Toys-to-life refers to a relatively new category of games and related toys that was born as recently as 2011 with the release of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. It has been a spectacularly successful category, with the Skylanders franchise alone surpassing $3 billion in sales.
As of late, there have been many new entrants to the competition, so it is a good time to take a look at what toys-to-life games are all about, what kinds of offerings there are on the market, and where the market may be headed.
In the beginning, there was Skylanders
Skylanders took the market by storm on 11 October 2011. A console platformer game with a peripheral called a Portal of Power (technically, an RFID reader), on which you can place related action figures to have them appear in the game (thanks to built-in RFID chips), it really makes toys come to life on the TV screen! Children can play the game, and carry on with the action figures in their play. Furthermore, the figures store their progress in the game, so you can also take the figure with you and use it at a friend’s house in the same game.
Skylanders also has a robust revenue model with dozens of collectible figures available for around $10 each. With all the sequels, the number of collectible figures is by now reaching closer to 200.
A superb article on the birth of Skylanders was published on Polygon last year, so for a real in-depth look I highly recommend that you read it.
To summarize the story, Skylanders was created by a small development studio called Toys for Bob, which was founded by Fred Ford and Paul Reiche in 1989 (my generation best remembers them as the creators of Star Control 2, one of the best computer games of all time). Here, the name proved to be an omen, as the name of the studio stemmed in part from the founders’ appreciation of real toys.
Coming up with the idea for Skylanders, however, cannot be attributed only to the founders. Rather, they had assembled together a team with rich backgrounds and hobbies, such as character designer I-Wei Huang, who created models and robots as a hobby, and programmer Robert Leyland, who loved to tinker with electronics.
Thus, the idea for a game that worked with real toy action figures was born, and the team came up with an RFID-based solution for recognizing the toy, transferring it to the game world, and saving the character’s progress on the RFID chip in the toy so that it could be used even on other machines running the same game. A whole new category of games and toys was born.
The first competition arrives in the form of Disney Infinity
Disney was the first competitor to realize the potential of the toys-to-life market. In fact, the development of Disney Infinity began already before the first installment of Skylanders hit the shelves, and the game was released two years after Skylanders, on 18 August 2013.
The basic premise of the game is highly similar to Skylanders: collectible action figures (from various Disney IPs) that the player can place on an Infinity Pad, the equivalent of Portal of Power, to have the character appear in the game.
Disney Infinity includes various game worlds with platformer-style adventures as well as one key differentiator, the Toy Box mode, which is a sandbox world where the players can build their own world from the elements used in the platformer adventures.
Disney Infinity has sold more than 3 million copies, and Disney is claiming that the Infinity franchise is currently outselling the Skylanders franchise, a claim that Activision, the publisher of Skylanders, denies.
Sequels to Skylanders and Disney Infinity
Before any other competitors could arrive at the market, Skylanders and Disney Infinity had already received sequels.
Skylanders Giants was released on 17 October 2012, and featured new, larger giant characters, but no major changes to the toys-to-life aspect.
Skylanders Swap Force was released shortly after Disney Infinity on 13 October 2013, and brought with it the innovation of swappable character parts: many characters consist of a top half and a bottom half, and you can freely rearrange them to create new combinations.
Disney Infinity 2.0 was released on 18 September 2014, and did not really contain any new features. The main improvements were to the Toy Box sandbox mode, which had been made more user-friendly and capable of handling much larger worlds.
Skylanders Trap Team was released on 2 October 2014 and featured the innovation of physical traps that you can use on a portal to capture enemies in the game, thus in principle bringing elements from the game to the physical world (albeit in a crude fashion so far). It also brought the game to tablets on the same quality as on gaming consoles.
Activision has also announced, in February 2015, that a new Skylanders game is in development and will be released in fall 2015.
New competition, in many shapes and sizes
With the high profitability of the toys-to-life category, it is not surprising that many newcomers have entered the field or are entering it in the near future. Therefore, it is also to be expected that there will be plenty of iterative innovation in this new category as it matures. Let’s take a look at some of the newer contenders out there.
