What makes a successful brand or franchise aimed at kids? Often the first piece of media that entices children or young teens is a movie, television show, or toy line. From there companies can expand with multiple forms of media and merchandising – including video games.
Video games have reached an odd era when it comes to kid-friendly brands. In the 90s and early 2000s, a major video game tie-in was pretty much guaranteed, and many of these games were extremely well-produced and successful. But gradually the games declined in quality and were rushed out the door as games became much more advanced. Many major toy and kid-focused companies all but abandoned gaming – until mobile.
To many kids, younger children especially, mobile gaming is their primary source of video game entertainment. All the major kid’s games and brands have mobile game tie-ins, with little to no major console presence. These games range from free-to-play cash-ins to full-fledged adventures. Examples include Shopkins, My Little Pony, and Paw Patrol.
We see lots of toys and TV shows that churn out supplemental apps and mobile games. But what about a brand whose origins lie in gaming? Can any kid-friendly franchises make the leap beyond gaming into a full-blown cross-media brand?
Plants Vs. Zombies is a decent example. The simple and cutesy tower defense game gained incredible popularity over the years, eventually releasing on every console and mobile device imaginable. A few toys were produced but PvZ never really expanded much beyond that. Instead it doubled down on gaming, evolving into a third-person AAA console franchise called Garden Warfare.
Pokémon is the go-to pinnacle of a successful game franchise building a media empire. But by the time Pokémon reached the U.S. it already had an anime series, a collectible card game, and a movie that same year. It was an all-out media blitz.
Instead I look to Skylanders as a benchmark for success. Skylanders cheats a bit by also technically being a toy brand, but the emphasis is always on the games. Skylanders has been releasing a new game each year for the last six years, along with dozens of figures. It’s a successful model that’s transformed into a towering brand, including comic books, t-shirts, and lunchboxes. But this year it finally made the successful leap in cross-media.
Skylanders Academy debuted on Netflix earlier this Fall. The 12-episode season features a core cast of popular Skylanders along with dozens of guest stars and cameos.
Skylanders Academy doesn’t try to retell any stories from the games. Instead it uses the established characters and personalities to craft original stories that are fun and rewarding for fans, while just being a solid kids cartoon for newcomers. Skylanders Academy features some nice production values and an impressive voice cast that puts the actual in-game cutscenes to shame. Netflix provides a fun and exciting new avenue for many unique properties to make the leap to television.
This year also saw the release of the The Angry Birds Movie. Angry Birds is one of the more successful mobile games of the last few years with both kids and adults. The game’s cutesy art style translated into an animated adventure with lots of action and crass humor. Still, it was far from a total train wreck and eventually went on to become one of the highest-grossing video game adaptations of all time.
So what does the future hold? Expect a lot more game companies to take advantage of further mainstream awareness with movies and TV shows.
It’s impossible to ignore the sheer power of Minecraft, easily the single biggest game in most kids’ and teens’ lives right now. A movie is slated for a 2019 release, though Minecraft doesn’t easily translate to any single narrative structure.
Nintendo is the keeper of the most beloved and well-known brands in gaming, kid-friendly or otherwise. Earlier this year they announced their own steps into cross-media platforms by producing animated feature films based on their hugely popular franchises like Mario and Zelda. Nintendo’s success (or failure) could make or break a lot of companies plans for feature films.
Personally, I’ll add my voice to the legions of fans crying out for a movie or series starring the incredibly diverse and interesting Overwatch characters and futuristic world of sentient robots and warfare. Blizzard’s high quality short animated films have been widely celebrated, though the subject matter is geared more toward adults.
Kids today have never known a world without video games – and in many cases, neither have their parents. Games have grown substantially more sophisticated since the 90s. Instead of just another avenue to sell kid-friendly brands, game companies are creating their own original intellectual properties aimed at kids. We’ve grown well beyond taking tentative steps with merchandising. With the success of The Angry Birds Movie and Skylanders Academy, gaming has begun to take its rightful place as a medium where ideas can originate and blossom into full blown media empires.