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Interview: PlayFusion's Mark Gerhard On Lightseekers And A New Wave Of Toys-To-Life

Seeking the truth.

The toys-to-life genre took a huge blow earlier this year when Disney announced that it was withdrawing from the market, citing disappointing sales of its Disney Infinity platform. However, it’s clear that there are still developers who believe that the genre has plenty of mileage, and PlayFusion are looking at its future as part of an ambitious mixed-media approach that takes in video games, physical toys, comics and card games for their upcoming title Lightseekers.

We grabbed some time with PlayFusion CEO Mark Gerhard to talk about the huge project.


TSA: So what’s the history of PlayFusion?

Mark Gerhard: PlayFusion was founded some 20 months ago by a team who have worked together for years, when we asked ourselves one simple question, “If we got a chance to redo anything and everything in games; what would we do differently and why?” The answer was the start of a dream, a mission, to make a new type of interactive experience, one that hasn’t been made before, taking everything we have mastered in the past as a team to a whole new level. We got so excited about it that we put in our own money to realise the dream and have been working on realising it ever since.

TSA: How did Lightseekers come about?

Mark: We always start every project by agreeing on the core values that we want to capture which helps serve as a framework for the creative process. We will only ever make games that we would want to play ourselves, and we decided that not only did we want to do something new and different but crucially that Lightseekers should be fun, vibrant and not take itself too seriously.

We bounced a lot of different concepts around at first but the one that stuck showcased the technology platform we had created to feature the world of Tantos. The design team started by writing an epic game timeline which still serves as the core of everything we are doing to this day. This mega timeline gave us our core races, set our landscape, our tumultuous geological history and gave rise to the magic of the world. It was a truly fantastic starting point and could actually be released as a trilogy of books in its own right. It provides us with a coherent quest and story framework for years to come, it really is a fantastic work of art.

TSA: The character designs and locations you’ve shown so far have a great presence, what were you looking for when you started on them and the world of Tantos?

Mark: We really wanted to create a new and original world that’s bright, vibrant and distinct, one that reinvents and puts our own take on the classic Dungeons and Dragons while simultaneously paying homage to contemporary genre definers like League of Legends. We leveraged scale to build a world that feels infinite in scope and possibility. The six different orders – Astral, Dread, Mountain, Nature, Storm and Tech – in the Lightseekers universe offer a wide variety of themes, ensuring there is something for everyone.

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TSA: Just how big is the world?

Mark: We have big plans for the Lightseekers universe.  We’ve already established a 10-year content roadmap for the world.  Out of the gate, we’ll have hundreds of hours of gameplay available.  We plan to update the game regularly and hope to eventually expand to thousands of hours of available gameplay.  Based on what our community enjoys, we will expand the game accordingly, delivering more of what the people want to see and realizing more and more of our vision along the way.  At launch, we’ll have two playable characters available.  If our Kickstarter campaign is successful, we’ll be able to expand the storytelling through more playable characters. We have gone to great lengths to give the world of Lightseekers a deep coherent backstory from the perspective of all its many races and more will be revealed as the game evolves.

TSA: What led you to the mixed-media approach for Lightseekers?

Mark: PlayFusion set out with a single vision – to seamlessly fuse the physical and virtual worlds, or as we like to say in the studio “putting the magic back into the real world” making interactive entertainment a much more compelling and connected experience.  We built a transmedia platform where every single element of the Lightseekers universe works together beautifully to create a more compelling storytelling experience.  So while the video game, TCG card game, and figures all work together seamlessly – we’ve actually built a technology platform that has the ability to do much, much more.  That means comics, packaging, in-store signage, and video – pretty much any brand interaction – can connect with our platform extending the gameplay experience, offering in-game rewards, and unlocking additional content.

TSA: Did you ever worry that you were spreading yourselves too thin?

Mark: At first yes, and if we didn’t have such a highly experienced core team that have all worked together for many years, we never could have embarked on such an ambitious project. We naturally added domain experts to the team since in some of the new areas we decided to tackle.

We think the important point is that most of our community are forced to spread themselves very thin, being forced to engage in multiple games across various platforms and formats in order to get all of the different experiences they are looking for – but these are all disconnected experiences and progress in one doesn’t help in another. We are hoping to help fix that and to provide our community with the deep levels of engagement they’re looking for, therefore we need to be everywhere they want us to be and to provide elevated experiences in each format. Naturally we’ve also made it so that every element of the Lightseekers universe can be enjoyed independently of the other. Players don’t need to engage across every medium if they don’t want too, but it will be extra-awesome when they do and certainly unlike anything else out there that they may have tried.

