When Activision first released Skylanders back in 2011, reactions to it were mixed to say the least. Some scoffed at the Call of Duty publisher’s attempts to break into the child gamer market, which can be lucrative but difficult to judge. Some fumed at what they saw as the devaluing of Spyro the dragon by slapping him into a seemingly unrelated game to shift additional copies. But mostly gamers seemed confused. Would people really be willing to buy a wide variety of collectible figures to accompany a seemingly standard adventure game aimed at kids, costing their parents many pounds?
Four years later that question has well and truly been answered. Skylanders has proven immensely popular, not to mention profitable. It has inspired four sequels, the latest of which will be released later this year. Other mega corporations viewed this money with dollar signs in their eyes, and before we knew it Disney were on the case with Disney Infinity, calling upon their cast array of properties to tempt children to part their parents from their money. Nintendo were next with their Amiibos, relying on Mario and company to rake in the dosh. And now Lego are getting in on the act, bringing in the likes of Gandalf, Batman and even Dr Who himself together for some brick based adventuring.
Four sets of these NFC toys (Near Field Communication for those unfamiliar with the lingo) and their game related toyboxes will soon be available for children (and manchildren) of all ages to snap up. With Lego Dimensions set for release next month, Disney Infinity 3.0 and Skylanders Superchargers just around the corner and Nintendo eager to shove Amiibo content into pretty much every major release they put out, the battle for our wallets looks set to only get more intense.
Some questions remain however. Do these types of games and NFC toys bring substantial development to our gaming habits, or are they just a superficial cash grab feeding off of the spending habits of children and nerds alike? Also, can the market really sustain interest in so many of these types of games, and have they peaked in popularity?
It can be argued that as long as these companies can continue to churn out figurines that people want to buy, then these types of games will never lose their allure. Disney can call upon Star Wars, Marvel Comics and their animated classics. Lego’s cosy relationship with Warner Bros allows them access to the likes of DC Comics and the Lord of the Rings. Skylanders can just create new monsters as and when they need to. And Nintendo have their vast array of franchises up their sleeve. May the good lord have mercy on our wallets if they decide to release a Pokémon Amiibo range.
It’s not like the games developed to take advantage of these NFC toy ranges have been bad. Far from it. They’ve all largely released to positive reviews and offer a surprisingly decent amount of content. They cater to younger demographics by offering them the chance to play through an adventure or just muck around, tailor making their experience on the figurine they buy. And they cater to our inner collector. We want to create a diverse roster of characters so that we feel that we are getting the most out of these games.
On paper you can see this is all such an attractive deal. Gamers get to steer their favourite characters through virtual shenanigans, getting the chance to satiate their nerd cravings by pairing up Han Solo with Spiderman, or Samus with Link, or Homer Simpson and Scooby Doo (if you’re so inclined). Publishers and developers then get another franchise to produce annual updates and instalments for, greasing the wheel of AAA game development along the way.
But is this all really in the best interests of the consumers? Essentially this is just another extension of the free to play mechanics we’ve see in mobile video gaming, where you pay for every character you want to play as. Only in this case the characters cost around a tenner each, sometimes more, and you have to pay full price for the game to boot. For the base game and two to three NFC figurines, you’ll be paying upwards of £75 a time. It’s easy to see why many dismiss all this as a cash grab. What’s more, when you lock content behind an expensive paywall, it doesn’t usually contrive to produce good game design.
Of course, these high prices are party the result of the large costs of producing NFC figurines, figurines aren’t cheap. Many have argued that in order, to cut costs for both publishers and consumers, these characters should be made available as digital downloads.
And yet this would defy the point of them. An NFC figurine offers something tangible to the modern gamer, something physical in an increasingly invisible world. They represent an actual link between the gamer and the game itself. This is particularly true for something like Amiibo, whereby your figure can be used across many different games, unlocking various titbits and events along the way. And a setup like Skylanders allows kids the chance to easily transport their wee beastie to a friend’s house and pit monster against monster. These are actions that can’t easily be replicated in an online only world, and this is key to the huge success of this genre.
Will their popularity last? It’s difficult to predict for certain. Certainly you have to wonder where Disney will go once they’ve run out of Star Wars characters, or Nintendo when they have to rely on selling Waluigi Amiibos. It would seem logical to suppose that the popularity of the NFC genre will only last provided they continue to capture the imagination of gamers.
But it will also come down to how well developers continue to utilise this concept. There may come a time when consumers tire of the crossover sandbox type games. The challenge facing the likes of Nintendo, Disney, Activision and Lego is to turn this currently profitable NFC genre into something more substantial. To turn an admittedly intriguing gaming prospect into something with true depth and longevity, as opposed to just a fun pastime for kids and toy collectors, and a money printing machine for gaming’s big boys.
[LEAD IMAGE: Skylanders]