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

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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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