Anyone who has recently walked into a video game retailer or electronics section in big box stores has likely seen the racks of RFID carded figures from the Activision Skylanders, the Disney Infinity and the Nintendo amiibo series. Kids can’t get enough of Skylanders to a point that almost rivals the Pokemon boom from the late 90’s. Even Disney is enjoying success beyond their expectations for this market. The amiibo series is selling so well that finding many of the characters in retail is incredibly difficult. It seems that none of the major players in the “living toy market” are going to leave anytime soon. Unfortunately, this success overshadows a major question: what happens when kids move on?
The toy market has been no stranger to radical booms and busts as children’s interests and taste change. Traditionally, character-centric toy lines such as Transformers, GI Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the multiple incarnations of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a habit of eventually resorting to strange feature-based products once the core cast is complete. These “strange features” are commonly referred to as “gimmicks” because the deviation from the “normal” is meant to generate attention. Even if an IP firmly establishes itself in the popular culture, that doesn’t mean a vacuum exists that will keep the market stationary.
Transformers is a great case study, as it became the primary example of gimmicks when it competed against the Ninja Turtles and later Power Rangers toylines. Transformers went into weird directions such as Headmasters (there was a separate robot that turned into a head), Pretenders (a robot stuck inside of a shell that could transform), and Action Masters (STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE ALIVE THAN EVER BEFORE. They also couldn’t transform.) in an effort to remain relevant in a market where TMNT had become the trend setter. The cringe-inducing Transformers Generation 2 revealed the importance of time before the death of an earlier line and a direct reintroduction. Despite this, the Transformers toyline has endured in one way or another for over 30 years. Why is this? The answer lies in the notion of reinventing a concept from time to time.
Reintroduction is the key to keeping a toy relevant with a new group of kids while also maintaining a presence in the popular culture. Someone from Generation Y and another person from Generation Z may have different interpretations and favored interpretations of a character, yet both are ultimately valid. This is why names like Optimus Prime, Leonardo (TMNT), and even Mario (Super Mario Bros) endure the test of time. Toylines that unsuccessfully attempt a cross-generation appeal tend to result in awkward scenarios where the original audience expects all future versions to reflect strictly their nostalgia.
These same principles apply to the video game industry, as certain characters and franchises survive among a sea of titles that may only be relevant for a limited window of time. For every Grand Theft Auto III, there are a dozen titles like State of Emergency. Once dominant games like Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64 and even Halo 1 for the original XBOX suffer from what can only be described as “had to be there” phenomena, resulting in them effectively being period pieces. The dormant X-COM and Fallout met success thanks in part to integrating elements from modern titles into the core gameplay. Fallout 3 combined the first person exploration perspective from The Elder Scrolls series with the world of Fallout and iconic mechanics like the V.A.T.S. System. Revivals from total obscurity are entirely possible; however, there are no guarantees of relevance in a heavily populated marketplace. What does all of this have to do with the collectible figures, though? Eventually, a crash may occur once the current core audience moves on.
Skylanders, the initial trendsetter, seems to be the franchise closest to approaching the gimmick phase. The recently announced Skylanders Superchargers focuses on the added feature of vehicles that will only work with certain figures, requiring the purchase of another “Portal of Power.” This makes the “compatibility issues” for the franchise even more complicated. In plainer terms, the “portals” for each title keeps changing because the constant changes in features require new input readers. An underlying sense of instability generated from this can directly affect the viability of an intellectual property to survive past its initial boom period. After that point comes, attempts to remain relevant are extremely likely to be “directionless.
Additionally, there is the problem of nearly endless variant figures that make collecting a “complete series” incredibly difficult. As this Skylanders list shows, getting them all is far more confusing than any other system on the market (though for those not looking to collect all variants, the task is demonstrably easier). While full forward compatibility for figures remains true at this time, there is no backwards compatibility in either portal or game functionality for newer figures apart from direct reissues of prior versions of already released characters. The new portal in Supercharged will support the “traps” from the current Trap Team series, but the full functionality of traps is removed moving forward.
‘We support the traps in a different way,’ Bala clarifies. ‘This game isn’t about trapping. You won’t be able to capture a villain. The traps themselves give you special ammo, and unlocks a Skystone of that specific villain [in the trap].’
