Game devs meet toy devs: Can Jumo unlock the next phase of toys-to-life?

The man behind Tamagotchi and Transformers meets up with Tokyo and Seattle-based game dev veterans to form a new company -- but can Jumo push the toys-to-life market to new heights?

I have a nickname for most "action figures" these days. I call them "inaction figures." They look pretty, but they don't move. Maybe it's because I grew up with G.I. Joe and Masters of the Universe, or maybe it's because I know the dictionary definition of the word "action," but while Amiibo and Skylanders are undoubtedly cool, I call them "figurines."

Infinite Arms is different.

The toys and mobile game combo come from the startup Jumo, a gathering of veterans from the video game and toy world spread across Tokyo and Seattle. After seeing the toys, playing the game, and talking to three of the principals of the company, I think they're on to something -- but big questions remain. This is something new.

The gist of it is this: Toys-to-life meets collectible card game mechanics and glitzy, full-3D realtime combat on mobile, complete with live events both in real life and online. Cool new toys will be introduced continuously -- every two weeks, in fact -- as the company aims to pioneer something called "fast toys," beating what it considers a hidebound industry at its own game.

To that end, Jumo has enlisted Yasuo Takahama, whose background includes leading the teams working on Transformers (the figures, that is) and Tamagotchi to head up its toys. Former Microsoft Studios creative director Chris Esaki, who serves as the company's chief creative officer, supervises game developers in Tokyo and Seattle. Keiichi Yano, founder of Tokyo-based Elite Beat Agents developer iNiS is, meanwhile, its CEO, and former Microsoft and Riot scribe Tom Abernathy is directing narrative design. Akio Fujii, who worked in top positions at both Namco and DeNA, meanwhile, heads up the company's business end.

It's a brain trust, for sure; but what I find more interesting is what that brain trust is attempting to do. As I alluded to in the intro, they're putting the "action" into toys to life -- Yano joked that he doesn't like the term, because it implies the toys were dead in the first place. I see his point. The prototype Infinite Arms figures I handled in San Francisco were large and very poseable; certainly they were lively.

The toy really looks like this photo. Weapons slot onto its back and hands snugly. The gem on its chest is a button that serves to boot up Bluetooth synchornization with a phone or tablet.

But they're not just child's toys, says Abernathy. "Our thing is aged up a bit because we're figuring the kids who started playing Skylanders at 9 or 10 years old are 14 or 15 now." That bucks the trends that the toy industry has been suffering from -- kids are dropping toys even quicker than they did in the past as digital games take hold. Jumo, then, stakes, a bold claim: We'll hang onto a resistant audience by making toys and game truly merge together.

How does that work? Each figure has four equipment slots for weaponry (they physically snap onto the figures; once they do, they instantly pop up in the game, too.) There's a rock-paper-scissors system that governs the characters and their weapons. Players can also persistently raise the levels on the characters and weapons -- and even trade them with their friends. Players will aim to create a balanced "deck" (in card-game terms) consisting of a character and its weapons to take into digital battle.

What's "fast toys"?

It makes sense to home in on Jumo's "fast toys" concept here, because it's crucial to understanding how this is supposed to work.

The toy industry is slow -- with long lead times for new products, often measured in years, not months. The team at Jumo is aiming to radically alter this trajectory with a close working relationship between the toy and game teams.

"All of the time, every day, we're together, talking about stuff. We're developing the toy as we're developing the product, and vice-versa. It's very, very connected," says Yano.

Games, particularly on mobile, are quickly iterated and constantly updating. It's Takahama's job to architect this "fast toys" effort, which is based on the "fast fashion" concept pioneered by shops like H&M and Uniqlo. New weaponry, developed by the game and toymakers in conjunction, will come live every two weeks; new characters will regularly be added, too.

"When we started this, we were like, 'How come more companies don't do this? How come Hasbro doesn't come up with this? How come a Bandai Namco doesn't come up with this?'" Yano asked. "What's necessary to create a great game is really opposite of what's necessary to create a great toy."

Esaki says that the company intends to flip that script. "We started evolving how the toys worked along with the game design, and vice-versa. It's so important to have that critical team functioning together rather than it being developed completely separately, because then what you end up having is something that really doesn't work. ... It feels to me more like game design when we're developing this, rather than traditional toy design."

The game is free-to-play -- yes, even with the toy focus, players can play for free. But if players want to purchase upgrades for your characters, they'll get them instantly in the game on clicking "buy" -- and then physically, in the mail, dispatched by Amazon. They can try any upgrade digitally for free before deciding to purchase it. And to add to the card game-style fever, lucky players will randomly receive rare gold versions of weapons and figures when they order.

The constant iteration will also allow for the developers to tightly control the game's "meta," or "metagame," which as anyone who plays TCGs or MMOs knows is a major component of both game design and community management.

By melding the digital game with the physical toys -- by having real-time combat, persistent leveling of characters and weapons, and an ever-shifting landscape of merchandise and tweakable game design -- the company hopes to have hit on a magic formula for a successful game with a satisfying meta.

"Nothing you do in the game is throw-away. ... Everything is a permanent power-up that builds and gets better over time," Esaki told me. He spoke of "affinity" for the real-world toys among players, and the "investment" they'd put into their collections.

Boosting real-world engagement 

The company also plans to sanction (and sponsor, via real-world prizes) player-organized events. This speaks to the hybrid approach the company is taking: It's a digital tournament in real-life; in execution, it sits somewhere between a ranked match online and a card game's pre-release event at a local shop. "It's the fun of all this, getting together with the physical goods and playing with all this," Yano says.

"We'll actually send you toys for that tournament," Yano says. "All we ask in return is a little social love, and we'll continue to support you if you want to do stuff like that."

In fact, the company is banking on streamer and YouTuber culture to boost Infinite Arms -- unboxing videos and game streams as marketing channels. The game itself -- flashy, fast-paced, realtime -- is "very livestream friendly," Yano says. "We think this is going to spread faster than people think... it's a matter of, can we ignite that initial flame correctly? And we're doing a lot of things to promote that."

"All that community-based creation of content is really what we're going to be supporting. And we're not just banking on players to do that. We're going to be pushing them."

Meanwhile, Abernathy is hoping to weave a story full of mystery and action into the game -- hooking players in with tantalizing bits of world-building as they get deeper into collecting and playing.

The questions that remain

What will be essential is whether the game itself works as well as the toys; touching and holding a toy in real life, and seeing its heft and detail, leaves a great impression; a quick couple of sessions with an in-development battle game (where the promised intricacies may be there but are hard to see so quickly, among other challenges) is another thing entirely.

In other words, I was convinced by the toys and the talent, but the game really will have to be something special to appeal to the mass audience needed to make a success out of Infinite Arms. I'm clear on the fact that, at a very basic level, the game looks good and works as advertised; what remains to be seen is if players will play and, importantly, convert into figure-purchasing fans. These are uphill battles, but if the team can pull it off, potentially hugely lucrative opportunities, too.

After all, they are largely alone in this; yes, toys-to-life is a mature concept by now. But nobody has tackled it from this angle: Mobile first, tight integration between the physical design of the toys and the game, and with toys that are so satisfying not just to look at but to handle.

If you're interested in finding out more, you can visit the company's site -- preregistrations for the game's beta phase are open now.

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