In Conversation: Eric Huang

Libby O’Loghlin talks to Eric Huang, Development Director at Made In Me, about interactive narratives, gamification and collaboration.

Based in London, Made in Me specialise in children’s entertainment and brand development. Their work includes BAFTA-nominated app Sneak and The Land of Me, an original series of apps for pre-schoolers, plus Me Books, a digital publishing platform which lets children personalise digital editions of well-known children’s books.

Eric Huang

Eric Huang

You’ve been dubbed ‘Interactive Publishing Pioneer’—tell us a bit about how you got into the interactive side of publishing.

I’ve spent most of my publishing career in licensing publishing. The ‘authors’ my teams have worked with are media companies like Disney, DreamWorks, Activision. And because we worked so closely with media companies that embraced digital storytelling, we had to leap in—and were aware of the opportunities earlier than many of our trade publishing colleagues. At Penguin UK it started with our relationship with BBC Worldwide and Lucasfilm when we published choose your own adventure-style books which had choices that took the story onto the web for a game and some animation, then sent the reader back to the book.

After that, we collaborated with Made in Me—the kids media start-up where I now work—to create The Land of Me, a web based interactive storytelling brand. It was a critical success and nominated for a BAFTA! Soon after launch, however, the iPad was announced, and we turned to apps. At Penguin UK we worked with eOne and Mind Candy to create apps behind Peppa Pig and Moshi Monsters—and never looked back!

I got into the interactive side of publishing through a series of happy accidents, I guess!

Sneak, courtesy Made In Me

Sneak, courtesy Made In Me

In terms of reader engagement, what would you say is the most challenging thing about working in the children’s market? How does it differ from an adult market?

I think we understand adults and adult behaviour: the way they read books, watch TV, play games. Kids, on the other hand, have a different relationship with media, especially given touch screens, downloads, on-demand services—so much more. We now have clues to the behaviour of preschoolers—but who knows how teens who’ve grown up since iPad will behave and want to engage with stories! And once these kids become adults, it’ll be all-change again.

Working in Kids is about a lot of trial and error. The cliché of failing fast is still true!

As the possibilities for digital augmentation and gamification of texts have grown, the at times uneasy relationship between gamers and story-writers has been amplified—specifically around the value of the user experience (or player agency in ‘the game’) versus the value of the story. How do you walk the line? Are there any rules?

Book apps with loads of game-like interactivity become a sort of middle ground where the reading experience isn’t fantastic, and neither is the gaming experience. A trap that we’ve all fallen into is trying to pack too much into an app or digital title.

Just because the technology allows for a function doesn’t mean you should add it to your app.

An example of this is Me Books. When Made in Me and Penguin first launched this picture book app format, a fair few people weren’t sure about it because it’s so simple. The interactivity is limited to audio narration and patented ‘hot spots’ that allow readers to record their own readings and commentary on the art and text. But it’s this simplicity, I think, that has made the app so successful. Since December 2012, there have been over 850K books downloaded within the app.

Games ought to be games without the need to read passages. And apps that are meant to be books ought to be books without breaks that force the reader to interrupt the reading experience with videos, etc.

Reading on the web and in blogs, digital periodicals is a different thing altogether …

At a presentation you gave at XMediaLab in Switzerland this past September, you specifically mentioned the power of collaboration. Is collaborative work a sign of our times? And do you think you could do the kind of work you do now without it?

Collaboration has been critical to everything. Book publishers have always done deals that are partnerships between a publishing house and an agent, author, illustrator, licensor. These days, for broader storytelling businesses, the collaborations have crossed media sectors. At Made in Me, it’s the digital development and brand development that we’re expert at. When a storytelling brand becomes a book or a TV programme, we rely on partners in those sectors to help and teach us!

Some companies want to bring all of this expertise in-house. We’re happy to have partners so we can focus on what we do best.

What qualities do you think make a children’s book a classic—that stands the test of time?

Sometimes I feel that you can’t create a big brand; there’s no secret formula. You can only prevent a brand from becoming big if you’re not poised to do all the right things at the right times—and not only spot but seize every opportunity.

Classic brands—especially kids’ book brands—do have some things in common. All are simple.

You can sum them up in one line and get it.

All have a timeless art style and timeless themes. And I think there’s a big difference between classic brands and nostalgia brands. Nostalgia relies on stories and characters that remind readers of something that used to be popular from years ago, whereas classic brands have never stopped being popular and have never had to have a come-back or relaunch because they’re forever with us.

For writers who are considering crossing the narrative media boundaries with their story worlds, what practical advice would you give?

The story must come first. Some stories feel and look like books, some feel like TV shows. Get the stories and characters right before focusing on formats.

Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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