The Content Kingdom

Last week, Josh Selig (Wonder Pets!) wrote an interesting Kidscreen article about how all content, specifically video, is finally kingless and created equal. With the ever-growing number of websites, videos apps and subscription VOD services, the sheer amount of video is dizzying. As a result, we’ve been talking a lot about the future of content and what it means for consumers and kids. I decided to use Josh’s parable as a jumping-off point and pen my own ending.


…Content was just content. And the people rejoiced.


Ultimately, everyone abandoned the castle and the kingdom was fractured. The former kings devised plans to retain land they once controlled while new nobles emerged. Lord YouTube promised the people an audience, notoriety and riches. The commoners wanted their voices heard so they rolled up their sleeves and crafted billions of videos at no cost, all while the former kings churned out hours and hours of original programing in distant lands. Content poured out from big castles, remote villages, young settlements. And not just video – apps, games, books, and toys. What a glorious time it was!

The people fully embraced it. They dedicated their waking hours to binge watching seasons of the latest “it” show and countless videos of kittens attacking laser pointers. It was exciting! On the surface, everything seemed merry but slowly content became unruly – it was everywhere and it was pervasive. It infiltrated Lord Hemorrhoid’s bathroom. It interrupted Sir Flapjack’s pancake dinner. It even made its way into Lady Heartstomper’s bed (which many handsome noblemen failed to access). It became impossible for people to stop and enjoy a rainbow because the double rainbow on their screens were more alluring. Somehow the once relaxing content became noisy, pesky, and in-your-face. And while the people could watch the content they wanted whenever they wanted to, they had to pay the various kingdoms for monthly access. And if the people weren’t willing to pay for it, they were forced to watch an annoying jester sing a jingle about laundry detergent. Over and over again.

The people grew dizzy and numb to the dozens of services, hundreds of ads, thousands of shows, millions of episodes, billions of videos. Despite the infinite content pool that existed, the divided kingdom continued to churn out more and more at lower costs to keep up with the demand. As a result, quality suffered and ads became an inevitable symptom of cheap, homogeneous and ubiquitous content. And while content was just content, it became an unstoppable force, far greater than the entire kingdom itself.

And the people just watched.

The Legend of Zelda Guide to Startups

Each spring, I visit art schools in the northeast and present about CloudKid, our work, and my career path from art school student to entrepreneur. After I finish my spiel, students and professors always ask, “How did you learn how to start and run a business?” I always give the same answer, “It’s kind of like playing the Legend of Zelda.” People laugh but I’m 100% serious. There are valuable business lessons that students, artists, and young entrepreneurs can learn from Link, the pointy-eared hero. Without further ado, I present The Legend of Zelda Guide to Startups.

1) Talk with the Old Man (or Woman)


When Link is lost or needs some direction, he seeks out townspeople or merchants who provide valuable information and help him make sense of the world. Sometimes, they even point him toward someone or something to support his mission. Link talks with the Old Man in the cave who tells him to visit a merchant under a waterfall. Then he treks all the way across Hyrule to get the next piece of helpful (and sometimes crucial) information. In the early days, I talked with people who knew more about everything than I did—budgeting, accounting, hiring, renting space, insurance, contracts, producing projects, etc. I asked family, friends, friends of friends, ex-colleagues, and sometimes strangers…It also helps that my twin brother works in VC. This expert info was invaluable because it helped me understand things outside of my comfort zone and spared me from wandering aimlessly in uncharted territories.

2) Add to Your Arsenal


Link is only as strong as as the tools he has to work with. Early on, he is given the Wooden Sword and that transforms him from a boy into a warrior. Throughout his adventure, Link acquires tools and skills such as the Bow, Stepladder, Raft, Magical Key,Silver Arrow, and Book of Magic—they enable him to navigate more freely, see in the dark, kill bigger enemies, take more damage, etc. These items are a company’s employees. It was impossible for me to have every skill needed to start a business and produce projects so the first thing I did was expand my “tools” by finding a tech co-founder, hiring an animation director, and working with people who had different and more specialized skills than I did. Even a few years in we’re still expanding our arsenal—just last week we hired a HR Specialist. By upgrading the team with new expertise, it enables CloudKid to be more efficient, adaptable and intelligent. Most importantly, we can fight bigger enemies.

3) Keep your Eye on the Triforce


Link travels around Hyrule battling enemies, solving puzzles, exploring dungeons, and defeating guardian monsters, but his mission revolves around one thing—saving Princess Zelda. In order to do that, he must complete the Triforce of Wisdom by collecting all eight pieces to be powerful enough to defeat Ganon. Princess Zelda is a company’s vision while each dungeon/guardian monster that you defeat and piece of Triforce earned is a launched product, a new feature, or a completed client project. Early on, projects such as Fizzy’s Lunch Lab and Negative Nimbus were little victories that fit into our longterm vision of building transmedia brands, but we haven’t been totally immune to distractions. Internal projects such as Emogo and 3D-Play didn’t quite reinforce our mission and goals (although they were inspiring and creatively fulfilling). Luckily, we were able to refocus our sights on a new piece of Triforce and the next guardian monster that we needed slay.

