In theory, the idea of using physical toys to complement video games seems completely bulletproof. Who wouldn’t want to immerse themselves in virtual lands all while having an actual toy to accompany them throughout their journey into the unknown? Players’ imaginations know no bounds, and that’s exactly what toys-to-life games are all about—they bring toys to life. What could go wrong, right?
While the thought of physical figurines that use near-field communication (NFC) technology to give digital form to characters on the console seems like a really good idea, its success depends solely on proper implementation and a careful anticipation of how the target market behaves—something that, unfortunately, not all developers can easily pull off.
What Went Wrong
The toys-to-life concept is nothing new. Players normally need to buy some form of accompanying portal device that will essentially “transport” the toy character into the video game using NFC technology. It’s nothing too groundbreaking, but the concept really took off when Skylanders was released in 2011.
Skylanders features vibrant characters and exciting puzzles packed nicely in a kid-friendly action RPG. It was a juggernaut of a franchise during its time, as each starter pack you buy already gives you the game, a good variety of figurines, and the “Portal of Power.” You plug this plastic base into your console and get started with collecting all the different elements you need to fully enjoy the game.
For instance, you need a Skylander with a water element if you want to explore content through a water gate. You can also take advantage of strengths and weaknesses of characters against certain enemies and elements, so there’s a lot of swapping out involved as you’re playing the game. Plus, you can collect figures from different titles as older toys will work with newer games (but not the other way around), namely, from games like Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, Skylanders: Giants, Swap Force (which has great mix-and-match qualities to the figures), Trap Team, Superchargers, and Imaginators.
While the franchise really made waves and was a force to be reckoned with during its heyday, it’s currently in a state of limbo, with no new games coming out since Imaginators debuted in 2016. Sadly, colorful plastic monsters alone weren’t enough to keep the fire from fizzling out.
Of course, while Skylanders was at the top, Disney saw an opportunity to go up against Activision and promptly released Disney Infinity in 2013 to get in on the action. I mean, Disney has all of these really cool franchises, so why not, right? Highlighting Disney and Pixar characters first, Disney Infinity even furthered the concept with the Toy Box, a virtual landscape where players could design their own worlds and play in them like a literal toy box. You can easily download user-generated worlds and play around inside Cinderella’s castle, Andy’s room, or Wreck-It-Ralph’s race tracks.
Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes came out the following year, with the House of Mouse flexing their Marvel properties. But by the time 2015's Disney Infinity 3.0 rolled around and the Star Wars franchise started sharing the limelight, excitement over the figures just wasn’t as high anymore, and there just wasn’t enough buzz about it. The line eventually ceased in 2016 and figure production was concluded.
Lego Dimensions followed suit in 2015, but joined the bandwagon a little too late. It had more of a collectible feel to it though, as the toys you “plug in” are actual Lego minifigs that Lego fans collect anyway. Lego had its own big guns of franchises too, with fan favorites (and cash cows) like Harry Potter, DC Comics, and The Lord of the Rings. In fact, the entry of Lego Dimensions was likely the last straw that pushed Disney out of the game. While Disney Infinity was marketed toward children, Lego Dimensions tried to correct this by targeting the ones who had the actual buying power—the adults. Thus came the release of figures from titles like ET, The A-Team, Back To The Future, The Goonies, Gremlins, Beetlejuice, and Knight Rider.
But while retail stores needed something to sell over the counter, it was more costly to produce an actual toy than, say, a loot box in-game. When Lego Dimensions tanked as well in 2017, it was all too painfully obvious: Everything was just too expensive.
Disney Infinity demanded too much in terms of costs for players. You have to buy starter packs ($30 or so) on top of extra characters (at 10 bucks a pop), and the old figures don’t work with the new games. With Lego Dimensions, the appeal of the game was that the toys are made from actual, playable, and buildable Lego—but those are not cheap to make.
What Went Right
You’d think that after those colossal failures, other big competitors would back off indefinitely. But Nintendo was keeping something up its sleeve throughout the whole thing, and it came in the form of Amiibo in 2014.
Unlike its predecessors in the toys-to-life series, Amiibo brought something new to the table—it broke through limitations and didn’t have games dedicated for exclusive use of the toys. On the contrary, Amiibo characters can be used throughout various games and platforms. Amiibo doesn’t just span games, either—it spans platforms. You can use Amiibo figures on Nintendo Wii U, 3DS, and Switch consoles, and you can save your progress data and information with every game.
With an Amiibo figure, you can add characters to your games, score awesome bonuses and special in-game items, customize your characters and level up, and unlock exciting new adventures. To top it off, Amiibo figures are also being used as collectibles by adults who don’t even remove them from their packaging (plus, they can also come as cards!). While the cost of making the figures are still pricey, there is definitely more demand—and more sales—to make up for it.
This wasn’t Nintendo’s first foray into the toys-to-life segment, either. One of the first few attempts the company made was Pokemon Rumble U in 2013, which was an arena-like game where you collect Pokemon and face them off against each other. Button-mashing and a lack of any real story aside, you can also collect physical toys to enhance your gaming experience. While they’re not really required to play the game, a physical figure scanned into the game allows you to augment their abilities. The toys come in blind packs that will set you back $3.99 apiece in plastic capsule-like Pokeballs.
Theoretically, the itch to “catch 'em all” should have appealed to collectors everywhere and made the game a smashing success, but the reason it failed really wasn’t a question of the figures but more on the game—it was incredibly dull and boring. Thankfully, Nintendo bounced back with Amiibo, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Future Of NFC
With all that said, we have yet to see what the future of NFC games looks like. Nintendo is dominating the market and likely has no plans of stopping anytime soon, with Nintendo Labo on the rise. Using an IR reader, Nintendo Labo lets players build fun everyday objects out of perforated cardboard templates. These can then be attached to the Nintendo Switch console and used in minigames (The Robot Kit has parts that let you make a mecha suit. A mecha suit!).
Currently, a new contender from Ubisoft named Starlink: Battle for Atlas brings modular toy starships into the fray, and while these physical ships aren’t required to play the game, you’ll still be tempted to buy them because, well, they just look freakin’ awesome. There’s also this thing called DropMix, which is a music mixing game from Harmonix and Hasbro that lets you create groovy mashups using NFC codes. All you need is a specialized electronic game board that you sync with your iOS or Android device via Bluetooth. Then, you use physical cards that contain NFC codes to mix vocal sections, drum loops, and so on to compete with your friends or create your own sick beats. In fact, Harmonix is bringing a similar experience to consoles with Fuser in the near future.
Because in-game microtransactions can save devs a whole lot of money compared to physical toys, the current microtransaction landscape was likely the final nail in the coffin that shifted the toys-to-life market to toys-to-death. But with these new innovations, who knows if they’ve finally gotten the formula right? To be honest, I enjoyed myself when I was tinkering around with the Toy Box with my nephews years back. My husband and I still play Lego Dimensions from time to time too, because there’s nothing more exhilarating than smashing a bunch of Lego bricks and watching Lumpy Space Princess from Adventure Time annoy the heck out of Batman.
I personally hope to see more NFC toys in the next few years, because there will always be a fresh breed of players (and devs) who’ll hunger for something new. Until then, we’ll just have to settle for worrying about how to keep a piece of overpriced cardboard intact for years, because who knows how much Labo will cost when it becomes a vintage gaming piece?