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The evil genius of Skylanders: Swap Force (preview)

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LOS ANGELES — Parents, beware. Your kids are going to want this stuff.

skylanders swap 2Activision Blizzard is unveiling new details of its Skylanders: Swap Force hybrid toy-game today that show just how clever it can be in getting consumers to come back over and over. Swap Force is the third entry in the Skylanders series, which has generated $1 billion in revenues in less than two years. The gimmick in Swap Force is that the toys now have interchangeable halves that you can use to create 256 character combinations. There are 16 figures, and they are going to turn your kids into Portal Masters.

“What’s happened with Skylanders?” said Eric Hirshberg, the president and chief executive of Activision Publishing, a division of Activision Blizzard. “We pushed all of our chips into the middle of the table. During a generation of gaming that was in decline, we went all in for one reason: We believed we had something special.”

The simple idea was to “bring toys to life,” and it was executed well by the original developer, Toys for Bob, which made both Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and Skylanders: Giants. The result is that Skylanders is the top-selling game franchise in the industry right now, with more than 115 million toys sold. That sales rate is exceeding the number of Harry Potter or Star Wars toys sold.

Accordingly, Activision has put more resources into development. The new game comes from the Vicarious Visions studio while Toys for Bob is no doubt working on something secret.

“There are ton of gameplay and character combinations,” said Guha Bala, the president of Vicarious Visions, at a press event in advance of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) game trade show under way in Los Angeles. “This game inspires kids’ imaginations.”

What’s new

Swap Force takes place in the Cloudbreak Islands, or floating lands in the sky where a mystical volcano erupts every 100 years to replenish the world’s magic. During a battle, a group of hero Skylanders were caught in an eruption, and they were sent to earth. But they gained the ability to swap halves. The result is you can take an existing character, set it on the portal, and transfer it into the game. You can then take the same character, swap halves, and create a whole new one with a mixture of characteristics.

skylanders swap 5This Swap Force has to fight against the evil portal master Kaos, who has an evil plan to attack the Skylands. He is trying to “evilize” creatures in the Skylands using the power of “petrified darkness.” He has allies such as Sugar Bats.

But Kaos runs into a host of heroes. Freeze Blade is a new water character. Free Ranger uses the power of weather. A Ninja Skunk is stealthy. Magna Charge magnetic tech weapons. They all have new capabilities. They will also be animated in high-definition, and you can dynamically swap their parts on the fly. If you combine Night Shift with Stink Bomb, you can bring to life Stink Shift. He can teleport and throw barbs at the Sugar Bats in a more effective way.

Kids will have to go through battles like this and figure out which combination will work for them. The game will have eight different types of Swap Force powers, and each will have its own gameplay characteristics. Skylanders: Swap Force will have all new player-versus-player arenas and survival arenas.

In addition to the 16 Swap Force Skylanders characters, this new game comes with 16 new regular Skylanders characters, eight LightCore Skylanders, and 16 returning Skylanders with new in-game powers and abilities. Older characters from the first two games will work in the new release, and those characters will still be leveled up and have their upgrades. That means parents won’t lose their investment they have made for their kids.

All of the characters now can do something phenomenal: jump. Yes, that’s right. That adds a whole new dimension to the levels. The levels vary from Wild West locations in the clouds to snow-covered regions.

washbucklerThe competition

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. Hirshberg has said that the stakes are higher now because the second half of 2013 will have more competition. The company will have to spend more, according to Activision marketing executives Josh Taub and John Coyne.

And Activsion is facing its first true threat to Skylanders: Disney Infinity.

The competition is heating up in August with the launch of a similar toy-hybrid product family, Disney Infinity, which is based on its own characters. Such franchises are huge “transmedia” efforts, or those that cross different media. Disney has been working on its title for several years, said John Blackburn, the head of Disney’s Avalanche Studios. Disney will include three “playsets” of branded characters in its first game, and it will sell two more playsets separately. The powerful brands include The Incredibles, Monsters University, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars 2, and the new The Lone Ranger.

But Disney doesn’t have the same level of customization that Activision is introducing with the Swap Force. 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. Each part will have unique capabilities and produce a new kind of character with unique abilities, all recognizable as you swap them. Activision thinks that’s going to result in endless replay value.

The new game is coming out on the Wii U, Xbox 360, 3DS, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 3. The Beenox studio is making the Wii version while N-Space is making the 3DS version. It’s not yet clear what Activision will do with mobile versions of the Skylanders on an ongoing basis.

“It’s done well in the world of mobile games. It hasn’t done as well as it has in the world of the consoles,” Taub said. “We have yet to hit the nail on the head for how to bring the franchise magic to the mobile world.”

Skylanders: Swap Force starter packs with a portal and toys will sell for $75. Action figures sell for $10 for core characters and $15 for Swap Force characters. The games will debut on Oct. 13 in North America, Oct. 16 in Australia, and Oct. 18 in Europe.

Here’s a video interview below with David Nathanielsz of Vicarious Visions.


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