4) It’s All About the Rupees Baby


Throughout his adventure, Link needs items such as arrows, bombs, potions, and food for survival, but he also needs Rupees to purchase them. While Rupees are abundant throughout Hyrule, it takes hard work to earn them—Link must put his own butt on the line and slay lots of baddies! If Link has ample Rupees, he can stock up on items that will come in handy during long dungeon missions, but if he doesn’t, his inventory will be depleted and survival will not be easy. While it is possible to prevail without money, having it undoubtedly provides an advantage. By having cash to invest in everything from product features to employees to computers/software to office space to insurance, companies are able to attain their goals more efficiently. We are fortunate to have loyal clients who have enabled us to build a studio and awesome team, but it comes at a cost. At our size we need a constant flow of projects (and cash) to keep the lights on and people employed. Sometimes this endeavor becomes all-consuming. One must be careful because the pursuit of cash can take your eye off the mission, but without it, the road will always be more difficult.

5) Don’t Let Enemies Kill You


Hyrule is a dangerous place, so it’s only natural that Link runs into nasty critters who slow him down. These obstacles are everywhere and Link must face them head on in order to survive, but it’s also inevitable that he goes unscathed. From simple nuances such as the Red Octorok to the downright pesky Wizzrobe, it’s important that Link learns how to defeat enemies, adapt, and have the right tools to do so. In a company, enemies are unforeseen obstacles and distractions such as server and network issues, an ineffective employee, a leak in the ceiling, late client payments, etc. They are inevitable and we have definitely felt their wrath, but when they have surfaced, we’ve been proactive in identifying the cause and creating solutions (to the best of our ability) so they don’t happen again. It’s important to recognize “enemies”, address them and adapt quickly. If not, they can kill you.

6) Be a Good Guy


Link’s adventure begins when he decides to rescue Princess Zelda. Humble but brave, he puts himself in harm’s way to save Hyrule and make his world a better place—he’s the ultimate “good guy” and hero. Businesses and entrepreneurs also need heart and humility. With an endless and dizzying stream of new gadgets, games, apps, sites, features, and videos launched daily, it’s more important than ever to provide something meaningful beyond your latest product and contribute to the greater good. This might include fostering a supportive work environment for employees, regularly contributing to open source projects, taking part in local community service, or building technology that reverses climate change. In addition to the educational media that we produce, we try and give back via our production tools such as Keyframe Caddy and PixiParticles, and contribute to the Github community. These efforts aren’t about boosting our bottom line, but rather supporting the larger creative community to make better stuff. We’re all in this fight together, and sometimes one little hero can change the world.

Sandbox Summit: Highs, Lows, and Hopes

This week, we attended the Sandbox Summit at MIT for the third consecutive year. As expected, it was an inspiring two days filled with brilliant speakers who helped us reframe what is possible in the world of children’s media. This year was especially enlightening and entertaining, so we decided to reflect on the highs, the lows, and what we’d like to see come next.

While there were many great speakers and sessions, three projects that truly inspired us were Giver, KidZania, and Caine’s Arcade. At the core, these projects promote creative play, but more importantly, hope – hope for more playful neighborhoods, hope for freedom from parents (even for a couple hours), and hope for dreams coming true. They inspire kids to believe that anything is possible and provide outlets to explore untapped creativity, optimism, and confidence. With an abundance of technology and media targeted at kids, it’s inspiring to see adults who put so much effort and passion into providing tactile, real-world experiences that encourage kids to interact with the world in more playful and collaborative ways. Some of the other awesome people/projects that inspired us include The Creative Coalition, Call Me Ishmael, and DK.

With so many great presentations that explored BIG ideas about play, games, learning, and creativity, only one session seemed to miss the mark (and the spirit of the conference). While it is important to hear an executive perspective, it probably makes sense that the person doesn’t spend the time talking about their professional accomplishments and failing to mention their team and collaborators (well, excluding celebrities). Yes, the session was intended to inspire business development strategies but after talking with a number of attendees, it seems creative team building strategies may have been more inspiring. As someone who has started a business and produced dozens of projects, none of it would have happened without a team of talented collaborators. In a conference geared towards creating a more playful society, the presenter had the opportunity to discuss how collaboration (at all levels) results in more playful and creative media for kids, young and old.

