Toys for Bob, the original developers of Skylanders (and a subsidiary of Activision), recently donated hundreds of Skylanders toys and products to The Strong Museum. The Strong National Museum of Play houses the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, and the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
“Skylanders is one of the most significant game franchises of the last decade, and this collection — which includes one-of-a-kind prototypes — shows how the franchise inspired an entirely new genre of play,” says Jeremy Saucier, assistant vice president for electronic games. “These materials will be used in future exhibits and be immensely valuable to researchers who want to study the genesis of ‘toys-to-life’ gaming.”
The donated collection includes more than 200 pre-production figures and portals, including hand-sculpted prototypes. Among the prototypes is the fist ever working Portal of Power. The donation also features 1,000 pages of records, such as artwork and production schedules. And of course, hundreds of retail figures and toys. As part of the collection, The Strong interviewed several staff members from Toys for Bob to provide video interviews and insight.
“We are very proud to have The Strong museum preserve the many stories and artifacts that went into developing Skylanders,” says Paul Yan, chief creative officer at Activision. “This collection exposes Toys for Bob’s unique maker culture and the scrappy inventiveness that went into trail blazing this unconventional marriage of physical toys and video games. Our hope is that making this history publicly available will inspire radical new ways to experience fun and joy.”
The Strong is an interactive, collection-based museum based in New York City, and one of the largest museums in the country. It’s home to the National Toy Hall of Fame and Video Game Hall of Fame.
During the Ubisoft E3 2018 press conference, Ubisoft showed off more footage of their unique spaceship-based toys-to-life game, Starlink: Battle for Atlas. But the biggest announcement was the inclusion of…
Skylanders fans haven’t been feeling confident about the series lately. Activision announced last year that there would be no Skylanders 7 release, the first year a new Skylanders game hadn’t released since the series began in 2011. We’ve been given no new updates on the future of the once stalwart kid-friendly franchise.
Yet the series has not yet been officially canceled (unlike Disney Infinity) and a third season of the solid Netflix Skylanders Academy series is due to air later this year.
For now fans can revel in the sales of older games and figures. Whether you’re a newcomer to the toys-to-life series or a reminiscing veteran, we’ve compared all six primary Skylanders games and ranked them from weakest to strongest.
6) Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure
New Gimmick: Toys to life!
Best Skylanders: Stealth Elf, Drobot, Cynder
Once upon a time, toys-to-life was a relatively brand new concept. Activision and Toys for Bob looked for a recognizable, kid-friendly gaming hero to leverage. Enter Spyro, the sassy but good-natured dragon, who helped pave the way for an all-new action series using physical figures as a unique form of DLC.
Spyro’s Adventure may earn points for being the original, but it just doesn’t hold up when compared to later entries. That’s more a testament to how well the series has steadily improved rather than any glaring weaknesses in the original game.
5) Skylanders: Giants
New Gimmick: Extra-large Giant figures
Best New Skylanders: Flashwing, Ninjini, Pop Fizz
A second Skylanders game the very next year raised a few eyebrows, but Skylanders assuaged many fears by seamlessly carrying over all previously leveled figures from the first game, creating an important precedent that cemented the series’ popularity for years. Out of all the games here, Giants is the safest sequel, not rocking the boat too much but still steadily improving on level and figure design.
The new Giants gimmick likewise wasn’t anything fancy. They were big, lumbering brutes who are almost more of a hassle to play than anything else, though the actual designs are fun, like Eye-Brawl who could detach his giant flying eyeball.
4) Skylanders: SuperChargers
New Gimmick: Vehicles and racing
Best new Skylanders: Stormblade, Splat, Spitfire
By the fifth entry, Activision was looking at other successful family-friendly series to add a whole new dimension to Skylanders. They settled on Mario Kart-style kart racing. It wasn’t exactly a demanded feature by fans, and the result was a ham-fisted addition that didn’t feel entirely welcome. Vehicle segments were both forced (land) and optional (sea and air) and ranged from traditional racing to vehicular combat, 2D exploration, and shoot ’em up brawls.
The Skylanders themselves played a diminished role during the often annoying vehicle segments, and the controls left a lot to be desired. The on-foot gameplay was still solid, and the figures were decent. While it was fun seeing new remixes of familiar characters, like a gun-wielding Stealth Elf, it meant less new characters overall.
