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Toys-to-life's problem isn't saturation; it's fatigue

Jumo CCO Chris Esaki attributes recent struggles of Skylanders and Disney Infinity to lack of innovation, refusal to grow with audience

It's been a rough stretch for the toys-to-life genre. Skylanders and Disney Infinity both posted disappointing sales last holiday season, which no doubt contributed to Activision Blizzard's decision to lay off some associated developers and Disney's decision to forego a new iteration in the previously annualized Infinity series.

Despite that, indie startup Jumo is just getting into the toys-to-life game with its upcoming Infinite Arms. Speaking with at the Game Developers Conference last month, Jumo chief creative officer Chris Esaki explained why he wasn't overly concerned about any struggles the existing toys-to-life players were facing.

"What's happening in the current toys-to-life space is they're not innovating. They're not changing the game that much. And as a game player, when something doesn't change, you just get tired of it."

"What's happening in the current toys-to-life space is they're not innovating," Esaki said. "They're not changing the game that much. And as a game player, when something doesn't change, you just get tired of it. So I don't know that it's necessarily saturation; it's just fatigue."

As Esaki noted, all of the major players in the genre have set 8-10-year-olds as their target market. But it's been nearly five years since Skylanders came out, so there are a lot of kids that aged out of that range and found the major players are no longer trying to appeal to their interests. That's where Jumo sees an opportunity for Infinite Arms.

"We have this focus on an aged up game experience and toy look and feel," Esaki said. "Everything is much more appealing to an older audience. We're targeting 14-plus, and you can see it's definitely a more sophisticated experience than something like Skylanders."

Esaki said the problem in toys-to-life is one that has largely been imported from toy manufacturers, who have seen their demographics shrink in recent years. As kids turn increasingly to tablets, consoles, or other forms of entertainment, Esaki said toy manufacturers have struggled to produce successful toys aimed at any group except that 8-10-year old audience, a phenomenon they call "age compression."

"Their market has completely shrunk," Esaki said. "So they think they can't make toys for an older audience. And we've seen this time and time again when we've talked to the toy manufacturers. They're like, 'No one will buy these toys because people don't consume toys like that. The market's not there. There's no way you can make an IP that is interesting to people 14-17, teenagers, and sell toys to them.' Because the way they think about toys is archaic; it's the old, old Saturday morning cartoon model."

"[W]hen pretty much everyone goes after the same monetization model, you end up being the same game."

Jumo's way around that is to focus on Infinite Arms as a game first (a tablet-based third-person shooter), and then to bring the characters out of that game and into the world. Much of the company's market testing supported that approach, Esaki said, as teenagers would dismiss toys-to-life as games for younger children, but had very favorable reactions to Infinite Arms toys as an extension of the game experience.

He sees similar problems--and similar solutions--in the mobile space.

"We saw a stat in the month of January, the Apple App Store had 500 new game apps submitted every day," Esaki said. "That's just incredible. How do you break through that noise? You've got to do something different. And when pretty much everyone goes after the same monetization model, you end up being the same game. 'Our theme is steam punk, so that's why we're different, but we're just Clash of Clans with a steam punk [theme].' That's kind of all the stuff that's being submitted, just clones of stuff that is out there because the monetization model is a certain thing, and it defines the game design. Then there's a paint job or theme, and it's just about marketing dollars, and you're lost in a sea of 500 new apps a day."

Esaki hopes that being the first entry in the toys-to-life genre clearly aiming at a new demographic will help crack the discoverability problem, and added that Jumo has a significant marketing campaign lined up for Infinite Arms. Expect to see more of that as the game approaches its late summer launch in the US and Canada.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.