By Yannick LeJacq
If you haven’t heard of the videogame-toy hybrid Skylanders already, chances are you’re not in grade school or the parent of a child who is. If you have kids around that age, then you’ve probably had to put up with them pleading to get more Skylanders toys. And with the recent release of Skylanders: Giants, this pleading will only get worse.
As a videogame, Skylanders works like this: In addition to the game disc, you receive a handful of cartoonish action figures (the Skylanders themselves) and a small plastic platform known as the “portal of power.” The portal lights up when plugged into the console or PC, and is basically as a stage for the Skylanders as you play the game. Whichever toy is placed on the portal becomes the player’s in-game avatar, and each challenge asks for a slightly different Skylander.
Considered purely as a video game, Skylanders offers solid platforming fare: You bop colorful bad guys on the head, collect gold coins, and run to avoid sharp objects swinging from the ceiling or lunging from the walls with clockwork timing. The addiction sets in once you realize how every challenge is just different enough to warrant using another Skylander, which just happens to be the one you don’t own yet. A large boulder blocking a path warrants a large Treebeard-like character known as “Tree Wrex,” while a series of maze-like block puzzles favors a smaller, more dexterous character: a zombie dragon named Cynder who can finagle a phantom disappearing act, teleporting her several feet ahead of an obstacle.
If that doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s not really supposed to. This is a kids’ game; part of the fun is that it never takes itself too seriously. The name of the developer, after all, is Toys for Bob. And while the studio may be a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, the game doesn’t try to command the same gravitas as Diablo or Call of Duty.
For anybody who grew up wishing they could somehow combine their G.I. Joes with the action going on in their Super NES, the game’s central conceit may still sound too good to be true. But Toys for Bob’s experiment paid off. Since the franchise debuted in 2011 with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, it has sold over 40 million toys and become Activision’s top-selling game of the year. A Wired article from June of this year referred to the game as “kiddie crack,” and said that players could spend upwards of $1,000 to acquire the the rarest and most highly-prized figures. And all of this was before Giants even came out.
The sales figures may soon be dethroned by Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, but it’s not hard to imagine Skylanders even toppling Call of Duty in the coming years thanks to its unique approach to designing toys and video games in tandem—an approach that’s proved profoundly disruptive and forward-thinking in an industry that seems perpetually in the midst of an identity crisis about its future viability.
Chris Dahlen, former editor of Kill Screen Magazine and parent of a second-grader, says that even though his son has remained loyal to Pokemon, Skylanders has all but replaced the popular card game in most of his classmates’ “Gotta catch ‘em all” consciousness.
“[He] was telling me the other day that all the other kids in his school play Skylanders so much that he’s sick of hearing about it,” Dahlen says.
What makes Skylanders so successful? The game certainly found a way to tap into the hoarder mentality of pop culture geeks—avid users post pictures of their massive curated collections with the same pride as comic fanatics. But this obsessiveness precedes Skylanders, and other toy and game developers have sensed this commercial potential and made hefty investments to synthesize toys with video games in the past. Yet high-profile projects like Nanovor, Freaky Creatures, and even Pokémon have all fallen flat.
Part of the difference between Skylanders and other games may be that the core concept behind the former is actually much older than a game like Pokemon, despite the similarity between their frenzied collect-them-all approaches to business. Paul Reiche, the co-founder of Toys for Bob, began his career in the most arcane parts of fantasy role-playing games at Tactical Studies Rules Inc. TSR is the legendary company Gary Gygax co-founded to produce Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), widely considered to be the table-top precedent to most modern video games.
Speaking to Reiche, it’s easy to pick up on both his appreciation of the history of videogames and the infectiously goofy sense of humor he misses seeing in them.
“There’s this sense of expectation about what’s going to happen,” he says of the game industry today. “There’s so much people are looking for, and if you don’t include it you’re clearly not taking it seriously. So your actual opportunities to innovate are limited by the overhead of competing in that world.”
“It’s like there’s a tank of sharks,” Reiche continues, “and you get to design your new body to go in with that tank of sharks. You’re gonna have to be a lot like a shark to get in there, you have to innovate around being a shark. I’d much rather have this nice open area of water to experiment.”
He laughs for a moment, then adds: “That was a strange analogy.”
Like the fellow cult phenomenon of Warhammer: 40,000—a game in which grown men spend days at a time meticulously painting 30mm tall figurines before pitting them in massive, Risk-like battles with one another—TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons taught gamers and game designers alike an important lesson: the games’ fictional characters only truly came to life in the moments when players had invested enough time and energy into their avatars that they acquired real emotional urgency.
In Warhammer, this investment was the experience of laboriously painting the figurine. In D&D, it was the studious calculating of the character sheet. And now, with Skylanders, it’s playing with the toy itself.
When it came to designing Skylanders, then, Reiche realized that “we could use them [the toys] as iconic representations of characters. But as we started using them, it became clear that this could not only represent the character, it could also be the character in a meaningful way.”
