Joby Otero, chief creative officer at Anki, tells ToyNews about the future of Anki Drive, the brand's licensing potential and how the UK has embraced the product.

Joby Otero on creating a new product category with Anki Drive

How was 2014 for Anki Drive?

It was terrific. We made a lot of progress on updating the software, which is essential for the product because the hardware is a really exciting innovation. One of the best parts of that is that we can continually update the software and add features to the game.

Consumers have been responding great to that. If you look at our play curve, even though we haven’t released any new hardware for a while, that play continues to go up and up.

Anki launched in the UK last year primarily in Apple stores. How has the UK market responded to the product?

The response from consumers at retail and retailers themselves has been through the roof. We’re now making sure we do all we can to get the word out there about the product. Awareness is one area where there’s the biggest growth opportunity for us. We haven’t put huge marketing behind it yet but last year, some of our efforts kicked in and we’ve seen sales numbers jump dramatically.

We did an event with Maker Studios where we brought nine of the big YouTubers together to play the game at what we called the Anki Drive Battle Grand Prix. That generated millions of impressions and had an exciting impact. So the response has been fantastic.

When players sit down to play the product, they immediately get that this is something new and different. It’s hard to tear them away from it. The challenge for us is getting the word out there about it and making sure people have an understanding about how this is different from anything else out there.

As a tech savvy company, are things like the Maker Studios event the route you are going down with regard to marketing? Do you feel these non-traditional marketing methods suit Anki Drive better than more traditional means?

Absolutely. You’ve hit the nail on the head. Anki Drive is pretty much a new product category. It’s stems from the work I set up at Activision with Skylanders where we were created the toys to life category. In that case, it was bringing them to life in a video game experience.

The video game experience, while powerful, is also very familiar. Here, we are doing the opposite by bringing a video game to life in the real world through toys driven by real robot science.

Communicating that to people is really challenging so we have to do it through non-traditional channels, partly because it’s a message that takes a little bit more to get across. Also because the audience for it is a little less traditional.

There is also the fact that we don’t necessarily have the giant marketing budget of something like Skylanders so we have to be more unconventional in our approach. So far, it’s working out great.

You’ve come to Anki from the world of Skylanders. In the UK, it took a while for toy shops to come around to the idea of stocking what is essentially a video game. Have you been met with the same uneasy reception when it comes to Anki Drive or have both toy stores and video game retailers embraced the product?

It’s showing itself to be appropriate in both types of store – video game shops, toy shops as well as hobby shops.

To be honest, it took us a while to come around to that realisation. The initial genesis of the product had always been about bringing a video game to life in the real world. It was very tech heavy initially so when the partnership opportunity with Apple came up, and Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced our CEO at WWDC in 2013 (see below), we got the product into Apple stores – it was such a deer in the headlights moment for the company. We needed to take a step back.

As great as it is that we are in the Apple locations, the reality is, where will the average consumer expect to buy us? People are thinking this thing looks interesting; it’s part toy, part video game, and part robot.

When we ask consumers, the typical retail locations they expect to find us in is retail locations where they would find other toys and video games.

Stateside that is Toys R Us, Target and Best Buy. It took a while to come to that realisation but now we are in a lot of these locations in the US. In the UK, we’re now in premier retail locations like Harrods, Selfridges, Dixons, GAME, Amazon, Apple and also at the London Science Museum.

We’ve done a lot of research in the UK and Europe to find out exactly where we should be in terms of our retail footprint. Not just in terms of what retail locations, but where in the store. We had that challenge with Skylanders and it’s every bit as much of a challenge with this product, if not a little bit more so because with Anki Drive we crossover into more categories.

It’s not just about the shop. If we’re in Toys R Us, are we with the video games or with the toys? That’s been a real learning experience but now you’ll see greater visibility for the product because we’ve got closer to the right formula.

Have you found that despite the advanced tech of Anki Drive, the product remains very accessible?

Consumers get on board immediately when they see it. The trick is messaging it upfront. When we show kids a product video and when they play it, they get it immediately.

But somehow, in our adult mind, we become much more compartmentalised. Things fall into stricter categories. When you tell somebody that it brings together the best of triple-A video games with robot science and toys, our adult minds thrash around a bit to understand that. That is a challenge.

