Kids love robots, from R2-D2 to Optimus Prime. Now there’s an app that lets kids build the wildest robots of their imagination from scratch, then send them out into an alien world to explore. It’s called Robot Factory, and it’s the latest app from Tinybop, the Brooklyn-based developer behind some of the App Store’s most beautifully designed kids’ apps. But Robot Factory isn’t just another iPad robot game. It’s a digital toybox designed specifically to encourage kids to practice imaginative play.
In Robot Factory, kids can create pretty much any robot they want, and as many of them as they want. For my first robot, I created a pink bulbous spider bot with seven legs, a flaming gasket for a butt, and a googly-eyed brain in a jar for a head. The interface is simple, just drag different parts onto a body. Your robot can have no eyes, or 200; one leg, or 53. There are practically no limitations. You can even give your robot a voice: my robot, for example, says “Ay yai yai!” when it’s happy, and makes farting sounds when it’s distressed.
Once you finish your bot, you set him loose to run, fly, and jump through an alien world, which is a sort of physics-based obstacle course. Your robot has a certain amount of health before it needs to be repaired in the lab, so if you run into a thorny alien tree, trip over a rock, or fall a huge distance, you might have to start over again, but it’s all low stress–just hard enough to make the environment interesting for kids.
Robot Factory is the first in what Tinybop is calling the Digital Toys series. While Tinybop’s Explorer Library series of apps is designed almost as interactive, 21st-century children’s books exploring subjects like plants and the human body, the Digital Toys series will be based around the idea of stretching kids’ imaginations and engaging in open-ended play. They’ll only be games in the loosest sense of the world, and that’s the point according Tinybop founder Raul Gutierrez, who says Robot Factory was inspired by the Lego of yesteryear.
“When I was a kid, Legos were basically just sold as a big box of blocks,” he remembers. “But these days, Legos are sold as disassembled toys: kids get a set, they follow the instructions, and it all leads to a single end point. Lego is no longer encouraging the same spirit of open-ended play that was once the hallmark of the company. We see that as a problem. Kids shouldn’t be buying into a brand narrative. They should be creating the narratives themselves.”
To design Robot Factory, Gutierrez said that the most important consideration was making sure that kids felt they could build the wildest robot they could dream up. To that end, Tinybop put together a mood board of all the robots they loved over the years, like Doctor Who‘s Cybermen, Star Wars‘ universe of droids, obscure Japanese robots, and even old wind-up robot toys from the 1950s they found at the flea market. They then worked with U.K. artist Owen Davey to create a library of as many cool, weird robot parts as they could imagine.
Sandwiched between a foster care social services office and a karate dojo, Tinybop has spent a lot of time bringing kids into the office to play test Robot Factory. According to Gutierrez, no two kids play it the same way. Some kids are really achievement based, and want to design the robot that can run the farthest. Other kids don’t care, they just want to see how their robots run and move. No matter who they are, though, kids inevitably come up with stories about the robots they designed, Gutierrez says. “We’d ask kids: what’s your robot’s name, and what does he do?” Gutierrez recalls. “One kid would say, ‘Oh, mine’s a robot butler, he helps a rich alien get dressed.’ Then another might say, ‘Oh, mine’s a robot doctor, he’s trying to save the world.’ That’s the kind of play pattern we were really striving to create.”