skylanders: imaginators

Opinion: We’re Witnessing the Death of the Toys-to-Life Genre

Posted by | Opinion, PC, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox One | No Comments

Last year Disney abruptly announced they were ending Disney Infinity after three years. Earlier this year Activision gave the foreboding announcement that they would not release a new Skylanders game this year – for the first time in six years. This week Warner Bros. confirmed that they’re ceasing development on LEGO Dimensions (though online support will remain).

At this point there are more discontinued (or on hiatus) toys-to-life games than ongoing. In the span of a year we went from most major game publishers wanting a piece of the surging toys-to-life pie, to suddenly being left with a grim outlook for the future of the genre.

The concept of “toys-to-life,” that is, physical figures with built-in Near Field Communication (NFC), began with a little known toy series called U.B. Funkeys in 2007. U.B. Funkeys was a PC game with cutesy figures designed by Mattel.

I’d never even heard of it, and it looks more like a toy with a gimmicky toys-to-life mode rather than a full-blown video game. Being PC-only appeared to cause lots of technical headaches and vastly limited sales, and it was discontinued in 2010.

The House That Spyro Built

Meanwhile Activision took a chance with developer Toys for Bob (who ironically originally pitched their toys-to-life concept to Nintendo). They used a similar concept as U.B. Funkeys, using well-made physical action figures armed with NFC readers along with a “Portal of Power” that digitally transported the figures into a vibrant game world. The entire concept was still commercially uncertain, so Activision slapped a semi-recognizable brand and character on top of it. Skylanders: Spyo’s Adventure was born.

Skylanders’ immediate success was at least partially due to the exciting novelty of the toys-to-life technology. But its staying power is owed to the quality of the figures as well as the solid, kid-friendly, cooperative gameplay. Skylanders included funny characters, simple puzzles, fast-paced action, and a light-hearted Saturday Morning Cartoon story.

toys-to-life

Every year begat a pricey new Skylanders starter pack along with several waves of figures and bonus levels. Each game introduced new types of figures or concepts (you couldn’t even jump in the first two games).

The third game, Skylanders: Swap Force, was particularly noteworthy by adding swappable figures with interchangeable top and bottom halves. In many ways Swap Force represents the peak of both physical innovation and brilliant game design. Trap Team added Pokémon-style monster catching, while the most recent game, Imaginators, let you create your own digital custom Skylanders with multiple unlockable body parts and weapons.

Activision was able to leverage the series into a full-on kid franchise, saturating the Skylanders brand from everything to paper plates to an animated series on Netflix. Skylanders became the World of Warcraft of the genre, the one game that dominated its space and dared anyone else to compete with it.

To Infinity…

Disney answered the call in 2013 with Disney Infinity, an unabashed Skylanders-like game that also used NFC figures along with a portal and 3D platformer-like gameplay. Anticipation was huge; this was basically a Skylanders game but coupled with the immense backing and popularity of Disney characters and series.

Avalanche Software produced three games in three years, each modeled after a major Disney property: Disney movies, Marvel, and Star Wars. Figures ranged from superheroes to princesses to obscure Tron characters, though there was some criticism for conforming such a wide variety of characters into a uniform art style.

toys-to-life

Unlike Skylanders, Disney Infinity’s gameplay pushed more toward a Minecraft model. Players could build their own levels and content and share them online. The community that sprang up was impressive and some of the content and level designs were amazing and creative. Unfortunately official gameplay was limited almost exclusively to the playsets. Disney made the odd decision that only characters from that franchise can play in their own playset.

Between the two game series I vastly preferred Skylanders. Skylanders’ gameplay was much more RPG-like and the combat more fun and interesting. The level designs also felt more like an actual game.

Disney Infinity’s figures all controlled too similarly and simplistically, with only major differences coming with figures like Tinkerbell who could fly, or Star Wars characters with Force powers. The user-generated content was a really neat idea, but Activision wasn’t making money off of it, they needed to sell playsets and figures. If Minecraft + Disney couldn’t end up successful, what chance does anyone have?

