Skylanders and Disney Infinity: How a new breed of video game is blurring the line between the physical and the digital


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The Independent Tech

What is real and what’s virtual? The most recent trend in video games that's producing some of the most succesful franchises ever are trying to blur the boundaries.

The first entry in this new genre was the Skylanders series, published by Activision. What set the title apart when it first launched in 2011 was that it came with a plinth and a toy in the shape of a game character. The plinth, called a Portal of Power, linked to your video game console so that when you placed the toy on it, it would magically transfer the hero from his plastic prison and release him into the game world onscreen.

The transportation effect was incredibly evocative and the Skylanders game has become hugely popular, going onn to be one of the 20 highest-grossing video games series of all time. Not least because in addition to the sales of the game itself, there are plenty of figures to be collected. And since this is a title aimed at children rather than adult gamers, it mostly fell to parents to stump up the cash with extra figurines costing upwards of £10 a pop.

For several years, Activision had the market to itself as rival games companies looked on and waited for Skylanders to fail. After all, being able to make plastic figures, code a game and turn a profit to boot seemed like a laughably unreal expectation. But as Skylanders crept towards its current sales of $2 billion, other developers took an interest.

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Disney have come up with a rival franchise called Infinity – offering crowd-pleasing big-name characters in it, such as Sulley from Monsters Inc and Woody from Toy Story. More recently it’s been announced that Marvel super-hero characters will be in Infinity games, too and in the last few days, Nintendo has made clear that it wants some of this action, creating NFD (Nintendo Figurine Platform) so that the best loved characters of video games such as Mario can appear as physical toys and in the game world too.

But don’t write off the Activision franchise yet with its latest game, Skylanders Trap Team, out in October. Trap Team allows players to bring virtual characters onscreen into the real world, courtesy of an upgraded portal with speakers and a slot for a crystal key. This key, made of rare material 'Traptanium', captures the villainous characters (once you’ve defeated them, natch) and traps them in the crystal. You can hear them shouting their protests via the portal’s speakers. As effects go, it’s pretty cool and offers a feature rivals don’t have - for now at least.

But Eric Hirshberg, Activision CEO, feels there are plenty of reasons why Skylanders has worked so well. “Not only does a character seem to transport into the screen but it also remembers what happens to it. So that character, if you level it up, if you gain new capabilities, if you unlock new skills through the course of playing the game, it gets written on to the memory of that toy. It’s a magical idea and it makes each toy individual.”

As for hardware, he feels Activision had reason to be optimistic. “Activision had a bit of institutional knowledge as an advantage, based on the Guitar Hero franchise – they weren’t toys but we were manufacturing controllers shaped like guitars and drum sets. We learnt a lot about making things that connect the dots between the physical and the digital worlds. But we knew these had to be great toys and stand on their own as toys. As a father what I’ve been most pleased with is these toys get played with whether the game is on or not. Kids create stories, play with them on the carpet. One kid recently created a set of Skylanders chess. I love that as a game not only is it fun to play in the digital sphere but it unlocks the imagination in the physical world as well.”

Adding figures and a portal means the price of a Skylanders game is much more than most titles. Skylanders Trap Team will cost around £65. That’s part of the reason for the game’s financial success, though even this doesn’t include the endless spin-offs like duvet covers, for instance. And Hirshberg feels the structure of the game itself is part of the game’s continuing strength.

“The mythology has always created a critical role for the player. This isn’t a world that you watch from the outside. You, as the portal master as we call players, you are the only person who can unlock these characters. They are frozen in our world and you have to put them back to save the day. So kids feel an incredible sense of empowerment and they feel not that they’re watching heroes do things, it’s that they’re heroes themselves.”