Former Jagex boss Mark Gerhard explains how his new studio is going to advance a troubled but technologically promising market

PlayFusion: ‘Lightseekers is the first real toys-to-life innovation in years’

Launching a new toys-to-life property is a risky proposition. Launching a new business based solely around such a venture, even more so.

But Mark Gerhard is optimistic, even confident about the potential of his upcoming IP: Lightseekers. Developed by his new studio PlayFusion, this hopeful franchise aims to offer more than just another toys-to-life range for parents and collectors to splash money on. Instead, Gerhard wants to take the entire concept forward.

Formerly the CEO of RuneScape dev Jagex, Gerhard is working with his team to create what he believes is more of a transmedia property than a rival to Skylanders. Yes, there are action figures to collect that will interact with the game and represent a colourful cast of characters, but there are also trading cards, augmented reality experiences and more.

PlayFusion claims the figures are the next step for the toys-to-life market, describing them as "smart action figures with artificial intelligence". Even the game is being designed as something more advanced that the child-focused adventures of Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions, targeting a slightly older, more core audience.

Details are still emerging about how the game will work, but a brief glance at the range of characters designed and a skim read of the ficition setting up the game shows that Gerhard and his team are banking on this as a long-term success. We asked him about the full scope of PlayFusion’s plans. 

What did you learn from your time at Jagex, and how have you applied this to how your new studio is set-up?
There are two big things that I took away from my past experience. First, was the importance of working with some of the most talented veterans in the games industry – the vast majority of whom I’m blessed to be working with again and who are shareholders of PlayFusion.

Second, was the community-centric game-as-a-service approach I brought to game development and community engagement. Before even contemplating development on Lightseekers, we first listened carefully to what the existing toys-to-life communities were complaining about and new features they were asking for. We know from previous experience what RPG communities want from a contemporary MMO. We naturally also listened to what other competitive RPG communities were asking for, and ditto for trading card games.

As a result, we came up with loads of innovative solutions and new technologies. Now we have realised a solid foundation. We are now beginning the journey of building and involving the community in every aspect of what we are doing over the coming months. We want to make sure that they both feel a strong sense of ownership and help us to refine their experience ahead of full launch of Lightseekers early next year.

Why invest in the toys-to-life market given the challenges it faces? Even Disney pulled out, and Skylanders appears to be losing momentum.
I think there were a lot of reasons behind Disney’s decision and some of them probably don’t even relate to this market. Nevertheless, we don’t see challenges – just opportunities.

We believe there is now more opportunity in this new market segment than ever before, especially with one of the former category leaders pulling out. With the launch of Skylanders and other smart toys like Anki and Sphero, we saw a novel and interesting development in the games industry for the first time in many years. They have done rather well selling well over 350 million toys between Skylanders and Infinity creating a nascent yet multi-billion dollar industry as a result.

But there hasn’t been any meaningful innovation in this category in years. We believe we have developed a graduation experience from the existing toys-to-life offerings currently out there. We have done something entirely innovative and unique, beyond just toys-to-life. We’ve connected so much more, and putting our own money where our mouth is so to speak.

We are not looking to compete with Skylanders, although that is the obvious comparison. They have done a terrific job for kids between six and eight years old. We are aiming at an older demographic, those who have outgrown the existing toys-to-life offerings as well as the broader, more core, more cerebral audience looking for a far more immersive connected play experience. 

There hasn’t been any meaningful innovation in this category in years. We have done something entirely innovative and unique, beyond just toys-to-life. 

How is your project indicative of the future of toys-to-life? How does the system work, and what does it do differently?
We think the future of the market is mixed media connected play, which goes beyond just toys. We want every element of the brand ecosystem to interact with our games.

We’ve only revealed a small amount of what’s yet to come. The more people see, the more they’ll realise how much bigger this is than just toys-to-life. What gets us really excited is creating a platform for smart connected AI toys – with AI their own personalities, almost sentient – to provide the next generation of interactive entertainment as well as significant spacial range for innovation within the platform for years to come.