The precedent for phasing out gimmicks between years already seems to be in place. It is impossible to predict how the series will proceed moving forward, which is a major problem the toy line will face moving forward.
Disney’s Infinity system of figures aren’t necessarily held back by the same issues as the Skylanders system thanks in part to a consistent [so far] pad and an established stable of timeless characters. There are some unique problems in the system that could shorten the lifespan, though. Infinity features themed content in the form of “playset orbs” and a Gmod-like feature using existing assets called Toybox mode. Price and compatibility of the playset content at roughly $35 each makes content, outside of the theme orb included with the portal bundle, a luxury. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it weren’t for playset content only being accessible via characters from the source material. For example, the Lone Ranger (2013) playset can only work with the Lone Ranger and Tonto—swapping in Woody from Toy Story for fun wouldn’t work.
Compounding the price structure are the “power discs” blindbags that are required to access specialized features in Toybox mode. These discs combine all of the uncertainty of card game booster packs and the risk of useless duplicates. Details of Infinity 3.0 reveal that the Star Wars focus will be split into the three eras [I-III, IV – VI, VII]. Characters from multiple eras, such as Yoda and Obi-Wan, could potentially see variants within the figure selections that will only work in certain eras. This reality reveals another major problem in the Infinity system: a finite stable of characters that can be reasonably utilized. As amazing as inclusions of Darkwing Duck, Goliath from Gargoyles or even TJ Detweiler would be, their inclusion is incredibly unlikely in the long run.
The amiibo is, in theory, the best option among the three major “living toy” franchises because of the large stable of characters already viable for use in games and the integration of the reader into the Wii U gamepad and New 3DS touch screen makes the introduction of a new portal very unlikely. Alas, reality is often harsher than the best laid plans of mice and men. Scalping in conjunction to inherently uneven availabilities of certain figures makes collecting amiibos quite difficult overall. The rush for the “retired” Villager, Marth and Wii Fit Trainer late last year was rather reminiscent of the Beanie Baby retirement panics of the late 90’s during the peak of said craze. Even with international versions on eBay and small re-releases of select characters, it is still very difficult to find characters like Captain Falcon and Ness without paying a scalper fee. Wherever there is a demand, there are inevitably a flood of knock offs of varying quality to take advantage of the craze. In terms of the Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party amiibos, the functionality is primarily tied to an extension of existing content. Apart from unlocking the ‘Spinner’ in Hyrule Warriors and the novelty of finding the hidden Toads in Captain Toad Treasure Tracker, these series of Amiibo are primarily little figures of Nintendo characters that happen to store unique NPC data.
The presence of unique data in Splatoon makes the case for its amiibos a tad bit more dubious. Use of the Inklings/squid amiibo in-game unlocks unique articles of clothing that can only be used in multiplayer, include challenge modes for the single player and are the only way to unlock mini-games apart from Squid Jump. The articles of clothing are limited to players who have the amiibos (and have completed the challenges); the components can’t be obtained through Spyke under any circumstance. Unlike digital DLC in the Nintendo eShop, the availability of this content entirely depends on one’s ability to secure the corresponding amiibo. A precedent of “physical DLC” locking away more content in future titles is horrifying to fathom.
Finally, there is the new entrant to the field: Lego Dimensions. Lego already has a rich history of themes that could keep an annual game series going for years, but what is likely the greatest boon for this franchise is the extent of licenses Lego Dimensions will release with. The game will launch with content licensed from Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, the BBC and even Valve in a crossover that can make even the most jaded person squeal. This chimera of licenses and characters has the potential to generate a juggernaut the likes of which has never been seen before.
There may be a perfect storm of Lego fans, various fandoms and scalpers that either makes the game either a major success or a complete nightmare, as it is just as likely that many people might buy the Dimensions sets simply to have licensed characters like the 12th Doctor and Chell in official minifigure form rather than for use with the game. What will determine success or failure are the scale of production, retail availability and the ease of accessing game content amid minifigure collectors.
All of the speculation in the world can’t predict how such a volatile market will stand in a few months, let alone its entire lifespan. The reintroduction of the Guitar Hero as a mandatory ‘new instrument’ release (Reminder that all controllers will work with Rockband 4.) within the same timeframe puts a high price on retail shelf space. Stores will likely prioritize what sells immediately over availability of a wide spectrum of living toys.