Toy story: Interactive action figures are the latest video game craze
Technology may not have been sophisticated enough to bring your G.I. Joe toys to life when you were young, but kids now get the next best thing: toys that come to life inside a video game. The craze started with Activision's "Skylanders" franchise, and now Disney and Nintendo are getting in on the action figure action.
"Skylanders" works like this: You place a figurine onto a plastic platform known as the "Portal of Power," which is connected to your game console. Suddenly, the character appears on your TV, ready to fight pixellated bad guys. Think Mario meets Playmobil.
"Disney Infinity," a mashup of beloved Disney and Pixar's franchises (Captain Jack Sparrow, Sully the monster, etc.) with similar gameplay just hit the stores. Meanwhile, Nintendo will begin to roll out an interactive Pokémon army at the end of August, to pair with the Wii U game, "Rumble U."
"As they say, it's the highest form of flattery," Eric Hirschberg, CEO of the "Skylanders" publisher, told NBC News of the competing products. "It was only a matter of time," he added.
Seeing as Activision has made more than $1.5 billion off two "Skylanders" games since the series debuted in 2011, Hirschberg has a point. But now that the time for the great game-toy battle has come, how will kids choose?
"All three of these offers have their own strengths," Piers Harding-Rolls, an analyst at IHS Electronics and Media, told NBC News. "Skylanders" has a "first-mover advantage in terms of consumers and retailers," "Disney Infinity" has an "iconic, well-loved" brand name, and "Rumble U" taps into that "gotta catch 'em all" mentality that's made Pokémon what it is today.
But Harding-Rolls admitted that, when it comes to competing with Activision, Nintendo and Disney will have their work cut out for them. "Pokémon Rumble U" is an exclusive title for a console that isn't selling well. And "Infinity's" success isn't a sure bet for a division of Disney that's posted losses for 17 of the last 18 quarters. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the game itself cost more than $100 million to develop.
But Bill Roper, VP and general manager of product development for Disney Interactive, insists that the company has something that could even win over "Skylanders" fans: the "Toy Box," an open-ended portion of "Disney Infinity" that allows players to create their own worlds using bits and pieces collected from Disney franchises.
Ultimately, Roper thinks "Infinity's" gameplay is "more mature" than a game like "Skylanders," which gives kids a linear, often simplistic experience.
There's a lot of money to be had with these toy-based games. The "Disney Infinity" starter pack will run you $75, but if you want to play through "The Incredibles" with a friend or family member, you'll have pay $13 for an additional character. "Cars" and "Toy Story" playsets cost another $35 each. All in all, you could easily spend $250 on "Disney Infinity," which is more expensive than some of the devices the game runs on.
So, can you play with them?
With that much money on the line, the question is whether or not the "Infinity" characters actually make good toys. Roper said that Disney wanted to make the characters feel more like collector's items than simple playthings — what you'd see at a comic book store, rather than in the Walmart kids aisle. " The Pokémon "Rumble U" toys, meanwhile, are entirely optional, giving the player's virtual Pokémon extra powers to take into the battle arena. Available for $4 a pop exclusively at GameStop (the game itself is just $18 as a digital download through the Nintendo eShop), there aren't any new Pokémon to be found here necessarily, but the action figures have at least been stylized as collectibles in their own right, bearing a cute resemblance to their polygonal in-game counterparts.
Hirschberg told NBC News that the "Skylanders" franchise is taking the opposite direction with the upcoming "Swap Force" series, due out in October. For the first time, players will be able to mix and match different parts of the action figures. Hirschberg insists that this will add to their overall value not just as parts of a video game, but also as toys beyond the virtual, screen-based world kids are so often glued to.
"Wherever kids play, we want to be able to bring these toys," Hirschberg said. And as for the question of name-recognition, he said Activision has something more important that all gamers crave: novelty.
"Since when does recognizability trump originality?" Hirschberg asked. Instead of relying on known franchises, he said, "let's have confidence in gaming'sability to tell great stories."
Thing is, "Disney Infinity" may not even have to worry about originality. With the entire Disney and Pixar universe to mine from, Roper said, that the possibilities to mix and match characters in interesting ways is, well, infinite.
"There are so many ways to do that," Roper said. "That's why we haven't felt like: 'Let's go make our own IP!'"
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: [email protected]
Video games: ‘smart’ plastic figures put fantasy play back on living room carpet
Video games used to compete with toys for pocket money, but combining the two is proving increasingly popular. Games such as Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Amiibo feature a collectible line of toys which interact with virtual games characters.
The toy figures are integral to the gaming experience and extend the storytelling away from the screen and invite imaginary adventures on the living room carpet.
Rather than movies introducing characters that then spawn toys and video games, this hybrid category creates a new point of contact for brands such as Toy Story, Spider-Man, Transformers and The Avengers. Star Wars is likely to be added next year.
The three-inch static plastic characters work as toys in their own right through their detailed design, paintwork and tactile materials. Each toy has a chip in the base that unlocks its character in the game when placed on a USB peripheral plugged into the console. Progress and customisations are automatically saved back to the toy ready for the next play session. On the shelf they look appealing, but in the hand they are hard to put down.