But when retailers see it, they get it immediately, although there is still that challenge of where in the shop shall I put it. But there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm around it, so the great part of it is that even though they are challenged by it initially, they are willing to work with us on it.

Retailers look for products they can show off in-store to help differentiate themselves from online competition. Does Anki Drive lend itself to in-store demonstrations?

A lot of our conversations with retailers have been around exactly that. There’s nothing else like it out there and it’s a great showpiece that can draw attention. We’re seeing retailers figure out ways of using it at the front of the store to bring consumers in and it also keeps shoppers coming back into the store for a game of Anki Drive. So there’s that utility aspect to it as well.

How important is it for Anki to keep up with the latest tech?

One of the things that drew me to Anki is that there is a pioneering spirit within its DNA. It’s how our brains work. We want to find things that nobody else is looking at yet.

There are also some fun challenges that come with that from a business standpoint because we’re trying to pack an awful lot of technology into small cars. A lot of that challenge is optimising that so it becomes something that’s accessible to a broad audience, not only from a message standpoint but from a price standpoint.

We like to be on the cutting edge. I believe we are creating a new product category here. People picking it up right now are having reactions that I haven’t seen anything like since the first demonstrations of Skylanders. We have plans for some fun advancement on the hardware side and the software side. In a sense, it’s just the tip of the iceberg at the moment.

The collectability factor helped give the likes of Skylanders and Disney Infinity a life in toy stores. Is this something you aim to develop with Anki Drive?

We’d love to be able to get even more cars out there because there are so many designs we have in mind that would appeal to so many different car enthusiasts. You have fans of everything from F1 to monster trucks. In the long run, there’s potential for all of that to fit with this product in some way. Our technology can certainly support that.

The idea that it can grow into something seen as collectable in the long run is something that I would love to see happen. In the short term, it’s not something our consumers have to worry about. They can just find a few favourites and have a great time.

One of things that we’ve made sure of is that somebody who just buys the starter pack can have a fantastic time with it. If they don’t want to add additional cars to their collection, that’s not a problem. On the other hand, we have a ton of different designs we want to bring to market.

What does this year have in store for Anki?

2015 will be more hectic than 2014 in all dimensions; in everything from development to marketing to sales. What we’re trying to do with the product this year is a quantum leap in several key aspects to what we’ve got now.

My background is mostly in the games industry and we’ve been really bulking up that side of the company by bringing in truly triple-A development expertise. The end result should be something that has even more hours of gameplay and more personality, character and story.

Are you seeing the worlds of toys and video games becoming more and more intertwined?

I certainly see it that way. Skylanders started the ‘toys-to-life’ category and the truth is that there had been struggles under the hood in both industries for the last few years. The success of the ‘toys-to-life’ category has re-awakened innovation and pushed both industries together.

It’s always great to be in a situation where your technology gives you a strategic advantage that would be hard for anyone else to easily duplicate. We’re trying to build a situation where triple-A games expertise combines with robotics to give us a very rare combination that keeps us at the forefront of a growing new category in both toys and games.

It’s interesting how kids get it immediately and get really absorbed in it. Parents see their kids get really into video games and that can be unnerving for parents because they feel emotionally disconnected from their kid who seems to be off in another world. As a designer, I know what’s actually going on in that kid’s mind is a tremendous amount of stuff that is often quite nurturing like hand/eye co-ordination and problem solving skills. But when kids sit down to play Anki, everyone can still engage as it’s happening in the real world. It feels less alien. That’s what the ‘toys-to-life’ category can do.

Are there other sectors in the toy industry that Anki would like to get into?

We look at where there is an unmet need. We’re not pre-disposed to stick with one particular demographic. It’s just about where the potential is and where the technology leads us. If there is a version of our gameplay that could reach pre-schoolers, that would be fantastic.

Are you open to licensing with the Anki Drive?

We’re very open to it.

Our focus is on building this up as best we can on our own and generating this into a complete, rounded entertainment product. In the meantime, we’re not closed to licensing opportunities.

I’ve worked on licensed games before and there is lots of licensed product out there that feels very tacked on. It can be an insincere approach to catching extra dollars and from that aspect, we’d be extremely wary. But at the same time, there are definitely ripe opportunities for licensing that could feel really well integrated. We’re not close to that yet though.

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