Reiche says that the hardest part of the studio’s job was making sure that data was being saved and transmitted instantaneously between the toys and the game itself through the portal—a pattern of communication that was, by its very nature, being constantly interrupted.
“We figured out that there was a straightforward technological path that we could access,” Reiche says of the portal of power and its place in the Skylanders game. “Then, these objects could contain memories.”
It may sound hyperbolic to say that the simplicity of picking things up and putting them down in the right place is an important innovation. But nothing has hindered the accessibility or cultural visibility of videogames as a medium more than their inability to really let people “plug in and play” as they so often promise. Compared to reading a book or listening to an album, the very task of getting a game up and running can take hours of painstaking technobabble and inexplicable glitches or error screens.
For kids, Kill Screen’s Dahlen recalls again of his son’s own experiences with Pokémon, the barriers to entry are akin to “getting a U.S. passport.”
“It’s a really painful process,” Dahlen says. “I set up an account for him on the Pokémon website so he could battle and collect his cards online. It took me half an hour to set up and verify the account, and type in all of the codes. Then I forgot the password, and we never used it. Compare that to slapping an action figure on a plastic base.”
Reiche notes that portal also helped make the toy component of the game “constant and integral,” an achievement that he jokes “is really not evident except in the absence of the bad stuff.”
“There’s no sense that there is a file somewhere that represents your character,” he adds, “which is a sort of abstraction that our audiences in particular can’t relate to.”
Playing the game, the seamlessness of this transition makes experimenting with any number of the adorable, colorful Skylanders toys all the more fun. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the game itself, like Activision’s gigantic marketing campaign to support it, was really just designed to get you to buy more toys. One review said that Skylanders: Giants “hides a fun, child-friendly game behind enjoyably crass commercialism.” And even Reiche himself admits that his studio’s partnership with Activision puts Toys for Bob in an “extremely rarified crew” that needs a correspondingly rare return on its investment.
“They’re like a giant with an enormous hammer,” he says of Activision. “You can’t really hunt flies with that, you have to hunt big creatures.”
When pressed on the commercialization of the game, Reiche insists that the base-line Skylanders game provides a “fun, complete experience” with just the three characters in the starter pack. However, the Skylanders figures are clustered into eight different core elements, each with different abilities and access to different parts of the game world—the Tree Wrex couldn’t stroll into one of the zombie-specific areas of a level, for instance. Building artificial walls into the world is an artlessly blunt statement to kids that they should go ask their parents for another week’s allowance money.
Still, Reiche stands firm on the quality of his product, insisting that Skylanders has “found a way to breathe a little more life into physical toys.”
“Really, we’re all frustrated that there isn’t more magic in the real world,” Reiche says of his first desire to step outside of his comfort zone as a game designer and start building toys. “We’ve been able to construct these virtual worlds in games that get richer and richer and more and more engaging, but we still want the real world to be more magical.”
It’s hard to fault a single company for resorting to the same sort of marketing gimmicks that countless other children’s entertainment companies in America use on their unwitting subjects. Still, it would be nice to take an idealistic developer at his word when he speaks of things like the “play value” of his toys. But the real beauty of Skylanders is that it still seems to glimmer with inexplicable pleasure despite its constant efforts to get you to buy more toys. Another recent videogame/toy hybrid, after all, is Zynga’s partnership to make Words With Friends into a real-world Scrabble-esque game with Hasbro, an endeavor crafted with all the artistry of a corporate boardroom or a mercenary ploy to extend a struggling brand’s identity.
Skylanders jabs at Zynga directly for this spiritless type of game design with an amazing level called “Facadeville” (a spin on Zynga’s many “-Ville” suffixed games) that turns out to be hollow and lifeless due to the corruption of an evil sorcerer. But Skylanders isn’t really a break from the stagnant world of “FarmVille”; rather, it’s from the bullet-ridden wastelands of the commercial giants that tower over Toys for Bob in countless gamers’ imaginations. Recently, Electronic Arts put out the pretentiously jingoistic nightmare Medal of Honor: Warfighter. And the just-released Halo 4 will let players kill thousands of aliens once again. On Tuesday, Activision itself will release the next Call of Duty, a game that will no doubt destroy even more prized cultural landmarks than any of its predecessors could have dreamed of.
All of these games will feature a lot of oversized beefcakes talking grimly about grown-up things like terrorism and warfare. Giants they may be, but I miss Tree Wrex already.
Thankfully, Reiche has learned to avoid this over-sombre impulse. Games, after all, are meant to be fun. So why does play always have to be taken so seriously?
“Any time I run into that sense of self-importance, or, you know, ‘This is way too serious to put a dinosaur in there,’” Reiche says, deepening his voice in mock seriousness, “it just turns me off! And then I have to put a dinosaur in there.”
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