colin Campbell, was able to confirm compatibility on his prototype Nook HD. Some of our testers had Galaxy S III phones but we had to hope the Corona build for the Kindle would pass Amazon’s testing, which it did. So within a couple of weeks we were in all of the app stores for all devices, thanks to Corona SDK!
One final technical point – from the outset we used standard size and retina graphics, at iPad resolution, using Corona’s dynamic image swapping and screen scaling (zoomStretch setting) to fit the different device resolutions and aspect ratios. Not ideal, as the wide-screen Android devices and the iPhone 5 give a squashed but acceptable appearance. What was more problematic was the file size – in excess of 170Mb! Knowing that this would be a problem submitting to the Android stores, where there is a 50Mb limit, I did a build without the retina images and got the file size down to 34Mb. Interestingly we couldn’t really see the difference on an iPad3. That may be down to my poor eyesight but perhaps more due to the style of the illustrations. In any case, we decided to omit the retina images.
Marketing, Monetization, Price, and Holiday Seasons – A Strategy?
Children’s books are a popular, and relatively successful, niche for app development. Nevertheless, one frustration is that people happily spend loads of money for a printed book but expect the app equivalent to be 79p/99c or even free, despite the added-value content like audio narrative and interactivity. Simple page-turning, however beautiful the illustrations, doesn’t cut it any more (although you can get away with fewer features and a higher price for iBooks, but that’s another story…).
More and more apps are adopting the ‘freemium’ model but neither this, nor in-app advertising, are not considered appropriate for content aimed at children. There are some apps that allow in-app purchasing but this requires careful design to ensure that it’s only available under parental control. With the relatively short dev timescale, and limited budget, we had to go for a straightforward revenue model – users buy the app but it’s not as cheap as others on the market. The decision taken by And So We Begin was to position the product somewhere between the premium players, UK publisher and developer Nosy Crow being a role-model, and the budget offerings. The selling price (tier 3 in Apple parlance) reflects this, although there was a Cyber Monday sale price (tier 1) which surprisingly didn’t really make much difference in sales numbers.
Producing a title specifically for a holiday season obviously means getting it into the market in time, as it may only have a sales window of six weeks or so. However, if sales justify it, we can make updates for next Christmas and add new features. Otherwise the marketing strategy is pretty much the same as any other app – lots of Twitter and Facebook activity, press releases, reviews and finger-crossing!
Merry Christmas – ho ho ho! Or for those of a less jolly disposition for the festive season – ‘bah humbug’ as Scrooge would say!