App games are quickly gaining traction in the gaming industry. From the “Candy Crush” franchise to the incredibly popular “Toca Boca” brand, app Games offer a lot of entertainment--and even learning opportunities--for people of all ages. Minilab Studios is one such app company that specializes in creating games for children that can also be amusing for adults, too. Located directly beside the offices of comic and book publishers Nobrow and Flying Eye Books, the brands operate as sister companies. While Minilab develops their own original content, they also produce games based on stories and/or intellectual property from Flying Eye Books.

Minilab Studios' first app game is called "Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System, by a book" and it was by the book called "Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space,” which was published by Flying Eye. Their latest app, "Galactic Genius with Astro Cat," is geared towards children between the ages of seven to eleven and features some fun "brain-boosting" challenges as well as lively music, bright animations, and quirky characters. It also includes the opportunity to learn certain facts about science and other educational subjects. An update to Minilab's drawing-themed app game titled “Artie’s World” is currently in the works and will be intended for children between the ages of three to six.

Recently, Minilab Creative Director and Co-Founder, James D.

Wilson, discussed the games and his hopes for the future of the studio via an exclusive interview. Having ample experience working in animation and other forms of interactive media for the BBC, Aardman, and Cartoon Network, James has a deeply-rooted insider understanding of the power that media can have to both entertain and educate.

Games, apps, and education

Meagan Meehan (MM): What prompted your interest in app games and how did Minilab get started?

James D. Wilson (JDW): At Minilab, we've all been into games of every kind since childhood. You can tell a lot about someone’s age by asking them what their first video game was! I was lucky enough to have one of the first Game Boys in 1989 when my Japanese uncle brought one over when he visited my family.

I had Tetris and Super Mario Land. The rest is history! I studied animation at university, and through a very winding route I ended up working in interactive media. Minilab started life as a sort of R&D project inside indie publishing company, Nobrow, in 2015. Nobrow work with some of the best illustrators and authors in the world to make high-quality comics, graphic novels and, through their imprint, Flying Eye Books, the most beautiful children’s picture books out there. Minilab was founded to answer the question: what would a Nobrow/Flying Eye product be like in the digital space, using the same knack for storytelling and rich visuals?

MM: You just released your latest app, "Galactic Genius with Astro Cat," so how long did it take to develop and what has consumer feedback been like so far?

JDW: “Galactic Genius” is the second Astro Cat app from Minilab, and we are excited to have expanded the wonderful world of our feline friend once more! “Galactic Genius” is made up of a series of mini-games with daily challenges and collectibles galore. All the games increase in difficulty, and by the end, it’s quite tricky! We had been itching to make a second Astro Cat app for a while but from concept to launch, it took us around four months. At this point, it hasn’t been out long, but the feedback has been positive so far, and the app has been featured internationally on the App Store.

MM: How did you think up all the different mini-games in “Galactic Genius” and do you have any personal favorites?

JDW: We identified a few key skills that we wanted to challenge: Memory, Concentration, Speed, and Logic; and started from there. We looked at card games, puzzle books, and other aptitude tests and made up our games, all with an Astro Cat twist that included some educational elements, too. One of my favorite games has to be “UFO Spotter”- it’s a game where you have to find a unique spacecraft in a group of others. As the levels get harder, the UFOs presented are all quite similar, so it becomes a bit more difficult to find the unique one in the allotted time! I also like it because it has some fun little alien characters in it.

From children's books to screens

MM: The character Professor Astro Cat is based on the books by Ben Newman and Dr.

Dominic Walliman, so what was it about this particular character that made you select him for app-game treatment?

JDW: The idea of an Astro Cat App was conceived before Minilab even existed. Back then, the first Astro Cat book, “Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space,” had already been co-editioned in more than ten languages, so we had the advantage of that as an indication of how appealing Astro Cat as a character was international. Ben’s bold aesthetic and character designs seemed ripe for animation, and the idea of creating an astrophysics app aimed at children was a very interesting proposition - the combination had worked in the books, so it was a no-brainer for us. We also knew that on the publishing side, there were already plans to make a series of Astro Cat books which aimed to bring other STEM subjects to life, so the investment in Astro Cat as a character was already in place.

MM: How involved were the books' creators in the game creation process?

JDW: Ben and I had worked together on other projects previously, so I was already partially familiar with the way he put things together. Everything had to be redrawn for use in the first app, so drawing and creating things for Astro Cat’s world became second nature to me (with a whole bunch of key pointers at regular intervals from Ben). By the time of the second app, there were already three Astro Cat books and accompanying materials, so as a team we had all the reference we needed to work on it almost independently. Regarding the scientific info you can find in our apps, it is, for the most part, based on Dr. Dominic Walliman’s original writing in the books.

He was kind enough to fact-check the first app to make sure our distilled explanations still made sense. Regarding designing the apps themselves, that is done in-house at Minilab between the team.

MM: Are you currently working on any other app games right now?

JDW: Always! We are working on a major update to “Artie’s World” which is a character brand we started from scratch with the app, “Artie’s Magic Pencil.” Artie teaches children to draw using basic shapes and a nifty little dot-to-dot system. In "Artie’s World," the focus is on drawing animals in different habitats. Currently, you can draw animals from the Arctic, the Jungle, and the Farm, with the Ocean and the Savannah in the works. So, developing characters, stories, or ideas that have originally started life in a book at Nobrow/Flying Eye is only part of our remit.

MM: What have been some of the highlights of the Minilab Studios journey so far?

JDW: At this stage, our apps have been downloaded over 1.5 million times! That's a lot of screens, and we feel honored to have been given some awards and special mentions over the last couple of years. We were fortunate enough to win a Cybil Award for "Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System" in 2015, and later a Webby Award in 2016. Since then, "Artie’s Magic Pencil" has stolen the show, being featured as Free App of the Week on the App Store. Artie also received a special mention at the Bologna Ragazzi Digital Awards, and a Digital Ehon Award. We hope “Galactic Genius” will be just as successful!

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To download Galactic Genius via the Apple Store, search iTunes using the phrases “Galactic Cat” and/or “Astro Cat.” More information can be garnered on the Minilab Studios website.