Enter Nintendo

We may joke that Nintendo is always a step behind the times, but when they enter a new market it’s almost always hugely successful (see mobile development, and Wii sales). Nintendo introduced amiibo figures in 2014 to immediate success. Unlike all other toys-to-life games, there wasn’t an actual game to go with the figures. Instead Nintendo uses its figures to unlock goodies in other games, such as costumes or extra levels or power ups in games like Mario Kart, Smash Bros., and Super Mario Maker.

This simple concept proved so effective that a New Nintendo 3DS was built with an NFC reader to accommodate amiibo scanning. Both the Wii U and Switch came with built-in NFC readers.

While not having a centralized game is bizarre, it’s proven effective in lowering the cost of buy-in. There’s no pricey $70 starter pack required; all you need is the appropriate Nintendo console. Nintendo’s recognizable roster of characters have proven extremely popular for collectors, despite their limited gameplay use.

toys-to-life

Yet even Nintendo’s toys-to-life beacon is beginning to dim. Nearly 25 million figures were sold in the 2015-16 fiscal year, taking full advantage of then-popular game Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Super Smash Bros. used amiibo figures as RPG-like fighters you could level up.

But the first three quarters of the next fiscal year (ending March 2017) saw only 6.5 million amiibo units sold. No game since Super Smash Bros. has been able to effectively use amiibo figures beyond simply unlocking a costume or perk.

Many complaints have surrounded amiibo as little more than physical DLC you can buy for Nintendo games. There’s also the sadly typical Nintendo frustrations regarding limited supply. Amiibo figures are still popular (millions of units sold is nothing to scoff at), but without better game tie-ins like Smash Bros., the future doesn’t look good.

Everything Isn’t Awesome

LEGO Dimensions’ cancellation is equally upsetting, though probably the least surprising. Warner Bros. and Traveler’s Tales (TT Games) have been successful making fun, cooperative, family-friendly LEGO video games for over a decade. Creating a toys-to-life version, with actual LEGO toys, feels like a natural evolution.

LEGO Dimensions was released in 2015. It launched with a starter pack that took advantage of the popular LEGO Movie along with Warner Bros’ access to various movie franchises, everything from Lord of the Rings to The Goonies. They planned on a three-year cycle of expansion pack content. That’s a long time for an increasingly aging game that still supported last-gen hardware.

They would make it to the end of year two before the announcement hit this week. Figures and sets weren’t selling as well as they’d hoped, and any parent is all too familiar with how expensive LEGO sets run.

toys-to-life

They banked heavily on blockbuster movie tie-ins, which didn’t quite pan out with big sets like Ghostbusters. I also question the target audience for LEGO Dimensions. Their tie-in franchises ran the gamut from The Simpsons to 80s stuff (The A-Team, really?) to modern kiddie cartoons. I can see kids being interested in Batman and Harry Potter, but Knight Rider and Gremlins?

LEGO Dimensions’ wide-net approach has proven unsustainable, and TT Games will return to making regular LEGO games, such as the upcoming LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2.

Toys-to-Death

The future of the genre looks bleak. The only new AAA toys-to-life game on the horizon is Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which was announced during Ubisoft’s E3 press conference. It will feature buildable spaceships that will spring to digital life by attaching directly to the controller. It has a tentative Fall 2018 release date, but Ubisoft is very aware of the current market of toys-to-life games, and there’s a chance this game won’t even see the light of day.

Not all is lost. For a more indie option you have Lightseekers, which was successfully Kickstarted last year and launched earlier this year on iOS and Android.

Lightseekers uses bluetooth technology instead of requiring a portal. It has a very Skylanders aesthetic but with fully articulated figures and AR cards that can be scanned in game or played physically. Both cards and figures are actually optional, and the mobile game is completely free to play. Only the two initial launch figures are available, however, and there’s no telling whether Lightseekers can ever reach the sales numbers of the once titans of the genre.

