London, UK — The year was 1993. Sir Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine first met whilst producing the movie adaptation of Richard III — starring McKellen, Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne, John Wood, and Dominic West. One of McKellen and Loncraine’s principle goals was to make Shakespearean plays more accessible to a wider audience, helping them enjoy more thoroughly the otherwise intimidating complexities.
Some 23 years later, the duo set out on that journey once again. This time, in collaboration with a broader circle of enthusiasts and with the help of newer technology, which has skyrocketed at an arguably faster rate than rocket science itself since 1993.
April 23, 2016 — the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death — also marks the launch of iPad app Heuristic Shakespeare — The Tempest.
One day before the scheduled worldwide launch, the collective team behind the app held a press conference at BFI Southbank. Amongst the presenters were Sir Ian McKellan, Shakespearean scholar Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, The Arden Shakespeare publisher Margaret Bartley, and Heuristic Media’s founders.
As Ian moved on to partake in a radio interview after the conference, I had the opportunity to speak with three of Heuristic Media’s founders — the app’s producers.
As a fellow app developer, I was particularly curious about the challenges facing the team throughout the making of “The Tempest.” Richard Loncraine, Patrick Uden, and Toby Evetts were happy to share them with Bubbobar readers:
1. Small profit margin for one-off apps
When an app charges $5.99 with no immediate intention to sell add-ons or sub-content, the developers earn *far* less than the listed price per download. Apple iTunes’ cut, content production cost (presumably quite significant for quality production like “The Tempest”), development cost (almost always high), marketing, and related administrative and operational costs all need to be taken into account.
2. Limited market size by process of reduction
Not all tablet owners are Apple users. Out of all iPad owners, not everyone spends money on apps. Amongst iPad app spenders, only so many are interested in literature; let alone specifically Shakespeare’s writing. You get the idea. Ultimately, the reduced market size leaves a lot to be desired.
Having said that, in the world of product development, it is imperative to know who your target audience is and not to attempt to please everyone. In that regard, I applaud Heuristic Media’s conscious decision to first launch on iOS iPad only. More on that later.
3. Common mentality that apps should be free
Our purchasing habits can often be baffling. Some of us would get hooked on “free” game apps — aka freemium games, only to then spend endlessly on power-ups and what have you. Many of us would spend more on impulse buying of various tangible goods than we do on groceries.
And yet, when it comes to “shelling out” for premium apps, reluctance prevails.
* * *
So what are app developers getting themselves into? For one thing, thanks to the surge of smartphones and tablets over the past decade, mobile applications prove to be one of the most accessible channels to solve a variety of human pain points.
From first-time readers to the most devoted fans, “Heuristic Shakespeare” provides an answer to a scholastic problem we may have experienced — William Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen and heard, not read.
Having experimented with a beta test version of the app, I have come to a verdict — “Heuristic Shakespeare” is by and large one of the best ways to enjoy Shakespearean plays yet. If we could time travel and communicate with people from 400 years ago, they would probably say the 17th-century equivalent of “folks these days have it easy.”
From a user’s perspective, I would rate this app 5 stars for at least 5 reasons:
1. It solves a problem where pure text does not convey emotion well
The play is divided into a series of videos, where each cast member reads their lines in turn whilst looking into the camera — in other words, directly at the user. As a video plays on the upper portion of the screen, the user is also presented with a scrolling text. Additionally, there is a display that indicates who is currently speaking.
Research has shown that comprehension of the text is much easier if the actor is making eye contact with the user. The app concentrates entirely on the language and is stripped of distractions like staging, sets, costumes, makeup, etc.
2. Great UI/UX
Poorly designed apps make us want to delete them and never look back. “Heuristic Shakespeare” is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It has a unique and consistent “look and feel” across screens, which are all very smooth and intuitive to navigate.
3. High production value
The “Heuristic” crew hold the app’s videos to high standards akin to those of commercial movie making. Debuting cast includes world-class actors like Ian McKellen.
4. Focus on one single platform first
We have all seen some apps that are trying to support too many platforms too quickly. They often end up being quite buggy and glitchy, largely because it’s not an easy mission to tailor to various screen sizes, form factors, gestures, operating systems, and so forth. Unfortunately, non-technical decision makers in the mobile industry sometimes underestimate the undertaking involved.
“Heuristic Shakespeare” is initially available for iPads only, thus allowing the crew to focus more on crucial things like quality content production.
5. Support of offline use
Once the videos have been downloaded, they can be replayed as many times as you want. For my next flight or train trip, I already know what my source of entertainment will be.
* * *
As much of a tech “addict” as I am, it has always been my sentiment that technology should be complementing “old-school” items, not replacing them entirely. Having such great tools as “Heuristic Shakespeare” doesn’t mean we should stop reading the plays in printed format altogether. In fact, revisiting the books now is made even more enjoyable.
Shortly after exiting BFI Southbank, I found myself loitering in a bookshop that I frequent a lot — much more than is needed. Obligatory browsing of Shakespeare books followed. An obvious title caught my attention: A paperback copy of “The Tempest” would set me back about 150% of the price of the app that I had just reviewed.
Did I mention something about our tendency to selectively impulse buy? ∎