Skylanders and Disney Infinity: How video game toys came to life

How did the genre become so lucrative in the children’s entertainment market?

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The Independent Tech

Toys coming to life is not a new concept; we all know the story of Pinocchio’s struggle to become a real boy, or ahem, Chucky, the most terrifying doll in the world. But no franchise capitalised on the idea more so than Toy Story, which, nearly 20 years after its initial release, is worth over $10 billion.

Cut to the late noughties and publishers Activision considered there could be a market for marrying video games with toy figurines, whereby physical toys in your living-room are a part of the on-screen action. It sounded fiddly and excessive, what with there already being a console, controllers, and wires involved in the set up, but just three years in, the franchise is now worth $2 billion.

So how did toys to life video games become such a behemoth in the lucrative and competitive market of children’s entertainment?

It all started with Spyro, a purple dragon created in 1998 for the PlayStation. His profile never matched gaming giants Mario or Sonic, but developers Toys for Bob saw a future for Spyro, and made him the protagonist of his brand new series in 2011, where children would be able to place a figurine onto the ‘portal of power’ and, as if by magic, there he would appear in the game, along with over 30 purchasable friends. Kids loved it; Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure quickly became the top selling console and handheld videogame of 2012, with over 30 million of the toys being sold in under six months.

Though Spyro took a back seat in the sequel, Skylanders: Giants, released later that year, the concept of course didn’t go unnoticed by those working in children’s toys. It was hardly going to be a tough decision for Disney to step into the market, with hundreds of films with even more recognisable characters to hand. They launched two years after Skylanders…and yes, you could play as Woody, Buzz Lightyear and Jessie. To every fan’s delight, our favourite Toy Story characters became more real than ever.

With Disney providing tough competition, Skylanders’ developers take their time to cultivate a new concept with each release. The fourth, Skylanders: Trap Team, will see the introduction of traps, where various toy traps will be used on the portal to capture enemies within the game– and make them playable for the first time. One nice element about this (notably for parents), is that you turn the bad guys good, enlisting their skills to play for the good guys.

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A huge part of the success is attributed to the focus on what the children want, says I-Wei Huang, Toy and Character Director at Toys for Bob:

“When we develop characters and toys we try and get the inner child in us into them. Later in the development process, we do tests to make sure none of the levels are too hard or confusing…We get a lot of fan mail from kids wanting to create their own character – it’s very endearing.”

So how are Disney competing? Marvel joined the latest Disney Infinity release to introduce superhero characters, plus they’re introducing favourite Disney characters such as Jasmine and Aladdin. 

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In terms of gameplay, Disney Infinity has a focus on their Toy Box mode, where kids can create their own worlds and games (in a similar way to Minecraft), whereas Skylanders is platform based, completing levels and challenges, interspersed with cut scenes of action from the characters (including help from Flynn, voiced by Patrick Warburton, who, as the adults might recognise, also voices Joe Swanson in Family Guy).

Nintendo are also set to follow in the footsteps of Skylanders by bringing out collectible figurines to use on the Wii U. Amiibo will be introduced on the hugely anticipated release of Super Smash Bros for the Wii U in December this year.

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As with any franchise where there are a number of collectibles, it can get pricey for parents. The Skylanders starter packs are over £60 and there are many extra characters available, so how do the makers ensure that though children can be shown the new characters available, they don’t feel they’re missing out on not having them all?

“We release the toys in waves, so it’s not overwhelming - we slowly trickle them out over time. I think we really just concentrate on creating a whole lot of variety and let kids pick their favourites”, says Huang.

It’s not hard to see why toys to life has become so popular with children. Youthful imagination is a powerful thing, and having tangible characters which appear to magically come alive on screen (as well as voices of the captured enemies coming from the trap as if they have been physically imprisoned in Trap Team) is hugely entertaining.

Kevin Durkin, Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, has praised the style of gaming before, for its ability to push children’s imaginations further. So what exactly do they love about it?

“This is a development which incorporates children’s traditional enjoyment of toys and merges them with the delights of the digital world,” he says. 

“Being able to own, touch and manipulate your own characters affords a sense of tangible durability that is not normally achievable in a standard videogame, where your favourite characters disappear when you turn the game off.  Children also like to act on their environments, and this provides a sense of control,” he adds.

“It makes the social side of gaming all the richer: you can display your characters to your friends - share, discuss and compare.”

Or as he succinctly sums it up: “Toys and video games? What’s not to like?!”

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