Infinite Arms Mixes Mobile Shooter Gameplay, Kick-Ass Toys
If you’re going to compete against Disney and Lego in the increasingly crowded toys-to-life videogame space, you’d better at least have some sweet-looking toys. Thankfully, the forthcoming Infinite Arms has that handled.
The mobile game, coming to iOS and Android this summer, is trying to hit its competitors in the toybox with Ixion and Skorpos—tall, imposing, fully articulated figures that tower over their squat, stationery counterparts from Skylanders and Disney Infinity. They gleam like chrome bumpers thanks to a 200-step paint process, and their exposed metal screws remind you of the days of Voltron and Micronauts. They are, in short, bad-ass. But can they make the game stand out from the rest of the free-to-play titles in the App Store and Google Play?
Toys to Life 2.0
Videogames that interact with real-life toys have become some of the hottest kids’ titles over the last few years. Activision’s pioneering Skylanders was a fun, cooperative action game in which users could play as dozens of different wacky creatures—but only if they owned the corresponding $12 toy figurine. The Mouse muscled in with its similar Disney Infinity, Nintendo has its Amiibo figures, and most recently Lego got in on the action with a game that can only be played with a special collection of electronic minifigs.
Infinite Arms uses a similar mechanic: You buy a figure, which then pairs with your mobile device via Bluetooth to unlock the corresponding character in the game. However, it also differs in many ways: It’s mobile-only (although publisher Jumo is eyeing Apple TV and other devices) and it’s shooting for an older audience, with a Transformers-esque design that looks nothing like the cartoony Skylanders and Amiibos.
“Ever since 2011 and Skylanders there hasn’t been a lot of major progress,” says Jumo’s CEO Keiichi Yano. “At our office, we consider that ‘toys-to-life 1.0.’”
If Infinite Arms catches fire, the Seattle-based publisher hopes to usher in a new type of free-to-play game—one in which developers make their money on toy sales, rather than the customary in-app purchases. Freed from having to seduce customers with in-game micropayments, devs would ostensibly be free to design more distinctive gameplay. (Jumo plans to create a platform for other studios that wish to create similar game-and-toy combinations.)
Jumo is the latest venture from Keiichi Yano, who helped developed music games like Lips and Elite Beat Agents as a head of Tokyo studio Inis. He’s currently splitting his time evenly between Seattle and Tokyo, with Inis developing the Infinite Arms software, but has recruited some game industry veterans to craft Infinite Arms‘s story and gameplay. The company’s chief creative officer is Chris Esaki, a key figure in the development of first-person shooters: As the lead designer of a 2003 shooter called Kill.Switch, Esaki created that game’s cover-based shooting gameplay, which directly influenced the creation of Gears of War. Jumo’s director of narrative design is Tom Abernathy, one of the principal writers for Halo: Reach and many other games.
And the toys themselves are being designed by Yasuo Takahama, who was lead designer on the Tamagotchi digital pets and who, according to Yano, designs “30 to 40 percent of all the Transformers toys worldwide.” The action figures themselves won’t be of much use on their own; you’ve got to outfit them with weapons. At the demonstration I attended earlier this month, a whole array of crazy weapons, from swords to pikes to hand cannons to shoulder-mounted nukes, was splayed across the conference room table. You simply snap them on to the figures—one on each arm, and two on the back—to create a customized death-dealing hero.
When you download the Infinite Arms app, you can play the single-player campaign and the player-versus-player battles without having to pay. You’ll win gems for battling, which you can use to upgrade your characters and weapons. You can pay within the app to get more virtual gems, or even to buy the toys. In fact, that’s the only way you’ll be able to get them: they won’t be available in stores. Jumo has partnered with Amazon for fulfillment, and the app will use your Amazon login and shipping address.
There’s a problem, Yano says, with trying to do a free-to-play mobile game with a physical toy component. “There’s a disconnect between how quickly you can get new toys out versus how quickly content is delivered,” he says. Toys can take years from concept to final product, but free-to-play games need to be able to update and add features, characters, levels very quickly if they’re going to keep an audience’s attention.
“With traditional brick-and-mortar, if we were to put this stuff in Toys ‘R’ Us, it would literally take 6 months,” Yano says.
In hopes of solving this, Yano says he’s come up with a patented process called “fast toys,” inspired by the “fast fashion” industry where stores like H&M and Uniqlo can turn around new designs with rapidity. The process, which relies heavily on rapid prototyping with 3-D printing before the toys are manufactured en masse in China, will allow Jumo to sell new Infinite Arms weapons every two weeks. It’s “orders of magnitude faster” than traditional toy creation, he says.
The toys will be sold in four-month “seasons.” Every four months will bring four new characters and an assortment of weapon. “All the toys are limited edition,” Yano says. “Once we sell through, we won’t make any more.” Each toy has a unique 64-bit ID, which means that the game’s servers can recognize each individual toy and weapon. It will save the upgrades that you’ve made to your toy on the server, rather than in the toy’s memory.
The best players on the leaderboards for any given month might be mailed free, exclusive toys, Yano says, and some tiny percentage of the toys purchased through the app will be rare gold-painted versions, which would also display as gold in the game itself.
Besides attempting to marry the toys-to-life concept with free-to-play mobile gaming, Infinite Arms is, Jumo says, an attempt to aim the concept at older gamer demographics. “Kids who started playing Skylanders when they were 9 or 10 years old are now 15,” says Tom Abernathy. “We thought there was a place to build an experience that had to do with toys that would be interesting to them, and even potentially interesting to adults who collect stuff like that.”
Abernathy says the story, which puts the player into the role of a human who pilots these humanoid mecha suits, is inspired by “things like Lost and Alias… that have a lot of mystery to the world.” Weekly “episodes,” intended to recreate some of that magic of classic toy-themed cartoons, will dole out the answers to the mysteries on a regular basis. (Hopefully faster than Lost.)
“A lot of that comes from our own memories of being kids and playing with action figures like this,” says Abernathy. They usually were attached in some way to a TV show or a movie, especially Saturday morning cartoons.” That’s part of the reason Jumo says it prefers to call Infinite Arms “games-to-life” instead of “toys-to-life”—it wants to draw players into its world first, then get them to want to own the toys of the characters they enjoy.
If Infinite Arms is successful, it could change the kinds of games we can play on mobile, says Chris Esaki.
“There are only a couple models out there for a lot of these games,” he says. “Another Clash of Clans clone! Another card battle! And they monetize their userbase the same way… it locks you into a specific type of game design. The game feels the same because you can only make money off people in the same way.”
Selling toys via in-app purchase, he says, is “a third monetization path.”
“It would dramatically change the types of products that could be made,” Esaki says. “We could have a whole new category.”