For industry veterans, the three members of development studio Jumo seem nervous.
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at a long conference table, they make friendly, eager introductions; they hop up as soon as we enter the room and wait for us to take a seat opposite them.
There's a black sheet covering ... something at the end of the table, sitting in front of a projection screen. It's clear that the three men behind Jumo — chief executive officer Keiichi Yano (Elite Beat Agents, Gitaroo Man), chief creative officer Chris Esaki (Gears of War) and chief strategy officer Akio Fujii (former president, Namco Entertainment) — are anxious to unveil it, to reveal what the studio has in development.
Despite their list of credits and combined years in the industry, it's understandable why the team at Jumo would be palpably nervous to reveal their first project. Jumo is a brand new start-up of a studio, with the team splitting time between Tokyo and Seattle to oversee that title's production.
"Toy companies don't understanding gaming."
Not only is there an unease inherent in that — being a young and unproven studio, despite its members' individually impressive track records — but the slideshow presentation that Yano initiates once we're all settled is all about how Jumo, this green developer, is wading into similarly unseen territory.
"Toys have evolved," Yano says after clicking ahead to a slide bearing the phrase "games-to-life."
"And gaming has evolved, too," he continues. "New types of genres, like virtual reality and augmented reality are coming into play. Toys-to-life didn't even exist five years ago, and now is a major part of a gaming segment."
Yet despite the proliferation of games that use action figures or other toys as a core gameplay mechanic, Yano explains, the collaborators that went on to form Jumo felt that the industry had yet to combine these two genres in a meaningful fashion, or even a compelling one for those who fancy themselves both gamers and collectors.
That's how Jumo sees itself, Yano says: adult gamers who also appreciate a well-made, collectible figure. As games like the Disney Infinity and Skylanders series cropped up, they pushed figures into the market that were, as Yano explains it, not compelling playthings in their own right. These toys didn't offer any articulation; they weren't like the action figures that he, Esaki and Fujii had been longtime fans of.
The three — who'd met while collaborating on various projects, like the Microsoft-published and iNiS-developed Lips series — reflected on their collective backgrounds in both game and toy design, then assessed how the toy companies who were entering the gaming sphere with their toys-to-life brands seemed to conceive their products.
"Traditional toy companies don't understand gaming," Yano says. "[They] don't know how to make games.
"It's that the process of creating toys and developing games are 180 degrees from opposite ends."
"It will never work! You will fail!"
But Jumo's members, based on their long careers at companies like Electronic Arts, Bandai Namco and Microsoft, felt like they were different — that they had a chance to transition toys-to-life games from something ephemeral, which they saw as just a genre meant to push products, and create something substantial as both game and action figure line.
"This is an opportunity to kind of disrupt how toys are not only played but how they're developed and distributed," Yano says.
"We wanted to create this new reality in gaming, so we coined the term 'games to life'."
Yano was determined to crack what he saw as a genre with a lot of potential, and concocting this new "games-to-life" category was the first step. Bringing on Esaki and Fujii was easy enough; both shared his desire to combine toys and gaming in a more mutually beneficial fashion. But convincing others of their idea on how to improve this toys-to-life trend was more difficult.
It's at this point that Esaki steps in to sing the praises of another crucial team member: chief toy officer Yaso Takahama, whose design career includes major hits like Transformers and Tamagotchi.
"When Keiichi was forming the team he went and talked to pretty much every toy and game developer that he could find," Esaki says. "Takahama was the only one after a year of searching who understood what we were trying to do and said, ‘I think that's possible.'"
So Jumo brought another well-weathered professional onto their team. Despite difficulties in getting people on board with their idea, Takahama's involvement with the project made things all the more realistic, their goal more achievable.
So what, exactly, is this project? The black tarp covering the fruits of the team's labors remains on the table. Yano, Esaki and Fujii have offered enough hints at this point, however; it's time to convince another person that Jumo's games-to-life project is a meaningful distinction in a competitive field.
Esaki leaps up to whip the sheet off the table. Yano, remaining seated and poised, clicks forward to the next slide, this one emblazoned with the details of the project in brief: Infinite Arms is Jumo's debut multiplayer action game for mobile devices, out later this year. The table now plays host to a variety of figures immediately reminiscent of the aforementioned Transformers toys.
