Studio Gobo, the Brighton developer behind some of the most successful playsets for Disney Infinity, is expanding with an entirely new studio focused on mobile development, with an initial drive towards expanding Gobo's success in the toys to life market on a new branch of hardware.
The new office will be headed up by Jon Gibson, previously in charge of Exient's Malta offices where he headed up development of Angry Birds Go. Not only does Gibson have plenty of experience of mobile development, he's got a fair amount of shared history with Gobo CEO Tony Beckwith, having worked with his boss previously at Probe, Climax Racing and Black Rock. Although life in Malta and at Exient was good, with the success of Angry Birds Go exceeding everyone's expectations, Jon was eager to return to Brighton. His relationship with Beckwith and Gobo's success with Infinity offered him the perfect opportunity.
"I started talking to Tony," Gibson tells me. "Obviously, Gobo's been tremendously successful with their toys to life products and with Disney Infinity, Tony was looking to expand that operation. I was looking to come back. It just seemed a really good fit for us to get together and do something different, which is take toys to life and mobile and focus on that particular area, to do something which we feel will be industry leading.
"Toys to life right now I think is version 1.0...I don't think anyone has yet truly created what the next generation of toys to life products are."
"We've got the core team in place, about seven people right now. We're going to be ramping up in a quite aggressive way in the next few months. Ultimately we want be a three project studio. The exact number is difficult at this point because we don't know which clients that we're going to be working with and I think the projects themselves are going to dictate the size of the teams. Within two years, we want to be a three project studio."
Whilst toys to life is a big market, with 28 per cent of US homes alone thought to own at least one collection of Skylanders, LEGO Dimensions or Disney Infinity figures, its not become particularly broad - with each tentpole piece of software based around an existing high-profile IP catalogue. Gobo wants to take the lessons it's learned about the market with Infinity and apply that to other independent IP, with the software based on smartphones rather than consoles.
"Toys to life right now I think is version 1.0," says Gibson. "I think people have pushed the boundaries in terms of what that toys to life experience is, what that physical experience is. I don't think anyone has yet truly created what the next generation of toys to life products are. If you look to Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Lego dimensions, I guess they're collecting experiences. You collect the toys and a lot of content in the game.
"With mobile, the usage pattern with mobile and the way people engage with mobile devices, you can pick up a mobile device, you can take it to school. You can play with it with your friends. Adding toys to that dynamic as well will create very different experiences. Maybe the actual toys themselves will be more intelligent and much of the play will happen with the toys, as an additional device. I think it's that kind of interaction between the physical and the digital, beyond just unlocking content in the game, that's where the future lies."
As well as offering new use cases, mobile devices bring new on board hardware to the equation, allowing for new forms of interaction - both with toys and players.
"I think it's that kind of interaction between the physical and the digital, beyond just unlocking content in the game, that's where the future lies"
"Pretty much every small phone has bluetooth," says Gibson. "That's an immediate connection between a physical toy and a new one, and additional device. More than, they've got cameras as well. What can you do with cameras? Maybe you can scan stuff using a camera rather than using RFID. The potential for all connected reality with those physical toys interacting with the additional world is great as well. All that stuff is getting more advanced. The cameras are getting better. Before, if your camera lens wasn't bright enough it was very difficult to get a decent read in on things in the physical world. All that stuff's improving. I think those kind of deep, physical and digital experiences are becoming much more possible as technology gets better. Even without new kinds of technologies emerging, the technology that's already there is getting far more efficient, cheaper, and easier to use in that capacity."
As mobile tech advances, though, it also diversifies - and trying to get a handle on what technology the kids market has access to isn't an easy read. As a result, Gobo's mobile arm won't be aiming at top-end hardware, or overly specific feature sets.
"I think you build on your minimum spec. That's probably going to determine the feature set rather than paying for specific mobile features which are just in higher devices. If you create an experience which relies on 3D touch, then it wouldn't necessarily be appropriate for a mass market experience. I guess it's a case of looking at the technology that's across all of those mobile devices and building something meaningful around that, rather than relying too much on the next big technology advancement."
Parents are probably all too painfully aware of how effective the marketing power for toy to life accessories can be already, but marrying that to a looser microtransaction model like that of most mobile successes might fill them with dread. Gibson isn't prepared to commit publicly to a business model for the studio's first game, the contract for which has already been secured, but he's well aware of the need to balance profit and responsibility.
"A thing we find in free to play is if you've got a game which is aimed at kids and you're trying to sell things like gem packs, that doesn't necessarily mean anything to a parent who's buying that. They don't know how that gem pack translates to hours that their child will be occupied. If you say, 'Well, my child loves this game and I can pay 60p to unlock a whole new level,' and they know that that will give them X amount of enjoyment, that's a far easier sell. It's a more ethical sell as well, because you're being clear and upfront about what the value of that purchase is and you're leaving it down to the child and/or the parents to make the decision on whether or not they're going to purchase it."
With an established relationship with a firm as massive as Disney already in place, it must be tempting for Beckwith and Gibson to try and engender a similar partnership for the new studio, whether with Disney itself or another IP owner looking to branch out. Nonetheless, Gobo is keeping its options open on who it works with on mobile, and expects to engage with multiple partners for both IP and manufacturing needs.
"We do want to produce really high quality experiences. Lots of people who have kind of dabbled with AR, VR, toys to life in the past, really, they haven't been successful because there hasn't been sufficient investment in them. We really do want to produce quality products with quality partners. That will be a factor when we consider who we want to work with. We're working with a really big partner on our first project. Initially, manufacturing is going to be handled by a partner. The future depends on how, who we work with, what kind of a deal it is, how that structure is. There's lots of different options to get there.
"Lots of people who have kind of dabbled with AR, VR, toys to life in the past, really, they haven't been successful because there hasn't been sufficient investment in them"
"Amazon was saying they're going to integrate with your game and you're going to be able to, at the touch of a button, get your character or your scene printed and sent to your door within three working days from a factory in China. There's stuff like that. You know, I guess the landscape is changing massively. Ultimately, in terms of manufacturing, it's something which we'll need to consider depending on who we work with."
Who the studio is working with first is still strictly under wraps, but I point out that it would seem a little wasteful not to apply both Gibson and Beckwith's extensive experience of racing games to a project at some point. Could driving games find a new home on mobile?
"I know there are concerns with AAA racing games being a smaller market than it was previously, having less appeal as a home console experience," admits Gibson. "Console players want a level of depth and immersion which racing games perhaps don't give compared to something like an Uncharted, or Bloodborne. I think racing is very much alive and kicking in mobile. I think it's a great platform for racing games as well. It suits the casual usage patterns. The way people engage with phones, they want to dip in and get a bit of action and dip out. I think racing lends itself to mobile quite well in that respect."