3) Skylanders: Trap Team
New Gimmick: Trapping and playing villains
Best new Skylanders: Krypt King, Gearshift, Blackout
Ah, the inevitable Pokémon clone. For the fourth game, Trap Team lets you battle against a roster of fun new villains – and then capture them inside special trap crystals. Sold separately, of course. Playing as the villains was like a special powered-up mode and a lot of fun – particularly the way the captured villains taunted from the speakers on the portal itself.
You needed one of each trap element to play as all the villains, but you could mix and match them within their elemental types. Much speculation was given as to how the traps would be incorporated into future games, and the answer was, unfortunately, not very well if at all. Save for a few standouts the new Trap Master figures were generally disappointing, and requiring them to unlock everything in the game was irksome.
One standout feature that Trap Team added: tower defense survival mode. These were fantastic challenge modes, built for various levels of Skylanders, and a fun way to earn experience and level up outside the main game. They also played perfectly in co-op. For whatever reason, the mode was dropped in future games.
2) Skylanders: Swap Force
New Gimmick: Swappable figures that can mix top and bottom halves
Best new Skylanders: Roller Brawl, Free Ranger, Spy Rise
The third game in the Skylanders series was the first developed by Vicarious Visions, instead of series creator Toys for Bob. Like the annualized Call of Duty series, Activision would appoint two studios to keep up with the yearly output of new entries. Vicarious Visions created an excellent entry that provided some of the biggest, best level designs the series has ever offered. Plus you could finally jump, a first for the series that opened up the level designs even more. But the real treat was the incredibly cool swap gimmick.
In one what is unquestionably one of the neatest concepts in a Skylanders game, special Swap Force figures could be taken apart and mixed together to create unique combinations. It was fun to play around with the toys, and also created a lot of really fun and interesting combos in-game, supported by new challenge mini-games and dual elemental gates.
Swap Force also featured Time Attack and Score modes for providing challenging replay value, and was the last Skylanders game to include PVP arenas.
1) Skylanders: Imaginators
New Gimmick: Create your own Skylanders
Best new Skylanders: Kaos, Golden Queen, Ambush
It’s not fair to declare that Skylanders Imaginators was the first game to finally get it right, as each game had their strengths. But Imaginators combined a brilliant new gimmick, the best line-up of new figures, a fully realized loot system, and a more free-roaming overland map to create the best Skylanders experience yet.
The ability to create your own Skylanders was made possible by piggy-backing on Trap Team’s trap concept. Separate Crystals were sold that could house a single created Skylander. The Crystal determined its element, while you could select on of 10 different weapon styles. Within those parameters, you had multiple basic attacks, weapon attacks, and elemental moves to choose from as you leveled up.
All in-game rewards were tied to loot chests, which gave out new customization pieces, weapons, and skins for your custom Skylanders. There was an astonishing amount of loot to collect, making your Skylanders journey fun and rewarding, though they may suffer a bit from Frankenstein syndrome.
Imaginators couldn’t gotten by on that concept alone, but Activision also released the best wave of figures Skylanders had ever seen. The Senseis were all new, medium-size figures that had the best designs and gameplay we’ve seen yet, and the Villains let us play as our favorites from Trap Team as proper leveled figures.
Story structure and level design saw vast improvements as well. No longer were we stuck in a hub world, going through each level chapter by chapter. Now we could free roam around a board game-like overworld, exploring hidden secrets, taking side paths, and finding mini-games. It cannot be overstated how much this improved every aspect the game. If you can only play one Skylanders game, make it Skylanders: Imaginators.
The future of the toys to life genre may look bleak, but PlayFusion has a few cards up their sleeves to remain optimistic. Their Lightseekers cross-media brand had a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2016, and began releasing last year. But it’s the collectible trading card game I checked out at PAX South 2018.
The Lightseekers Trading Card Game is no mere tie-in or side project, this is a fun, full-fledged card game with unique mechanics and 386 cards, each of which becomes an augmented reality card when scanned into the Lightseekers mobile game.
“Lightseekers is a really fun game that’s easy to learn and difficult to master,” said Willie Wilkov, Chief Marketing Officer for PlayFusion. Wilkov was kind enough to run through a full demo of the game for me at PAX, surrounded by an ongoing Lightseekers cash-prize tournament and numerous play stations.