Nintendo amiibo and Pokémon Rumble U
Nintendo made its first experiment into the toys-to-life category with Pokémon Rumble U on 24 April 2013. The Wii U Gamepad has built-in NFC functionality, and therefore a separate portal is not necessary to connect the toys to the console. The Pokémon figures, however, were only available on limited markets.
Nintendo’s main move to the toys-to-life segment came in November 2014 as the amiibo figures were released. The main innovation of the amiibo figures is that they function in multiple Nintendo games. Having control over the entire platform enables Nintendo to achieve this wide multi-title support that potentially extends the lifespan of the amiibo figures to several years.
What having an amiibo does depends on the game: in some games they unlock costumes, whereas in other games they can unlock levelable AI-controlled characters (Super Smash Bros for Wii U). However, there are no games in the market where the amiibo figures play a central role.
Nonetheless, the figures have been a success so far, selling more than 5.7 million units.
What do you get if you mix LEGO videogames, Skylanders Swap Force, and Garbage Pail Kids / Trash pack? That would be Sick Bricks, introduced by Spinmaster at the New York Toy Fair in February 2015.
Sick Bricks the game is a free-to-play mobile game that is very much akin to the LEGO video games that have been popular for the past few years. What places it in the toys-to-life category are the LEGO-like characters sold in sets and blind bags that can be scanned to the game with the camera of your mobile device. The character are like Skylanders Swap Force characters in that the top and bottom parts can be freely combined to form new characters. The game also extends the its toys-to-life feature to include vehicles for the characters in addition to the characters themselves.
Angry Birds Telepods
The co-operation between the Angry Birds creator Rovio and the toy giant Hasbro resulted, among other things, in toys called Angry Birds Telepods. The toys can be brought into various Angry Birds games by reading the QR code at the bottom of each toy (yes, this means one-way communication).
The first Angry Birds game to feature telepods was Angry Birds Star Wars II (from 18 September 2013), followed by Angry Birds Go, Angry Birds Stella, and Angry Birds Transformers.
LEGO FUSION is a blend of actual LEGO bricks and mobile games. It comes in three varieties: Town Master, Resort Designer, and Battle Towers. The first two are Sim City style building games, whereas the last one is a tower defense game. For a brief while, there was also a racing game called Create & Race, but it was discontinued, as it did not work as well as LEGO desired.
In all varieties of LEGO FUSION, you build a 2D LEGO model from a limited selection of LEGO bricks on a special plate and use the camera of your mobile device to take a picture of it in order to transfer it into the game. The game then extrudes the design into a full 3D building. As all games are focused on constantly building new objects, the gameplay makes you regularly switch between the mobile game and the physical bricks.
LEGO FUSION was released on the US market in August 2014.
LEGO Minifigures Online
While LEGO Minifigures Online can be played completely independently of the actual physical minifigures, the minifigures blind bags from series 12 on (October 2014) feature codes that enable the particular minifigure to be imported into the online game as well.
LEGO Ultra Agents (2015)
For the 2015 Ultra Agents line, LEGO introduced what they call carbon fiber AppBricks. These carbon fiber bricks can be used with a tablet app to create gadgets that allow you to progress in the story and get further information. As the bricks are made of carbon fiber, they can be used to operate touch screens without scratching them.
Tiggly Shapes, Counts, and Words
A learning game approach to toys-to-life, Tiggly apps and toys are aimed at children learning to recognize shapes, do maths, and, in the near future, read. The Tiggly toys can be used to operate touch screens without scratching them.
Anki Drive and Anki Overdrive
Anki Drive is an interesting twist in the toys-to-life genre. It is basically physical slot car racing (think Scalextric) combined with computer control.