Thom, nine, has filled his toy box with them over the last three years. “They’re not like my other toys because they work in the game too when I put them on the portal. I don’t have to press save or anything; they remember my upgrades and money automatically. I can upgrade them at my friends’ too.”
The children’s fantasy game Skylanders went big on the idea three years ago, offering more than 30 toy figures to collect and special editions hidden on store shelves in a “golden ticket” style. The gamble paid off. Skylanders proved that its “toys to life” genre had legs.
According to Dorian Bloch, business group director of entertainment reseach company GfK Chart-Track, the hybrid toy-game sector generated £200m in revenue in 2011-13 in the UK. Skylanders shifted 175 million toys worldwide in that period and even scooped a Bafta award.
These big numbers come in part from purchases of add-on toy packs that cost from £9. In-game videos highlight characters not yet purchased and instigate considerable pester power. With tens of figures coming on the market each year, families wanting to collect them all can end up spending as much on the game as on the console it runs on.
While big chains such as Toys R Us quickly recognised the retail significance, independent toy sellers have been more cautious. “Toy shops were initially reluctant,” said Samantha Loveday, editor of ToyNews magazine, “but now see greater benefit in stocking games like Disney Infinity with its popular Frozen and other Disney characters.”
John Vignocchi, vice-president of production for Disney Interactive, sees the power of Disney Infinity in its game creator mode. “In the Toy Box mode you can become the Disney and Marvel storyteller. It gives players a chair at the table with developers.” This lets children take on-screen adventures in any direction they please, mixing up the usually tightly segregated brands.
This year Ellen, 11, encountered an array of Marvel characters for the first time. “I didn’t know who Rocket Racoon, Iron Man and Venom were, but now we’ve played the game I’d like to see the films too, maybe get some other toys.”
She is equally enthusiastic about Skylanders. “The Trap Team toys are pretty fun as well, I like how they are really different and the girls aren’t all princessy.” John Coyne, senior vice-president of marketing at Activision, suggests that this comes from the genre’s ability to be the starting point rather than terminus for brands. “I think it’s creativity and innovation that sets [Skylanders] apart, because we’re not just borrowing equity or characters from something that’s already created.” Skylanders offers characters that feel less commercial and buck the usual buff/slender binary for male/female heroes.
Like it or not, there is no going back now. The toys, video games and related media franchises create a powerful draw for young minds. Understanding how this changes children’s interactions with branded stories is essential for parents to make informed decisions about what to buy and when to resist pestering.
This revolution may not be televised, but it is certainly appearing on video-game screens, the living room carpet and playground games everywhere.
TOYS TO LIFE
2011: Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure launched.
2012: Skylanders Giants adds larger and light-up figurines.
2013: Skylanders Swap Force introduces mix-and-match swappable toys.
2014: Skylanders Trap Team adds Trap-able player-controlled villains.
Unique selling point: Collectible original characters and multiple special editions.
Old toy figures can be used in the later games’ adventure modes and grant access to secret areas. Trap Team restricts its Elemental zones to the new Trap Master toys.
Prices: Starter pack, £39.99 to £44.99; single figures, £8.50 to £13.50; Traps, £5.99.
Formats: Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, 3DS, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire.
2013: Disney Infinity launched.
2014: Disney Infinity 2.0 Marvel Super Heroes adds Marvel adventures and upgraded game creator mode. Disney Infinity 2.0 Disney Originals offers an alternative upgrade based on classic characters.
USP: Disney characters and game creator Toy Box mode. All 1.0 figures can be used in the 2.0 game creator mode.
Prices: Starter pack, £39.99 to £42; single figures £9.50.
Formats: Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Tablet, 3DS.
November 2014: First wave, with Super Smash Bros., including Mario.
December 2014: Second wave, including Luigi.
February 2015: Third wave, including Sonic.
USP: Nintendo characters that work across multiple games. Amiibo figures work across Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8 and Hyrule Warriors.
Prices: Single figures, £10.
Formats: Wii U, 3DS.
LOS ANGELES -- When Noah Tan saw these toys on the shelf, he had to have them.
The 4-year-old from a Toronto suburb is collecting a new genre of figurines built by companies like Activision Blizzard and Walt Disney. Like most toys, they're painted with vibrant colors and posed in dramatic positions.
But these aren't normal figurines: when placed on a special surface connected to a console and TV, they appear on the screen and can star in a video game.
To Tan, it's part of their magic. "They have superpowers," he said. He's since collected at least 30 of these toys, often sold for about $15 apiece.
Tan, and many eager young players like him, are helping to change the video game industry.
Historically, game makers were confounded by children. Aside from a handful of successes, such as Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. and Pokemon franchises, efforts to make games for kids haven't had great success despite the opportunity that comes with targeting that demographic.
