It was at the height of May that Bandai Namco, the Japanese video games giant, detailed its intention to redefine the ‘toys-to-life’ sector with the announcement of Tori, a new platform that would combine physical toys with mobile app game play.
While the UK was preoccupied with the spectacle of its long-standing parliamentary institution turned animal’s playground, Bandai was busy strengthening ties with Europe through a partnership with the French technology firm ISKN, that would go on to prove that there really is still value in a Tori party.
By October 2, the pair had delivered on its mission to launch to market the latest iteration of toy to bridge the physical and digital divide, with the introduction of a new “creative and imaginative ecosystem” that uses technology called ‘Mirror Play’ to enable children to use physical toys to control and interact with digital apps.
Launched with three physical items that can interact with the software, the Tori Explorer Pack arrived with a Wand, a Catapult, and a Spacecraft, as well as five apps to download and interact with.
It was heralded by many as the dawn of a new era for ‘toys-to-life’, a sector that has historically hit rather more stumbling blocks than high notes over its potted history, and marked just the start for an ecosystem that Bandai previously stated will be “enriched with new apps and toys over time,” in a form of gameplay that balances on and off-screen play.
“But this is not toys-to-life,” Hervé Hoerdt, senior vice president of marketing and digital content, Bandai Namco, explains in a statement to clear up any confusion on the subject.
“In toys-to-life, you just put your figurine on a deck and nothing happens. You don’t play with the figurine, whereas here, you have what we call Mirror Play technology. It’s one to one meaning that everything you do with the toy, happens on screen.”
Bandai’s determination to distance itself from the toys-to-life label is understandable. It’s been a sector somewhat plagued by bad luck in the past, with few, if any, survivors still going today. But this isn’t a toys-to-life product, and thus its destiny is not to follow the path of those before it, but a different journey.
“Tori comes with three accessories from the start,” continues Hoerdt. “We have a wand, a catapult and we have a spaceship, but as you can imagine, there are endless possibilities – you can have almost every kind of accessory.
“It works with an energy bar which is a magnet, and in fact, you can even do DIY; you can do something on your own… manipulate the energy bar and it would come to life on screen. “Tori is more powerful [than toys-to-life] and it’s all about fun and creativity, there’s no limit. Whereas again, toys-to-life, you have this figure but once it appears on screen, you play digitally. And we really want to balance like 50/50 on-screen and off-screen activities.”
It was inevitable of course that in this sense parallels would be drawn with Nintendo’s Labo, a craft kit-meets-digital video game system. Labo challenges users to construct various items or complete various craft projects that can be used interactively with the Nintendo Switch. In fact, the parallels are rather strong. But put that to Bandai, and you’ll discover that this is a company that insists it is playing firmly by its own rules.
“We don’t answer anyone. We go our own way,” continues Hoerdt. “The roots of this project is similar to the five pillar strategy we detailed last year. We want to achieve ten per cent of our revenue outside of video games, and actually we want to accelerate a bit more on this one. So we’re contemplating many projects like music concerts, escape games, and our innovation lab where we develop drones and edutainment.
“And we had this start-up near the Lyon area, in Grenoble, coming from the Commission for Atomic Energy. These guys came with the technology that’s patented, which was really exciting to us. So we worked together for three years on this – three years of hard work, and the outcome has been this new entertainment platform.”
Tori comes with a smart board, the accessories, and then the interactive apps. The idea is to develop an edutainment platform for children and families. It’s why Bandai Namco has been working closely with experts and doctors in psychology, motor skills development and ‘everything in between’, to launch a fully-fledged product that will help with the development of a child.
“So it really isn’t an answer to anyone,” says Hoerdt. “It’s just something that we started three years ago. The truth is that the reception from the press was like ‘Oh, there’s some similarities.’ And there are some similarities, in that we want to address the six to 12 year old market segments, we want to develop children’s skills, we want to enter edutainment.”
Actually, Hoerdt doesn’t stop short at declaring the firm’s intentions to target the children’s edutainment market. This is a firm with a keen eye on the opposite end of the scale, too; tapping into the so-called Silver Economy.
“We could use Tori to detect and improve Alzheimers,” he says. “But there are many other projects we have. This is part of a global strategy and has nothing to do with Nintendo, with full respect of what they are doing; I feel like we have something much stronger. The vision is that we have our own ecosystem and we’ll open it. We’ll open it with things like cable, we’ll open it to any publisher that wants to do something, and we’ve also had advanced discussions with many big, big IP companies, so we could even be bringing in third party IPs for the platform soon.”
Those discussions are currently under wraps, but suffice to say there are some large, franchise building companies among them involved in those as they continue to take place.
“Until then, we have a full map of content, that we can sustain on our own and the strategy would be like having these guys on board and to have a whole ecosystem and many, many applications.”
For all that it boasts and the potential that Tori holds, its price of £150 in the UK is not wholly unreasonable, but certainly puts it in a market of platforms that parents need to buy into in order to invest in. And considering the average price of the larger items within this year’s Christmas hot picks, it’s not an outlandish ask.
“There’s a lot of technology – I mean, the board is one kilo,” says Hoerdt. “And there’s a lot of research. Obviously as with all new tech products, we can envision that this is going to be a starting price. And then obviously, at some point, we’ll have maybe a naked board with a lower entry price and we would have more applications. But we tested the price based on 5,000 people in the US, UK, and France and we feel like this is a sweet spot.”
As for expectations for the product, Bandai Namco is predicting a large portion of its sales of Tori to come out of the US, “probably 50 per cent of the business.”
“As we see reaction to the product, we’ll be able to duplicate the production in Mexico and feed the US where we’d be able to expand,” says Hoerdt. “At the moment, it’s a soft launch. It’s not the approach of let’s put one million through the pipe and see what happens. We’re a Japanese company, so we’ll go step by step. The peak will be back to school holidays 2020.”