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Toys-to-Death: The End of the Line

Over the years hundreds of millions of toys have been sold, but it seems the toys-to-life era has come to an end. At least for now.

  • Text: Bengt Lemne
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With reports emerging that Warner Bros. is pulling the plug on Lego Dimensions, the death of Disney Infinity, and the lack of a new Skylanders game this year, it would seem that this era of toys-to-life products has run its course. We take a look back at how it started, what went right, what went wrong, and what might come in the future.

The concept for Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was born as Toys for Bob were given free rein to develop a new Spyro title, a few years after Activision acquired the rights in the Vivendi merger. Mascot-based games were in a dark place (they still are to a large extent), and so the idea of bringing in actual toys was born. The true dawn of the toys-to-life concept if you will. Now, Skylanders were not the first entry in the toys-to-life space, that honour, according to Wikipedia belongs to U.B. Funkeys - a line of animals that plugged into your USB and unlocked content in a PC game. To be perfectly honest we don't remember much of this Mattel line, but it would last for a couple of years beginning in 2007. Clearly, one of the major issues here was that the toys plugged in directly to the USB, and that's something that Skylanders overcame with the portal.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was released in October, 2011, and became a massive and somewhat surprising success, even if Activision saw the potential early on and high-level Hollywood talent was brought on to work on the script and the main theme was written by Hans Zimmer. The surprise spawned a sequel the next year in Skylanders Giants (2012), and up until last year there was a new Skylanders with a new twist on the concept released every year.

Disney realised that they had the properties and capacity to do something similar and compete with Activision. The first Disney Infinity was released in 2013, with 2.0 (a Marvel focus) and 3.0 (which was Star Wars focused) releasing in subsequent years. Warner Bros., who were competing for the same audience with their Lego games, entered the fray late with Lego Dimensions in 2015, when most of the steam had already gone out of toys-to-life.

Perhaps Lego's entry made Disney's decision to leave the segment and basically completely retreat from game development easier. Lego Dimensions did offer more of a collectible angle as it combined the fairly expensive Lego pieces with some franchises that most likely didn't appeal to young audiences. This also meant that for a while it was doing surprisingly well.

An interesting angle on the toys-to-life phenomenon is that it came at a time when both retail and industry were in need of something to sell over the counter, something to occupy store shelves. The Guitar Hero boom was over and digital sales were on the rise, but retail sales were still very important to all of the major publishers. The relationship with retail had to be protected and Skylanders (and Disney Infinity) served an important role here. As retail, in general, has declined over the years, this need for the industry to create meaningful products that make sense at retail isn't as great anymore. Maybe it isn't just the lack of consumer demand that is at play here, but also a realisation that toys-to-life isn't the most lucrative proposition. After all, what's the cost of producing a loot box compared to an actual toy?

It wasn't just that the toys at the height of their popularity would occupy a good portion of any game store, but the concept also reinvigorated video games in toy stores, thus offer more avenues to the consumers. Toy stores had begun decreasing their focus on video games, but toys-to-life brought them back in style, and this also helped other video games stay in this retail arena.

What about Amiibo?

Nintendo gave the toys-for-life concept a different spin. The NFC enabled Amiibo don't only span multiple games, but multiple platforms, and in many ways cater more to an older audience, more focused on collectibles than toys. In fact, we'd venture a guess that a sizable portion of the Amiibo sold are still in their original packaging and insane Ebay prices for misprints also indicate that we're dealing with collectibles more than toys. Comparable to Square-Enix PlayArts then, but more affordable and with in-game features.

While the initial phase of the Amiibo craze has died out, by all accounts it remains a sustainable business and given the difference in audience there's no reason why Nintendo wouldn't be able to continue launching new figures and features. While Amiibo share superficial similarities with Skylanders, Lego Dimensions, and Disney Infinity, the differences are even greater.

Could there be a revival?

Skylanders is on hiatus after Imaginators failed to reignite the spark that saw 250 million toys sold and over $3 billion in revenue come in up until 2015, though both toys sales and revenue has slowed considerably since. But surely Activision hasn't given up just yet? The concept is at a point where its greatest strength (the millions of compatible toys in circulation) is also a massive liability. Kids tend to want new things to play with, hence the cyclical nature of toy lines. Maybe the best thing for Skylanders would be to start afresh, maybe have some legacy features with old figures, but build something brand new, something to excite longtime fans as well as capture the imagination of a new generation of young ones. Skylanders is in need of a bold move.

The problem is that in many ways instead of building a sustainable business, much like the case was with Guitar Hero, Activision made sure they took home as much revenue from the success as quickly as they could. Six main entries and six mobile entries in as many years, plus a Netflix show. It's hard to fault them, they met the demand that was there at the time, but perhaps more attention should have been given to the longterm growth of the franchise. One of the key elements of the toys-to-life concept is that the toys themselves are actually used as toys. Maybe the key to finding a new lease on (toys-to) life is to just make great toys and focus on that. Let the game grow out of new toys that are great on their own. As often is the case when a lot of money is involved, complicated franchise plans and a huge amount of chefs to stir the pot and pour in their particular mix of spices (making the final dish taste like nothing and everything) does tend to complicate matters.

Over the years we've seen many variations on attempts to enter the toys-to-life space, but clearly, the investment needed here is tremendous. Even the best idea without major backing isn't worth a dime. Fe-developers Zoink Games once work on a plush-toy game for Wii than eventually turned into a mobile release, and more recently we've heard of multiple projects that just simply never got off the ground. Starbreeze Studios, creators of the Payday franchise, invested in a company called Geminose who were working on games and interactive toys in 2014, the first game to come out, Geminose: Animal Popstars is now heading to Switch (exclusively) and there's no mention of physical interactive toys. There has been several other attempts over the years, including the recently launched Lightseekers Awakening (originally a Kickstarter) that offers a combination of toys (connect via Bluetooth), a free-to-play mobile game and collectible cards with some augmented reality features, is perhaps the most notable one.

Apart from Skylanders, we find it hard to believe Warner Bros. will venture down the Dimensions path again any time soon, and Disney, well, they're no longer really here. However, there could be potential for others to enter the fray, perhaps lending more from Nintendo's example than Skylanders. It's not difficult to imagine there is potential in the augmented reality and mixed reality space moving forward. We would be surprised if there aren't ideas for this with both Skylanders and Lego, even if it is way too soon to move forward with production. Lego Dimensions arrived a little late to this particular party, but in many ways, it has everything going for it. Lego has been popular for many decades, TT Games has been making quality Lego titles for years, so surely there are more avenues to explore in order to bridge the gap between toys and games...