The combat-focused Infinite Arms, when it launches, will be free to play, Yano says. Like many free-to-play games, it will feature microtransactions — except the way that Jumo is approaching monetization is different than other notable mobile developers. Instead of offering players cosmetic options or more playtime at a cost, Jumo is selling them toys. Actual, articulated toys.
Some of the proposed Infinite Arms figures are standing tall atop the table right now as Yano goes into detail about Jumo's monetization method. They're beasts of indeterminate origin and muted in color; the finalized versions will come in a brighter array of colors. Each of these robot-esque creatures — some bipedal, others quadrupeds — comes equipped with weapons, which can be swapped out for other guns and spears.
Yano calls these customizable figures — offering up "infinite" options, he says, alluding to their namesake game — "fast toys." That's a manufacture and distribution method that Jumo has devised, allowing them to produce and sell more new characters and weapons at a rate familiar to mobile gamers who are used to constant updates.
These toys connect via Bluetooth to Infinite Arms; after syncing, they'll appear in the game, at which point players can register them to use in four different game modes as well as customize them to their liking. Customization stems largely from the swappable weapon pieces, which players can also order from within the app.
Despite Jumo taking pride in their line of fast toys, however, players will still be beholden to shipping rates and delivery times. Infinite Arms features weapon and character testing within the app; players can try out the different special skills of these options before buying them from Amazon, which is linked out to directly from the game. But they'll have to wait for these toys to actually arrive.
This lack of immediacy is not a concern to the development team, however.
"We did a lot of user testing and a lot of user research and time and again, people were like, 'That's great, we'll just order it,'" Esaki says. "There was no expectation that it should be something that's immediate."
"The point that's important to understand here is that you're buying the toy for a reason, and that reason is designed into the game," Yano adds.
That reason is related to the story mode, which Yano and Eskai refer to as drawing inspiration from the world of Saturday morning cartoons. But unlike Transformers, the characters of Infinite Arms don't yet have names or distinct character traits; at least, not obviously.
These characters and their accompanying storyline aren't Infinite Arms' most compelling facets. The game unfolds over a season of episodes, which Esaki excitedly describes as constantly unfurling to reveal new plot lines.
"This [game] couldn't exist without some universe that the characters live in," Esaki says. That universe is a futuristic, vaguely apocalyptic take on our own: Sometime in the mid-21st century, the Internet has evolved to engulf society. The human-piloted MetaMods — those are what the action figures are called in-game — have replaced the military and engage in combat.
Despite this overarching plot, Esaki says that the narrative is really driven by players as they compete against each other and come up with their own storylines.
"We really do feel that the longevity of the product is all about having a really thought-out universe, a real IP."
But the team spends far more time selling the toys than that universe, to the point where that storyline piece is easily forgotten. (They do mention that Tom Abernathy, who scripted games in the Halo series, is working on the project, so that lends credence to their claims that the plot carries equal weight to the product.) For the consumer whose tastes lie more with pure, simple video games than action figures, this could be a turn-off.
Thankfully, when we do go hands-on with the game, it's evident that it's not a tossed off side piece to the larger toy component. Infinite Arms is by no means original, but for a mobile game, it balances minimal time investment with enticing enough gameplay. In our multiplayer rounds — up to six players can compete in real-time, third-person shooter-style battles — we find the touch-based control to be intuitive, if simplistic; blasting our opponents with our selection of weapons is a quick pleasure.
It's hard not to look at Infinite Arms as a free-to-play game with a slightly larger microtransaction than mobile gamers are used to, however. Even though we can play through the game without spending money on the toys, it's certainly what Jumo sees as its biggest draw. That it's on a mobile platform with a less-than-portable peripheral makes it an even tougher sell, as well, although Yano suggests that many mobile gamers in fact play their games at home.
Infinite Arms is planned for a late summer release on iOS and Android. Yano and Esaki's energy and excitement about the game during our meeting is both palpable and infectious; after an hour, we bid our farewells, smiles wide on faces — all of our faces. They're charismatic, and passionate, and dedicated to this project with the kind of enthusiasm one might not expect from such veteran designers. But fans of their past work — or those interested in the team's future — will have to wait a few more months to see if that enthusiasm fully translates into the game itself.