Amiibo figures are still being produced and selling millions, and Skylanders technically hasn’t been canceled yet. It’s entirely possible Skylanders will pull an Assassin’s Creed and shift way from an annual release schedule. Meanwhile season two of Skylanders Academy just hit Netflix, and a third season is in development for next year.

Toys-to-life games are an intriguing blend of toy and game and can be a lot of fun, particularly for families. I’ve enjoyed playing both Skylanders and Disney Infinity with my young daughter (she’s only recently discovering LEGOs). I particularly enjoy the progression of leveling up Skylanders figures over years of games.

The toys-to-life genre offers the rare kind of game that both of us can enjoy equally and excel at, despite our vastly different gameplay levels and experiences.

I’m very saddened and worried to see all these death notices pile up. It reminds me of another genre that was mined, exploited, and died all too quickly just a few years ago – rhythm games with physical instruments. Like that genre, toys-to-life requires pricey initial buy-ins and upkeep, and physical goods are not exactly cheap for companies to produce. I was hoping game publishers learned their lesson about over saturating a lucrative, but expensive market. Time will whether toys-to-life games will meet a similar wistful end, or find the right balance to remain a welcoming avenue for family-friendly gaming.

skylanders: imaginators

Buy 1 Get 4 Free Skylanders, Disney Infinity Figures at Toys ‘R’ Us

Posted by | News, PlayStation 4, Switch, Wii U, Xbox One | No Comments

More than just rumors are surrounding the poor financial state of venerable toy store Toys ‘R’ Us. That’s sad news, but if you’re a Skylanders and/or Disney Infinity toy collector, you can take advantage of a ridiculously generous Buy 1 Get 4 Free sale running this week. The sale starts today and runs until Saturday, September 23.

Buy 1 Get 4 Free Skylanders

Buy 1 Get 4 Free Disney Infinity

Note that Toys ‘R’ Us has limited stock; toys are selling out even as a I type this news post up.

The Skylanders sale specifically excludes the latest Imaginators figures, but includes all previous generations. Most Skylanders figures are slightly discounted to $9.99. Adventure packs and Racing packs are not discounted, but are part of the Buy 1 Get 4 Free sale.

Disney Infinity sale prices vary, and stock is very limited. Many are heavily discounted to $4.99. Disney Infinity was officially discontinued last year, with online servers finally shutting down earlier this year.

Activision announced no new main Skylanders game would be released this year, causing heavy speculation over the series’ future. The latest release, 2016 Skylanders: Imaginators, was well-received (read our review). Waves of Imaginator figures have trickled in throughout the year. The final adventure pack with Ro-Bow is only just now releasing to retail stores.

Digital card game Skylanders Battlecast was also recently shut down earlier this month.

In more positive toys-to-life news, the second season of animated series Skylanders Academy is coming in October on Netflix. You can watch the new season two trailer here. Skylanders Academy has already been renewed for a third season.

 

skylanders academy

Skylanders Academy Season 2 Arrives on Netflix October 6

Posted by | News | No Comments

We may not be getting a new Skylanders game this year, but we are getting at least one new form of Skylanders content. The Netflix original animated series, Skylanders Academy, returns with its second season on October 6.

Skylanders Academy is an animated series from Activision Blizzard Studios. It’s based on the world of the popular toys-to-life gaming series.

Skylanders Academy follows Spyro (Justin Long) and his friends, such as Eruptor (Jonathan Banks) and Stealth Elf (Ashley Tisdale) as they learn to become full-fledged Skylanders while thwarting the evil schemes of Kaos (Richard Steven Horvitz) and Glumshanks (Norm MacDonald).

Season two welcomes a new class to the Academy, including Cynder (Felicia Day) and Sprocket (Grey Griffin). Here’s the full description:

Spyro begins a search for information about his ancestors in order to harness and understand his special powers. Meanwhile, Kaos’ quest to bring evil rule to the Skylands realms accidentally unleashes a villain more powerful than anything Kaos or the Skylander warriors have ever faced. The Skylanders unite once more for the greatest showdown against evil yet – putting them all to the ultimate test!

