Figures of fun: How Skylanders is changing the way children play

Skylanders combines a video game with collectable toys.

In the Nintendo Store in midtown Manhattan a woman is asking if they have any Skylanders figurines. "Sorry ma'am, we're all out," comes the reply. "Not even under the till?" the customer pleads, "I know some stores are keeping them back."

After being patiently reassured that the $10 (£6.35) plastic toys aren't being stashed like contraband, she gives up, but not before explaining the struggle she's had getting them elsewhere.

So far, so annual toy fad – a tradition that dates back to queues for Christmas "must-haves" such as Buzz Lightyear, Furby and Tickle-Me Elmo. But, unlike the rest of the plastic delights on show at this year's New York Toy Fair, Skylanders are a bit different. Different because they combine two parents' pocket-straining items: the collectible plastic toy and the computer game. The game itself is a standard (but critically praised) platform game, written by Toy Story's Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow. It's available on all major consoles.

The 30-plus different figures sold separately (at £7.99) from the game allow users to play as different characters. They do so by placing the characters on top of a portal (which comes with the game's £49 starter pack, as do three figurines). The portal then brings each character to "life" on screen and picks up the figures' previous achievements on the game.

As one reviewer put it eloquently: "If I was eight years old, I would be losing my flippin' mind over Skylanders."

Activision-Blizzard, the games giant behind the Call of Duty and Guitar Hero franchises, debuted the first Skylanders game, Spyro's Adventure, at last year's New York Toy Fair – the industry-defining February showcase. A year on, it's so far been responsible for a chunk of its publisher's bumper $1.1 billion operating profit, with 20 million Skylanders toys and accessories sold to date.

If you're a parent, you're probably aware of the game's pull already. If you're not, you will be soon. In the days leading up to this year's Toy Fair, Activision's CEO Eric Hirschberg gathered colleagues and journalists to show off a new title in the franchise, Skylanders: Giants, coming this autumn.

It's no wonder Hirschberg is smiling as he speaks about previous successes. The scene I witnessed in the store wasn't a one-off. "We simply can't produce the toys fast enough to keep them on the shelves," he admits.

Activision took a risk with Skylanders, as it's a relatively unknown bit of intellectual property (Spyro the Dragon's name is attached but he's not the main character) – a risk that involved huge investments in the toys themselves as well as taking on the established toy firms. Activision made some key new hires, including marketing executive John Coyne, who was recruited from industry leaders Mattel. But it seems to have paid off revenue-wise.

That has been a problem for some. Despite the enthusiastic response from children – YouTube is full of fan tributes – the game could potentially cost parents upwards of £250. Presuming they can get their hands on the figures.

But the company is keen to make it clear that you don't have to buy all the figures to complete the game. And yes, it's certainly not as cynical as it first sounds: you can also take your Skylanders figures round to a friend's house and play them on any console. The new game will be backwards compatible too.

The hope – at least for parents – is that children will pick a couple of characters they like and that will be that.

So why is it such a hit? Certainly the gimmick of placing the toys on the portal plays a part. But is it deeper than that? Paul Reiche III, co-founder of the game's developer Toys For Bob, thinks that the rapprochement of physical play with digital technology is key: "People relate to physical objects, particularly on an emotional level," he tells me after the launch event. "I have very tangible physical memories of toys, I can remember the slickness of a Hot Wheel, or how GI Joe's hair felt. Those memories are strong – the toys were alive in my head, but they weren't alive for real. The strongest thing we've done is bridging that emotional tie. That's what drives parents to go to stores in the middle of the night."

Tellingly, Toys R Us chairman Gerald Storch agrees with the hypothesis and has high hopes for the franchise as a whole. "The combination of the physical world and virtual world is something so powerful that's almost unexplainable," he told reporters in New York. "I think it's going to become one of the largest toy franchises of all time." (The retailer has a series of deals with Activision to sell exclusive characters.)

And what of the technology behind the game – is it something other firms could nab? It's not a brand (though it's obviously protected by Activision), Hirschberg tells me later – the "toys to life" concept used existing technology. So why has no one else done it? He identifies a previous Activision hit, the Guitar Hero franchise, as something that gave Activision the leap on other games and toy firms: "The guitars and the drums weren't toys per se, they were controllers," he explains, "but the manufacturing, the supply chain, the distribution and the unusual footprint at retail it takes to make a property like this a success was something we did have experience in."

It's now up to other companies to catch up on a lucrative idea. Indeed, other physical takes on digital games are starting to enter the market, if not via major game franchises. For instance, UK puzzle firm Jumbo has recently launched a series of games for the iPad which bring physical parts to iPad games, such as air hockey and fishing.

Having established the technology of a game/portal/figurine combo, the possibilities for expansion – provided the "magic" doesn't tire on kids, a notoriously fickle demographic – are almost limitless. You could have a wrestling game with different fighters to collect; or footballers; or additions to existing Activision-Blizzard properties such as World of Warcraft.

Hirschberg is coy about future plans but Paul Reiche is convinced the future of the toy industry will be in smart technology like that contained in Skylanders: "The tech we can use is changing so fast ... The idea that your toys know that you went to a certain national park; the ability to maybe text your toys; have your toys know what the weather is like. It will create a magical reality, but one that is grounded in the digital world. That's where things will go."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    C# Developer (LINQ, HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, jQuery) London

    £30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits + Bonua: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    PHP Web Developer (PHP, MySQL, HTML, CSS, Zend)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

    VB.NET Programmer (SQL, C#, .NET, Analyst) - Investment

    £35000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: VB.NET Progra...

    PHP Web Developer (LAMP, CSS, PHP, MySQL, HTML)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: PHP Web Develo...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform