Winston is an amiable, yellow, animated character who has actual conversations with children on The Winston Show, ToyTalk's speech-recognition powered storytelling app that launched in September. Winston asks questions, and through ToyTalk's PullString technology, interprets kids' answers to respond humorously and appropriately (Winston: So tell me...are you a giant? Player: Yes. Winston: Oh, I knew you were. Are you an Earth-dwelling giant or do you live at the top of a beanstalk?).
It's an English-language app, but as it turns out, Winston can also understand Martian.
ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob says that when they tested a new story that invites kids to play the part of an alien attacking Winston's spaceship, "there was a seven-year-old boy who says back to us 'Oogy oogy! click click click!' We said 'What is he doing?' and someone said 'I think he's speaking Martian?' And it turned out that's what he was doing—he spoke Martian to us for a good 10-minute run, with intonation and gestures—it was language, even though it made no sense." Afterwards, Jacob learned that the kid often speaks Martian at home with his parents. "So we asked him, on a scale of one to 10, how well do you think Winston understood you?' And he said '10' So he was totally convinced he was getting the responses he should have been."
It's this kind of make believe that guides Season Two of The Winston Show, which began rolling out the first of four weekly episodes on February 27. Season One focused mainly on a quiz show and fireside chat hosted by Winston and his little round sidekick Ellington—but a new installment released in December, "In the Movies," cast viewers in roles in a space adventure ("Squabble Amongst the Stars") or detective mystery ("Winston Sly, Private Eye").
"We saw kids start to really pretend they were an alien or a detective," says Jacob, Pixar's former CTO. Since founding ToyTalk with three other Pixar alums, Jacob has hired another eight former employees of the groundbreaking animation studio; former Pixar employees now make up half the company. "It was an important moment in our journey, in the sense that I did not expect kids to play make believe with us that directly. It seemed like if I had walked in and pitched that, it would have been hard to get kids into it, but it turned out it took legitimately zero effort. Winston says, 'I'm a spaceship commander—oh my gosh an alien, put him on screen!' and it puts you on the camera, and you're an alien. And the kid's like 'Awesome, I'm an alien!' We thought, that's pretty special. We really can get the show and Winston focused on make believe. So Season Two went in that direction, and we play make believe with kids conversationally through the majority of the show."
In addition to new installments of "Squabble" and "Winston Sly," Season Two introduces "Enchanted Forest," where you're the heir to the forest's throne and meet trolls, dwarves, and other characters, and "Doctor of the Heart," in which Winston is in a hospital bed and the player has to diagnose his problem.
"Usually it starts out physical but ends up being psychological, as these things often are," says Jacob. ToyTalk's head of communications Christine Schirmer explains that the "Doctor of the Heart" sketch "was really the brainchild of one of our writers who noticed that a lot of children were using other opportunities in the app to be more vulnerable. For example, Winston asks 'How are you doing today,' and the kid would answer 'Not so well—I had a bad day at school.' In our old format, Winston would just kind of carry on. And our writers felt like wait a minute, if a child tells me he didn't have a good day at school, they're showing vulnerability, and I want Winston to be the type of person that will talk about that. So 'Doctor of the Heart' allows the child to be a little more vulnerable. As Winston describes his problems and what's happening to him, it gives the child the opportunity to talk about what's bothering them."
Another change to Season Two is its episodic structure, in contrast to Season One's "buffet" approach, where kids could jump around to different skits and activities. After The Winston Show launched, ToyTalk discovered that kids were engaging with the app for about half an hour on the weekend, much as they would a cartoon, so Season Two takes advantage of that behavior. Each episode will include a mini-episode of each of the three main skits, broken up by shorter, interstitial bits that are more like gags than shows (for example, "a mouse, a piece of cheese, a trap, and you," explains Jacob. "The mouse is debating whether to eat the cheese, and you tell the mouse whether to eat it.")
"We chose to order the show performance more strictly and release it as episodes, about a half an hour at a time, and try to do one of those a week," says Jacob. "Across the episodes, in space or as a detective, the story arcs carry over. It's not only how the audience is used to consuming things, but gives us more opportunity to control the story arc, gives a more narrative structure to the show than the 'buffet' of Season One. If we can bring the audience along each week, that's actually very powerful."