So, where do we go from here? Well, we’d like to float an idea for next year’s conference theme: Radical Approaches to Collaboration. Artists, educators, parents, developers, and researchers are not birthed in isolation chambers, and there is a Renaissance-era cultural bias towards the individual that is as compelling as it is pervasive, but times are rapidly changing. Technology has destroyed geographical barriers and computers have made creative collaboration easier than ever before. Teams of people are working together to solve incredibly complex problems and create transformative works of art and media. Collaboration and cross-pollination helps build a foundation for larger creative networks and more powerful cultural institutions. As an industry, let’s celebrate innovative and radical approaches to collaboration and see how this can make all our work more transformative and impactful. Because if we’ve learned anything as a company, we not only need to provide innovative and enriching experiences for younger minds, but we also must inspire each other on a daily basis. 

Either way, we’re already looking forward to the 2016 Sandbox Summit.

Talking Tech With CMA


Last week, CloudKid’s very own Dave Schlafman had the pleasure of presenting to members of the Children’s Media Association. His presentation, which was advertised as “Talking Tech: Spotlight on Transmedia – Fizzy’s Lunch Lab and Beyond,” took attendees on Dave’s personal transmedia journey. From growing up amidst the cross-platform blockbuster brands of the 80s, to attending the SIM program at MassArt, to making a career out of being comfortable working in whatever medium came his way, Dave’s talk gave insight into what transmedia has meant for him as an artist and as the Co-Founder of CloudKid.

A large chunk of Dave’s presentation focused on how CloudKid defines transmedia. We see it as much more than just cross-platform content. It’s an opportunity to build out narratives and worlds in a way that conventional mediums like TV episodes alone don’t allow you to do. It’s evaluating what type of content really works best for what you’re trying to communicate. Dave supported these points through various examples of CloudKid’s work. From the Peg + Cat website to an exclusive sneak peek of our top-secret upcoming web series, the work shared highlighted our process of creating content that allows for a number of gateways into an experience.

All in all, the night was a success! There were tons of thought-provoking questions during the Q&A and lots of awesome takeaways from live-tweeting on CMA’s twitter feed (circa December 10th). Dave’s presentation also ended with a prompt that we though y’all might want to ponder: “Knowing the technology that exists today, what would you create for your nine-year-old self? Go make it!”

Draw Something… or Nothing

A couple weeks ago, OMG Pop’s Draw Something flooded the digital world. It was more viral than Ebola. Everyone was playing and everyone was talking about it. The explosion was so significant, Zynga snatched up the NYC game company for a cool $180 million.

After a week of playing, I started to get bored – very bored. The words were repetitive, the game seemed to have no real incentive, and the “nudges” got annoying. I stopped playing shortly thereafter. I noticed that others weren’t playing as much either, so I decided to do some research. I sent three questions to the CloudKid team hoping to shed some light on the subject:

  1. Are you still playing Draw Something on a daily basis?
  2. If yes, what brings you back?
  3. If no, why did you slow down (or stop)?

Read the (not so surprising) responses after the jump…

Read the rest of this entry »

Takeaways from Spain

Last week, I traveled to Barcelona and Madrid for a much needed vacation.  I purposely left my laptop in Boston to avoid the urge of doing work. I wanted to open my senses to a new and exciting place without the usual distractions, and what I found was a country so different from the United States, but a place that had clearly been infiltrated by American culture.  In almost every store or restaurant I entered, familiar music could be heard – Ella, MJ, Madonna. McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs amazingly stood out next to Antoni Gaudi buildings.  Apple products were everywhere – iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks.  I even spotted some old friends such as Spongebob, Buzz Lightyear, and Phineas and Ferb.  I was in place so different than my own, yet it felt so similar in many ways.  But looking at the bigger picture (and lots of art), I realized the US can learn a lot from Spanish and probably most of European culture.  One lesson that seemed especially relevant (for the blog) is their connection to classical art and art history.

Goya is a national hero, Dali is a legend, Picasso is a god, and their buildings are shrines. They’re important, they’re relevant, and they’re part of the historical conversation – it creates a culture of inspiration for new generations of artists.  I also visited a college art school gallery in Madrid that blew me away.  Because art is their culture, it seems there is a greater focus on classical art and draftsmanship, and it showed in the student work.  Visiting Spain made me realize that the art of art is drying up in the US.  For the most part, the importance of traditional art skills is not preached or practiced here (especially for younger kids).  The result is portfolios from recent grads who can’t draw and don’t have an understanding of anatomy, perspective, or color theory.  Why?  Some ideas:

  1. The craft of seeing, drawing, and painting is not being properly taught in art schools.
  2. There is an emphasis placed on ideas over technique.  Ideas are a crucial element of modern art, but so is craft.
  3. Students are distracted by media and technology, and aren’t able to focus and push themselves to that next level of creation.

I don’t know if it’s possible to truly change the way the US views the arts, but young artists in the States should understand that being an artist is a constant evolution that takes a lot of time, hard work, dedication, patience, and love.  CloudKid believes this process starts with an emphasis on traditional art skills.  While I learned many more things during my trip, Spain truly opened my eyes that we need to embrace our artistic heritage, need more effective art education, and need to constantly push our craft.