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Skylanders: Swap Force is Activision’s next big bet on hybrid toy-games (preview)

Activision Blizzard is unveiling a new Skylanders game today that shows how it continues to innovate with its extremely successful hybrid toy-video game franchise. The interchangeable body halves of Skylanders: Swap Force toys are the new gimmick that the company is using to get kids to buy even more Skylanders and push the franchise to a billion dollars in sales.

skylanders swap 2Skylanders: Swap Force features toys that can be split in half and then mixed with other toys, giving characters inside the video games new amalgamated features. You can, for instance, combine the legs of a fast Skylander with the upper body of a brawny beast to create a fast character that has a lot of firepower. The 16 new characters in Swap Force can be combined into more than 250 unique combinations.

In Swap Force, players will find a new adventure in the Cloudbreak Islands, or floating lands in the sky that are home to a mystical volcano that erupts once every hundred years. During a battle, a group of Skylanders were caught in a volcano eruption, which blasted them apart and sent them to earth. They now have the ability to swap halves. But the evil Kaos is back with a new plan to attack the Skylands.

It’s not a huge change from the past games, which included Skylanders: Giants (released in October 2012) and Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (released in October 2011). But it is different enough to give something new for kids who have purchased more than $500 million worth of Skylanders toys and games in the past two years. The big idea with Skylanders is to “bring toys to life” by enhancing them with video games.

With the launch of Skylanders: Swap Force this fall, Activision is doing what it does best: taking a blockbuster game franchise and milking it for all it’s worth on an annual refresh cycle. Most big games come out once every two or three years, but Activision has put enough developers on the Skylanders property to release one every year. In fact, this game isn’t being made by the Toys for Bob game studio in Novato, Calif., that made the two previous versions. Instead, Vicarious Visions studio is developing. (That means Toys for Bob is probably working on something else.)

skylanders swap 3

Santa Monica, Calif.-based Activision is unveiling the products at the Toy Fair show next week in New York City. In a short time, Activision has made Skylanders into one of the top-five best-selling franchises of 2012, moving more toys in a quarter now than Star Wars or Harry Potter. On the video game front, Skylanders was such a threat that Disney just launched its similar toy-hybrid product family, Disney Infinity, based on its own characters. Such franchises are huge “transmedia” efforts, or those that cross different media.

skylanders swap 4“With Skylanders, we didn’t just create a beloved new franchise — we actually created an entirely new category that brings the world of physical toys and video games together like never before. And now with Skylanders Swap Force, we are pushing the genre we created forward with another big innovation: customization,” said Eric Hirshberg, chief executive of Activision Publishing, a division of Activision Blizzard. “The idea that kids can customize their own characters in the physical world and have their unique combinations recognized in the virtual world is an idea as big as the concept of bringing toys to life itself.”

With Skylanders, you plug a portal (pictured right) into a video game console. When you put a toy on the portal, it lights up and transfers the character and its saved status into the game. You can swap characters whenever you need to make a change. And now you will be able to swap the halves of the 16 new characters as well. The existing Skylanders toys will work in the upcoming Swap Force game.

In a demo, Activision producer Chris Wilson showed me that the company is also making tweaks to the video game. The new imagery will be in high definition, with much more crisp art work. Skylanders characters will also be able to jump for the first time, allowing them to scale walls that they couldn’t in the two previous games.

One new character is Magna Charge (pictured below), as a Skylander with tech capabilities, such as a magnet. He can engage in bursts of speed. Another character is Countdown, who is a walking time bomb. He can toss his head at enemies. If you combine Magna Charge’s lower half with the upper body of Wash Buckler, a close-range fighter, then the combined character is faster and good at close-range fighting.

skylanders swap 5The game will also have 32 new core Skylanders characters (16 completely new Skylanders and 16 new versions of fan favorite characters from previous games) and eight new Lightcore characters. After Swap Force launches, kids will have more than 100 characters to choose from. That gives the games endless replay value.

“Skylanders Giants was named to our 2012 Holiday Hot Toy List for good reason — it extended the franchise’s breakthrough gameplay, and its performance at retail has been incredible. We’re continually impressed by the originality that Activision delivers in bringing toys to life,” said Jerry Storch, chairman and CEO of the Toys “R” Us retail chain. “The innovation of allowing kids to customize their toys in the real world and then send them into the Skylanders Swap Force game is sure to raise the bar for the franchise.”

Vicarious Visions, which has worked on parts of Skylanders since the beginning, is making the Wii U, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Skylanders: Swap Force. The Beenox studio is making a Wii version, while n-Space is making a 3DS version.

“Toys for Bob is not developing this one, but they are providing input,” Wilson said.


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