The Israeli start-up that beat Disney at its own games

When it comes to App Store downloads, Mickey Mouse and The Little Mermaid have nothing on the TabTale crew

The TabTale family of characters (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The TabTale family of characters (Photo credit: Courtesy)

In the cartoon business, Disney is hard to beat. The California-based creator of so many of the cartoon characters that are deeply embedded in popular culture, from Mickey Mouse to Cinderella, more or less owns the kids’ cartoon space. Challengers find their popularity short-lived; sooner or later, the kids return to Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and the dozens of other characters that have become synonymous with childhood entertainment.

Unless those challengers are the ones created by Israeli start-up TabTale. And while it’s hard to believe that characters like Dog Walker, My Emma, Cave Girl, and others from the TabTale drawing board could be more popular than the likes of Ariel the Mermaid and Simba the Lion King, TabTale creative director Dori Adar has the download numbers – from the App Store and Google Play Android store – to prove it, with over 600 million downloads for its 350 games since 2010. In 2014 alone TabTale had over 300 million downloads – nearly twice that of Disney’s electronic gaming app division.

“We are able to go head to head with Disney, and we have been consistently beating them in downloads,” said Adar. “We have a lot of loyal users, and even though the star power of the Disney characters is very big, we get a lot of repeat customers for our games who download new ones as we release them because of their experience playing our games.”

Most of TabTale’s characters are original, developed by the company for its games, although the company does license some characters, added Adar.

Five years old and now with operations in seven countries, including Serbia, Macedona, Ukraine, and China, TabTale employs 230 workers, most of them at its headquarters in Tel Aviv. Originally, TabTale was a producer of educational apps and digital books, but quickly moved on to fun games, many with an educational message, said Adar. “Writing games for kids requires a balance between many things, including making a game challenging but not too challenging, and to develop a game with a theme kids will like, but that parents won’t want to avoid.”

To do that, TabTale employs a slew of experts, from programmers to user interface experts to psychologists, who determine the appropriateness of the technology, usability, and playability and ethics of the games.

“We also make sure our games are compliant with COPPA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule to ensure that we do not share any identifying data,” said Adar.

Dori Adar (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dori Adar (Photo credit: Courtesy)

With that, the company does collect plenty of anonymous data, and uses it to determine what games are popular with which groups of kids, and why. One thing the company has learned is that kids are much more interested in their own lives than in fairy tales.

“You might think they would go for fantasy or for monsters, but we found that kids preferred real-life, daily experiences, so we take these situations and gamify them. One good example is Dog Walker, an app whose description reads ‘Looking for an early morning dog walker? Meet Alex the dog walker! Join her as she walks the neighborhood dogs and runs into some unexpected trouble! From injured puppies to lost dogs (oh no!), it’s sure to be a crazy morning adventure! Treat Fluffy the enthusiastic pup, care for Tyson the clumsy dog, style Henry the hairy puppy and so much more!’ Like other TabTale games, Dog Walker is free, with in-app purchases which furnish much of the company’s estimated $20 million in annual revenues.

Seeking to capitalize on its current success while the market is amenable, TabTale has been expanding both its reach and customer base. To do the latter, the company recently set up a division for games for older kids (tweens and teens) called Crazy Games. In January, Crazy Games’ Linebound game set a record in the App Store – or rather, in 120 App Stores around the world, where it was the number one download on its first day of availability.

The app was downloaded over a million times in its first 72 hours on those 120 App Stores, but Adar isn’t sure the company will have as easy a time with older kids as it has had with younger ones. “The older kids require more of a challenge and more dramatic and controversial themes,” said Adar. “We are still looking for our voice, but we think we will do well with tweens.”

Besides trying to appeal to older kids, TabTale is also seeking to expand its markets – acquiring over the past year Level Bit, a Serbian computer and mobile game development studio, as well as Coco Play Limited, an Asian gaming heavyweight with over 250 games, interactive books, and educational apps, and hundreds of millions of downloads.

Now with a foothold in Eastern Europe and East Asia, as well as with its efforts to break out of elementary school age games, TabTale has begun cross-pollinating its game library, said Adar, bringing games from each of its libraries to other countries in order to appeal to as many kids as possible. “For example, we’ve been localizing some of our games and apps for China, and it has been a challenge, because of the language and the culture.” On the other hand, he adds, many of his Chinese customers are fine with games in English since it gives their kids an opportunity to build up valuable language skills.

In any event, said Adar, TabTale plans to be around, as an Israeli company, for many years to come, said Adar. “It’s a great business, and a lot of fun. Gaming has become a worldwide movement, and we’re proud to be an important part of it.”

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