It’s our mission to make that vision affordable to the masses. The platform provides serious punch from the onset and can be easily and inexpensively augmented with more electronics as required. From a gameplay perspective, we are looking at a more contemporary adventure RPG experience than what is currently out there in order to appeal to a far wider psychographic.

We are also bringing our game-as-a-service background to the world of consumer electronics meaning that our digital action figures will be frequently updated and change over time as our games evolve.

What were the biggest technical challenges in developing your game/toys-to-life system and how did you overcome them?
The people on our team are veterans at making games and complex software so we knew we had that bit covered. What we were not prepared for was the world of consumer electronics. We naturally hired expert mechanical, electrical, and firmware engineers, but we were unprepared for the significant cost of innovation and development in the hardware space.

Lead times, specifically, were perhaps the biggest shock as our team are used to being incredibly agile when making games or software. So we had to change the way we worked in some places. For example, we had to submit final toy CADs and electronic blueprints at the very start of the process over a year prior to launch rather than having the luxury to finalise character models and textures at the very end.

Why focus on mobile devices?
We focused on mobile and tablet devices initially for a number of reasons. They are now the contemporary gaming platform of choice for young adults and kids alike. It’s also the case that there are eight times more mobile devices capable of running an triple-A game experience than every console ever sold combined – just over 200 million units when we last checked over a year ago.

So the potential reach is dramatically increased by choosing this route. The majority of the toys-to-life offerings out there are console experiences or a console port so we think there is a huge opportunity to fill this relatively empty space with natively mobile interactive entertainment. With all that being said, we also have plans to expand to other platforms over time, with PC following shortly after launch.

Lastly, from our previous experience making MMOs, we believe there is also a huge gap in the market for the type of game that we are making on mobile and tablet. 

We’ve only revealed a small amount of what’s yet to come. The more people see, the more they’ll realise how much bigger this is than just toys-to-life.

How did the Tomy partnership come about? Who approached whom?
We pitched the idea to bring our technology and game development expertise to three of the top five global toy companies at the New York Toy Fair back in 2015. We began discussing a next generation toys-to-life project leveraging their intellectual property.

A few months later, we got to meet the Takara Tomy Board in Japan and they were very impressed with our platform and vision. They said that rather than work on their IP, they would be delighted to make the toys for our original game called Lightseekers. We have been working together ever since.

What advantages come from a partnership with Tomy?
Tomy is a fantastic master toy licensee. It has one of the strongest reputations for quality in the industry so it feels great to work with them. Tomy also brings deep retail relationships and decades of expertise when it comes to both marketing and distribution, leaving us to focus on the areas where our skills lie, and we are most passionate about such as ongoing game and technology development. 

Conversely, are there limitations? How much creative freedom do you have with Lightseekers?
As we own the Lightseekers IP, our team have been lucky enough to have complete creative freedom.I’ve found Tomy to be great partners so far and have learnt a lot from working together. I’m confident this will be a very successful venture. 

What is the biggest challenge of establishing a toys-to-life brand/new IP without an established, recognisable name? Again, even Disney had problems – despite having Marvel and Star Wars at its disposal.
Skylanders showed that a new brand can break through in this space. We believe that a better game experience will attract new fans.

We firmly believe that if you don’t have the power of a big IP behind you, then you have to build awareness through virality. That only happens if you provide highly compelling and innovative new experiences for your players which in turn makes them feel compelled to talk about Lightseekers to everybody else.

Having said that, PlayFusion is currently in the process of setting up a second studio to bring our technology platform and game development expertise to well-known IP as our next project. More to follow on that soon. 

How will the players ‘guide Lightseekers development’ as time goes on?
We just started building our community a week ago at the Lightseekers website and on social media. Soon we will be opening up the game and various parts of the wider entertainment ecosystem to the community to carry on as we started and gain valuable feedback. We will naturally look to incorporate their great ideas into the full version of the game which will be coming early next year. 

Skylanders showed that a new brand can break through in this space. We believe that a better game experience will attract new fans.

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