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TSA: How does the Kickstarter funding play into the game’s development?

Mark: What we’re hoping to raise on Kickstarter is actually a fraction of the cost to achieve our full vision. We’ve already invested a great deal of our own money to get this far. The $200k will allow us to complete our beta test build so we can begin to learn how our community actually plays with the game and interacts with the different elements of the Lightseekers universe.

Any additional support we receive beyond $200k will really help out and naturally will be 100% invested back into the studio, allowing us to make more playable characters, more figures and accessories, more connected content, and more gameplay on a broader range of platforms.

TSA: So, let’s address the elephant in the room. What impact has Disney’s sudden withdrawal from the Toy to Life genre had for the Lightseekers team?

Mark: We haven’t lost our focus or our enthusiasm, if anything it just confirms to us that we are on the right track. We believe we’ve built an extremely ambitious platform that will move the entire genre forward. We believe we’ve created something entirely different with Lightseekers, disrupting the category and creating a new market of its own.

TSA: What are the advantages of targeting free-to-play with the videogame component?

Mark: Our goal is to build a great game, a strong brand, and an engaged community first. If we do that, we believe that the revenue and new opportunities will follow. We have an agreement with TOMY who will be manufacturing, distributing and marketing the Lightseekers figures, accessories, and cards under license. As our brand grows, we’ll look to build out a broad range of other licensees across categories who will help expand the Lightseekers brand footprint – again, with all elements of the Lightseekers universe interacting with the game.

 

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TSA: Having targeted tablets and phones for launch, swiftly followed by Mac and PC, have there been any particular challenges for cross-platform play, and do you have any future plans for the home console space?

Mark: We believe there is a huge opportunity for an awesome role playing game on mobile and tablet, the two platforms that will be available at launch. We’ve listened to our community and they’ve asked for Lightseekers to be available on Mac and PC, so we’ll be rolling it out later in 2017. We going to continue to listen to our community. If our Kickstarter is successful and the demand for console is there, then we’ll make it happen.

From a technical perspective porting to other platforms is relatively simple for us. We designed the game to support multiple control methods for combat and locomotion so that bit is already covered. The bigger challenge is the large amount of work required to integrate the backend of all the different platforms in order to harmonise the player accounts such that our players can move in a frictionless manner between devices.

TSA: How many figures/playable characters do you hope to launch the game with, and what are your long-term plans for their numbers?

Mark: At launch, we’ll have two playable characters and 386 trading cards but we don’t want to stop there. We’ve developed a ten year content plan and we’d love to realise our full vision. With Lightseekers, we expect players will probably go deep and narrow on our heroes leveling-up and accessorizing their digital action figures versus other brands where people collect many static figures shallow and wide. With the support of our Kickstarter community, we’ll be able to introduce more figures, a wider range of accessories, and even more elements of the Lightseekers universe.

TSA: Tomy are a heavyweight company to be collaborating with on the figures, how did that relationship come about?

Mark: We know games, but we needed a toy partner who could help us execute our vision. TOMY is one of the top 5 toy companies in the world and crucially have a strong reputation for high quality. We met them at the New York Toy Fair in February 2015 and from the first day, they shared our vision to create the future of connected play and were very excited about making the figures, accessories, and cards for our original game concept.

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TSA: The technology within them seems you like a real step forward in the toys-to-life genre, do you feel like you’re leading the charge?

Mark: Yes indeed! Because our game includes figures, it’s natural to place us in the toys-to-life genre. However, we believe a more natural comparison is to robotics and AI brands like Anki or Sphero. Our toys are 7” highly articulated digital action figures that deliver real-time 2-way interaction with the Lightseekers game. They include our FusionCore, a proprietary user removable IoT platform that we have created to power the next generation of smart toys. The FusionCore is essentially a mini-computer that contains all the really expensive electronics (like two ARM CPU’s) that make our digital action figures so smart and allow us to create really high end robotics affordable to the masses.

TSA: Thank-you again, and good luck with the Kickstarter!

Mark: Thank you very much, we really appreciate it!


The Lightseekers Kickstarter is running until the 4th of November, and you can head there here if you’re interested in becoming a backer.

 

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