In Anki Drive, the track is a special mat that you unfold on the floor (there are no actual slots). The cars are controlled by mobile devices. The cars can drive on the track without human intervention once set up, but the people playing can control speed, lane, shooting, and shields. The cars are also virtually upgradable within the mobile application. The players can also have AI control some of the cars. A sequel, Anki Overdrive, has been announced with the new feature that the tracks are put together from pieces, and as such the experience will be closer to building a slot car racing track of old.
Anki Drive was launched on 23 October 2013, and the sequel, Anki Overdrive, is scheduled for a September 2015 release.
More competition on the way
I’m sure there are many other project ongoing, such as the one at Geminose, that have not yet been fully announced. Time will tell what comes of them.
Something for the future: 3D models from real toys
As part of a Microsoft advertisement campaign, a toy store in Britain scanned people’s toys and created 3D models of them for the owners to see. This kind of scanning of any existing objects is one possible development for the future.
What is the definition of toys-to-life games?
A young and fleeting category, a real definition of toys-to-life games does not seem to exist yet. We can nonetheless try to examine some of the key features of toys-to-life games and attempt to craft a definition.
First of all, it is important to note that in order to properly demarcate toys-to-life games in particular from all the various tech toys that are becoming more common in the market and, in a fashion, making toys come to life, for something to be a toys-to-life game, there has to be a game in it. An internet-connected talking Barbie is not a game. Just as obviously, there have to be physical toys.
Another aspect worth examining is independence: Can the game be played without the toys? Can the toys be played with without the game? There are examples of both in the games we took a look at above. When it comes to Minifigures Online, for example, both the Minifigures Online game and the minifigure toys are completely independent, both can be used without the other. In Skylanders, the toys are independent of the game, but the game requires the toys in order to function. In Anki Drive, neither the toys nor the game are independent of each other. The various level of independence affect the motivation to collect the toys and the minimum investment needed to complete the game.
Then, there is the level of communication between the toys and the game. The communication can be unidirectional from toys to game (toys activated in game via NFC, QR codes, or camera, or toys that use the touch screen) or from game to toys (no examples have yet surfaced) or bidirectional (saving data on the toys like Skylanders or controlling the toys like Anki Drive).
Yet another aspect is exclusivity: Can the toys be used with multiple games or just one? Can the game use only toys specific to itself, or can it use toys with certain features, or even any toys? The Nintendo amiibo, for example, work with multiple Nintendo titles, but not anywhere else. In LEGO Fusion, a subset of LEGO bricks work in the game.
Furthermore, there is also the matter of virtuality: Does the game take place in a virtual environment (Skylanders on a TV screen) or in a physical environment (Anki Drive cars that drive around)? Not all toys-to-life games are video games, i.e. the game can take place elsewhere than on a display device.
Having examined these various features of toys-to-life games, we can draft a preliminary definition of the segment: A toys-to-life game is an electronic game that interacts with physical toys.
Are toys-to-life games a fad?
It is extremely unlikely for toys-to-life games to be a fad. The category combines two worlds in which people inevitably live in nowadays, the digital and the physical. It is almost inconceivable for the digital world to completely replace the physical world as an arena of play, so products that combine these two seem highly viable in the long term.
This does not mean that any individual franchise, such as Skylanders, would continue to live forever. As a matter of fact, some level of burnout is already detectable amongst hardcore fans as the number of collectible figures keeps rising at a steady, fairly rapid pace. This may have design implications for the future.
What next for toys-to-life games?
The future is always difficult to predict, but looking at the basic premises of the category, an electronic game that interacts with physical toys, one can see that regarding this particular aspect, variation is to be expected in the four major features:
- Level of communication
Beyond those basic features, it is a matter of the design and story of each game to determine how good the game will be. Ultimately, games that can tell a compelling story or provide a compelling challenge are the ones that last the test of time. Toys-to-life features provide some new ways to craft that idea into reality.
Main photo: Games Week 2013 by Redazione Fuorigio.co @ Flickr (CC)
Other photos: Press material from the respective game companies