Skylanders Academy season one is still streaming on Netflix. It nails the action-packed Saturday Morning Cartoon vibe really well, and features many heroes and villains from across all six Skylanders games.

Activision Blizzard Studios is a new film and television production company built to adapt the company’s gaming franchises to the big and small screen. Along with Skylanders Academy, a feature film based on Call of Duty is also currently in development.

Earlier this year while season two of Skylanders Academy was still firmly in production, Netflix ordered a third season. Season three will probably air fall of 2018.

The most recent Skylanders game, Skylanders Imaginators, launched last year. You can read our review here.

Skylanders Academy season 2 arrives on Netflix October 6.

Skylanders: Imaginators

Uh-Oh: Activision Says No Skylanders Console Game This Year

Posted by | Mobile, News, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One | No Comments

During Activision Blizzard’s fourth quarter 2016 earnings call the company confirmed that there will be no new console Skylanders game coming in 2017. This would be the first year since the series began in 2011 that we wouldn’t get a new Skylanders game.

It may be premature to claim doom and gloom over the entire franchise. But Disney Infinity faced a similar dilemma. In early 2016 Disney announced there would not be a fourth version released that year. A few months later, the entire franchise was closed down.

We won’t be getting an official Skylanders 7 any time soon, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see any new Skylanders content.

“In 2017, rather than releasing a new console title, we will be supporting the award-winning Skylanders Imaginators with multiple adventure packs, new characters and new in-game content,” stated the company. This is a model used by WB Games with LEGO Dimensions. LEGO Dimensions launched in Fall 2015 and has been sustained through multiple character and level packs. Given that Skylanders Imaginators is the best in the series, this may not be a bad angle.

Thus far Skylanders Imaginators has released three adventure packs and over two dozen figures. Imaginator Crystals are also available, and are used to create your own Skylanders in the game.

Skylanders Imaginators is also being ported to the upcoming Nintendo Switch as a launch title.

A second season of Netlflix series Skylanders Academy will be airing in 2017. Netflix has already ordered a third season, which should air next year.

Activision ended their Skylanders talk by teasing a new Sylanders mobile game that’s currently in development and should be launching in 2017. Skylanders has previously appeared in mobile versions, either through ports of the main games or spin-off free-to-play titles. Read our review of Hearthstone-like Skylanders Battlecast.

skylanders academy

Netflix Series Skylanders Academy Renewed For Third Season

Posted by | News | No Comments

Activision Blizzard announced that its Netflix original series Skylanders Academy will be getting a third season. Production will begin this month. Animation will continue to be created by French studio TeamTO.

“Activision Blizzard Studios celebrates the opportunity to bring another season of quality programming to families around the world,” said Activision Blizzard Studio Co-President Nick van Dyk. “We are thrilled to continue our partnership with Netflix on this iconic franchise.”

The announcement comes earlier than expected, as season two has yet to even air. The second season has been completed and is due to air later this year. Season two adds new character Cynder, a new cadet at the academy, voiced by Felicia Day. More voice talent coming in season two: Susan Sarandon, Parker Posey, and Bobcat Goldthwait.

“Response to the show has been incredibly enthusiastic and we’ve taken a lot of creative inspiration from fans’ excitement,” said studio Co-President Stacey Sher. “We have a lot of fun in store for season three and are thrilled to give audiences even more of the characters they love.”

The first season of Skylanders Academy launched in the Fall of 2016. It stars Spyro (Justin Long), Stealth Elf (Ashley Tisdale), Eruptor (Jonathan Banks) and others as they learn how to be heroes at the titular Skylanders school.

The series is based on the multi-billion dollar toys-to-life Sklylanders franchise. Six main games have been released each year since 2011. The latest release was Skylanders Imaginators. You can read our review here.

Season three of Skylanders Academy will air sometime in 2018.