With Disney's withdrawal from the toys-to-life game genre questions were asked on whether the bubble had burst for videogames that interact with physical toys. However, not only are Lego Dimensions and Skylanders still going strong, with both having significant updates in time for Christmas, there's a new kid on the block.
Lightseekers is a smart action figure-driven game from Tomy and PlayFusion for iOS and Android. And while the toys may look like plus-sized Skylanders, there is more going on in the tech and the game here.
Perhaps the biggest difference to other toys-to-life rivals is with the technology. Rather than portal powered near-field-communication of Amiibo, Skylanders and Lego Dimensions, Lightseekers characters connect directly to a dedicated game via Bluetooth Low Energy. Not only does that eliminate the need for a portal peripheral but the toys themselves are freed from their static base.
Standing around seven inches tall they are impressive to see. Each limb is fully articulated and invites hands of any age to pose and play with the painted finish heroes. They also light up in numerous places as you progress through the game.
As your on-screen energy depletes the lights change from green to orange to red. Get too low and your toy character starts speaking to you too, warning that you need to retreat. There’s also vibration interactions, although these are yet to be shown in detail.
The videogame side of Lightseekers runs on iOS and Android tablets (PlayFusion hasn’t released exact requirements yet). The app is free, but will need a Start Pack to play. These are planned for release in spring next year in the US with a target price of $69.99.
The on-screen action is also quite different from the brawling and puzzle solving of Skylanders or endless fetch quests of Lego Dimensions. Drawing on talent involved with Runescape, Tomb Raider and Street Fighter, there is a triple-A feel to proceedings.
This offers more of a strategic experience than being able to memorise and mash buttons. You must upgrade your character and their weapons to enhance progress and dispatch enemies. Those weapons come in physical form as well. Place one in the hands of your toy and it’s instantly available in the game. Like the figurines the weapons also light up to depict action in the game.
One thing currently missing in the game is simultaneous multiplayer. At launch, Lightseekers will offer a range of asynchronous multiplayer options but two players can’t play together at the same time — something Disney Infinity was heavily criticised for initially too. Perhaps this style of multiplayer will suit the tablet players who may not want to be online or together at the same time to play, but that remains to be seen.
The final piece of the puzzle is a card game. Unlike Battlecast, the Lightseekers card game works as a physical game without the need for the tablet. While you’re playing though, the cards can be scanned into the app with some impressive AR visualisation to give your character enhancements, or even add in a helper to fight alongside you.
Gameplay is a combination of action-adventure and role play with a smattering of puzzles and minigames. So far there have been three races revealed: Tyrax, a reptilian race of experts when it comes to magical technology. Mari, who are water creatures and wield powerful storm magic. Then there are the Umbron who are the first enemy you meet in the game. They also have magical powers.
Nick Cooper, producer on Lightseekers, showed us the different stages of developing the toys and the challenge of making them look really good. "In a game we would normally handle things with textures, in toys you have to cut in and define the model to pick out the individual bits of the model," he said.
There’s obviously quite a journey here to get the Lightseekers action figures looking as good as they can. Working through the different iterations there has been a lot of effort and creativity on these characters. This results in figures that not only tick the tech boxes but also feel great to hold and look fantastic.
But did Lightseekers have to make big compromises on the toy elements to include all the technology at a price point that was affordable?
"There’s always a compromise either from manufacturer and paint or the model point of view. But we’ve been pushing from day one on all the things we want to get in," said Cooper.
"We’ve over spec’d the toys to build in extendability so we have features that will have gameplay generated for them in the future. This is a game as a service and will be updated weekly."
Interestingly, Cooper identifies that these updates are not just on the side of the app but also "how players use the digital action figures and the variety of accessories".
Hearing Cooper talk, there’s an interesting tension here. These are videogame guys making a fresh foray into the world of toys. "The gameplay is the bit I get truly excited about,” he revealed during our chat. It’s therefore an important piece of the story that PlayFusion has a heavyweight toy partner in the form of Tomy.
This not only gives the company a ready-made route to market but means it can draw on Tomy’s experience in getting the most out of toy manufacturing.
"One of the main things is if we’re going to be going into the digital action figure business, these are toys as well as props for a videogame. It was very important that they stand and can be posed in heroic ways. When someone puts the game down, these are fully articulated figures that can be played with."
As the conversation took a turn towards the playability of the action figures it underlined how this space is still strongest with a younger audience - those who are still happy to play with action figures on the living room floor.
Here though we find another tension. PlayFusion has ambitions to broaden the toys-to-life genre for older players. However, the decisions around the cartoon-like nature of the toys and the initial focus on tablet devices will skew it younger.
Mark Gerhard, co-founder PlayFusion, described the approach to platforms. "It’s tablet or phone at the start and then we’ll move to other platforms after that. We think there’s a big opportunity to do a really compelling action adventure on mobile and tablet."
The rhetoric of ageing-up kids technology may make sense in the boardroom but is in danger of diluting the focus and delivery for the core younger audience. The Wii U suffered in this way, with Nintendo suggesting the console had something for older hardcore gamers as well as families.
It will be intriguing to see how the demographic for Lightseekers shakes down but until the console version is available it feels like this will be most successful for those tablet-native youngsters who haven’t really graduated onto a console - there are certainly plenty of them.
To spend too long fussing over these negatives is to miss the point though. Lightseekers looks like it will be the most integrated approach to action-figures and videogames to date. Add to that Tomy’s impressive smart toys and the card game and it all comes together in a videogame experience that is in-depth and long lasting.
It’s a very strong start, and with more innovations promised Lightseekers will certainly shake up the toys-to-life genre when it releases.