That changed with the arrival of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, released in 2011 from Activision Blizzard. The game introduced customers to new figurine accessories and a "portal of power" with which to send the toys into the game. Sales have been steadily jumping, and other companies have rushed to offer their own takes on what has become a multibillion-dollar genre.
"From the first time a kid picked up a stick and pretended it was a sword, we've all brought toys to life in our minds,," said Eric Hirshberg, head of Activision's publishing arm. "This brings that fantasy closer to reality."
Activision's Skylanders franchise of games has so far topped $2 billion in revenue, selling more than 175 million toys through the end of last year. Skylanders is now one of the top 20 best selling video game franchises of all time, according to Activision's internal data. The company also says it is now the world's largest manufacturer of action figure toys.
The rapidly rising sales for this new genre come in contrast to overall sales of console video games, which have contracted seven percent in the past three years to about $25.1 billion.
The genre is poised to grow even larger.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo here, Nintendo showed off its own take, called Amiibo, which will allow figurines of individual characters from Nintendo's franchises to interact with various video games through wireless radio signals. The devices will communicate with the GamePad tablet controller, which is sold alongside each Wii U video game console.
Scott Moffitt, a marketing and sales executive for Nintendo of America, said some of the products' appeal will come from the items having been fashioned from the company's popular video game characters.
"The obvious fact is that the characters are widely known and have great appeal," he said. Nintendo plans to offer about 10 figurines at the outset. The figurines will interact with at least five games, eventually including the recently released Mario Kart 8 racing game as well.
Making products for this genre of games was a natural decision for Nintendo. Citing market research, the company said 58 percent of customers play these types of games on its devices.
Down this road before
Analysts disagree about whether the market will continue to prosper, noting that fads have swept through the video game industry in the past.
One of the most notable examples was Activision's Guitar Hero, a franchise of games first released in 2005. The game relied on real-world controllers shaped as guitars for players to use as musical prompts filled the screen. Four years later, and after several entrants attempted to offer different takes on the genre, sales sharply dropped.
Some analysts and industry insiders say this new toy genre could meet a similar fate, arguing that many toys are popular for only a few years. Companies say they continue to add twists on game play in an effort to keep the games fresh and encourage customers to buy new toys by offering different functionality.
Some game makers have decided to wait it out all together. Yves Guillemot, chief executive of game maker Ubisoft, said his company was at one point developing its own line of toys, but decided the upfront investment was too much. "When you have to buy the toys plus the system, plus create the game, plus create the marketing, you have to choose at one point where you put your efforts," he said. He chose to invest instead in making elaborate high-end games, such as Ubisoft's latest historical fiction title, Assassin's Creed.
Walt Disney chose to compete against Activision, becoming the second major player in the market when it released its Infinity line of toys last year. John Vignocchi, an executive producer at Disney, said many of the mistakes companies have made were that they don't focus on making the games compelling over time; He intends to avoid that particular pitfall.
Part of his plan comes from a twist in the way the games are played. Like Activision's Skylanders, Infinity players place figurines on a specialized base that recognizes the toy and activates it in the video game.
Once activated, gamers can use these characters to play a traditional action adventure game using characters like the Parr family from Pixar's animated superhero film "The Incredibles."
But there's another way to play, too. Customers can can create their own worlds using a feature called "toy box," in which to play with the characters in any way they wish. Gamers have downloaded toy boxes shared over the Internet about 10 million times, Disney said.
"Players want to create their own worlds and share them," Vignocchi said. He added that the Infinity team is working with other groups at Disney to create more toys using well-known characters.
The next iteration of the franchise will offer more capabilities for existing characters, as well as a cast of new ones from Disney-owned Marvel Comics. It will launch in the fall.
In the meantime, companies are racing to cash in on the craze. One company, Hanakai Studio, is producing a more intricate take on the genre with its strategy game Prodigy.
Retailer GameStop has also responded, holding specialized education "clinics" to teach parents and children about the toys, and it is working on additional sales efforts it hopes to have ready for the holidays.
Tony Bartel, GameStop's president, said the company will also expand shelf space it dedicates to these toys in its stores by 50 percent, in part to accommodate Nintendo's entrance into the market.
"We obviously wouldn't be doing it if there wasn't strong consumer demand," he said.
Category talk:Video games that use figurines
Distinction to "Toys to life video games"
Can somebody who created this category ("Video games that use figurines") and the "Toys to life video games" category clarify what the differences between the two are? As far as I know, all video games currently in the two categories (Skylanders, Disney Infinity, Amiibo, Lego Dimensions, Pokémon Rumble U, Prodigy) have a game mechanic where the toy figurines come to life, right? So wouldn't it be easier if there was just 1 category, "Toys to life video games"? Bonomont (talk) 14:13, 1 October 2015 (UTC)
- I created this category, and the toys to life one was created a couple years later. I don't see the need for both. There was no clear organization or criteria for deciding which games/articles were in which category; some were in one or the other, and some were in both. I pointed everything split between the two back to this one for simplicity's sake. —Torchiesttalkedits 22:08, 30 March 2016 (UTC)
Use that video figurines games
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