The card game, like the digital game, revolves around heroes – the Lightseekers. Every deck must contain a single hero, which is set in front of each player. This hero provides the player’s health bar, a unique Hearthstone-like ability, and determines which type of cards you can play. I played with the Mountain Starter Deck and the hero Dolo the Mighty. Each hero has access to three elements, which in total make up each of the six Orders. Mountain has Fire, Earth, and Crystal.
Each deck is made up of five combo cards and 30 action, buff, or item cards. Combo cards are more powerful, but require a certain combination of elements in your hand. For example, to play my Stream of Tantos combo, I’d need to also have Fire, Earth, and Crystal cards in my hand. I spend those cards by shuffling them back into my deck and play the combo.
Action cards simply do their action, and can be played up to twice a turn depending on the hero’s preferred element. This is in stark contrast to many CCG’s which often involve summoning creatures to battle one another. In Lightseekers it’s the heroes themselves doing the battling, and each player is playing cards to do instant damage, heal, or defend against incoming damage.
The bulk of the strategy seems to be about timing. The main way to draw cards is to not play cards, so there are odd times of both players passing back and forth as they build up their hands, hoping to unleash a powerful combo while setting up defenses.
Healing and damage mitigation were quite prevalent in both my Mountain deck and Wilkov’s Nature deck, causing our health to fluctuate back and forth during the relatively quick match. Not having to worry about multiple creatures on the board with individual health bars help streamline the entire experience and made Lightseekers feel unique.
The other unique factor were the nifty rotating buff cards. “There’s a rotating buff mechanic where the cards at the start of your turn rotate 90 degrees, changing the value of the cards,” said Wilkov. “A lot of players really like that and it’s where a large part of the strategy comes into play.” Buffs are cards are placed in front of you with ongoing effects. Most have numbers in their corners, and they’re designed to rotate at the beginning of each of your turns, possibly changing how effective the card is, or setting up some cool traps.
I played a Prism Cannon, which rotated on my next several turns. It did damage according to the number at its current rotation, but this was a patient trap. The first three numbers were ‘X’, doing nothing, but at the fourth rotation it would blast my opponent for eight damage, provided they didn’t find a way to get rid of it first.
The rotating buffs mesh well with the idea of planning for big turns. At that same time my Prism Cannon went off, I had a second buff, the Colossi Ritual Site, rotate from its ‘X’ position to ‘3’, increasing all damage I dealt by that amount. It boosted my Prism Cannon’s damage from 8 to 11, perfect timing!
Every card is also imprinted with a unique digital code, represented by dots on the border. “You can scan and use these cards in the action-adventure roleplaying game,” said Wilkov. “Each card grants rewards and abilities in the game. It’s a blend of the physical and the digital.” The Lightseekers mobile game (iOS, Android, Amazon) is a rudimentary free-to-play action-RPG. Most cards activate temporary buffs, abilities, or allies, while combo cards unlock permanent new skills for your heroes.
Lightseekers looks like it’s designed for standard one-on-one battles, but it actually scales for multiple people. “We’ve played in the office with up to seven players,” said Wilkov. The multiplayer rules (and the cards themselves) specifically make separate reference to targets and enemies, and uses a system of gaining victory points for eliminating your personal targets.
Each of the six orders are available as a starter deck, containing one hero, 5 combo cards, 30 action cards, and a booster pack, as well as a tuckbox for storing cards. Each booster pack includes nine cards, and always contains one hero card, one rare, and two uncommons.
I was given the Intro Pack, which contained starter versions of the Storm and Tech Orders, two fold-out paper battle mats, and a booster pack. The battle mats are a nice way to keep things organized, even though Lightseekers is already very light on card clutter given only the buffs and items remain on the board.
I have played a lot of collectible card games, and many that were aimed at a younger crowd. It’s not hard to see the instant appeal of Lightseekers. The artwork is solid, the rules straightforward, and rotating cards to access different variations is a neat system. You can build entire deck strategies around combo cards, though pulling too many from booster packs can be annoying since you can only ever include five in your deck.
I can see Lightseekers filling a nice mid-tier void somewhere between Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering. I hope it can succeed among the always competitive marketplace of collectible card games.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.