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Pricey plastic

Why have games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity grown? Because one study found parents spent $131 on toys-to-life products over a six-month period.

Toys-to-life is working wonders for publishers’ profits, but can prove complex for families to find best value. Here’s what matters to the families I’ve worked with.

While the recent trend of tying kid’s video game characters and levels to toy purchases has turned strong profits for publishers, it has also increased the complexity of finding the best value purchase for families. Industry watcher Andy Robertson assesses the state of the Toys to Life genre in 2015.

The toy-game hybrid trend came about when Activision introduced Skylanders in 2011, broadened with Disney Infinity in 2013, and this year sees the arrival of Warner Bros’ Lego Dimensions. Nintendo’s Amiibo chart the same seas but with figurines that function in multiple games.

This “Toys to Life” category extends beyond consoles to tablets and smartphones with Disney Infinity and Skylanders supporting both iOS and Android. Anki Overdrive extends the toy-tablet gaming with physical robotic cars that bring the action into the real world. Disney Playmation stretches things further with Avengers, Star Wars, and Frozen wearable tech for kids that creates physical play challenges.

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Throughout, the dividing lines between toys, video games and outside play are being rewritten. This year’s crop further tweaks the balance between costs and benefits to players, as each jostles for position in an increasingly crowded genre.

Skylanders: Superchargers

Skylanders’s developer this year is Vicarious Visions, who returns to the helm after 2013’s Skylanders: Swap Force. Skylanders Superchargers adds an array of vehicles, like cars, that enable players to unlock and customize fantasy modes of transport.

This expands the value of the physical toys by offering more than just collectable figurines that might sit on a shelf. The vehicles are each articulated and come with matching drivers. Although the figurines don’t fit in the physical vehicles as they do on the screen, by doing away with the need for a circular stand, the toys are instantly more fun to play with.

In terms of value, Skylanders offers excellent backward compatibility. Every existing Skylanders character works in the new game and can drive the vehicles. Also, all of the previous Skylanders USB Portal peripherals send the characters into the game. This means that existing Portal owners can simply download the cheaper digital version and play for a fraction of the cost.

Finally, kudos for ongoing support of the Wii — derided as outdated by many gamers but still a popular platform for families. This year’s Wii and 3DS games are complementary experience and look to offer some sort of kart racer experience with their Skylanders Superchargers Racing moniker.

Disney Infinity 3.0

Disney has the Star Wars franchise to roll out in toy-game form this year and could have sat happy in the knowledge that this would sell itself. Happily, it’s not relied on the strong brand alone but improved the game in a number of areas.

Ninja Theory brings some triple-A development clout to improve the combat in the Twilight of the Republic adventure. Studio Gobo continues its good work with the Rise Against the Empire, and Sumo Digital brings it menagerie of racing skills to bear in a Disney Infinity Racing experience. These various improvements to combat, racing, and platforming each focus on a specific part of the game but apply enhancements throughout.

As ever, the killer feature for Disney Infinity is the Toy Box game creator. While families may find it frustrating that only certain characters can be used in certain playset adventures, they can combine any and all of them in the game creator mode.

The biggest negative here is the way Infinity uses its banner Star Wars original trilogy content at launch. The only way to buy the Rise Against the Empire playset and characters like Luke and Leia is the high-ticket Saga Edition ($114.99), as opposed to the standard ($64.99) starter pack. This forces families who want to get in early to buy both Star Wars playsets rather than pick their favorite — or exercise some patience.

The Episode IV-VI content will be available a month later separately, but this is a long time for Star Wars fans to wait. It also questions whether Disney is confident in the Twilight of the Republic (Episodes I-III) content selling as well as Rise Against the Empire.

More positively, there is a digital version for players who already own the Infinity Base USB device used to read the figurines into the game. Most retailers will offer this and a Play-Set at a discount price, making it the value route for players. Also, this grants an affordable route to access the non-Star Wars content like the Inside Out and Ant-Man adventures.

Lego Dimensions

This year sees the appearance of the third competitor in the toys-to-life market, Lego Dimensions. This combines the success of TT Games’ Lego experiences, physical Lego toys, and the action-figure toy-game crossover.

Like Disney Infinity, Warner Bros. is able to include a powerful array of franchises. Most impressive though is the intelligent combination of big name brands and niche characters. While Portal’s warp-door-creating Chell may not register for parents as highly as enthusiast gamers, Doctor Who, Back to the Future, and DC Comics will undoubtedly grab their attention.

The biggest challenge for Dimensions is the perceived high price. At $99.99 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and $89.99 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it’s not the cheapest toys-to-life game to start playing. Expansion packs then range from $14.99 to $29.99.

In reality, this higher cost represents the desire to offer a full set of franchise experiences out the box rather than lock these away behind toy purchases like its competitors. It still has plenty of on-disc content you need toys to access, but you can to at least play a portion of each included brand without additional purchases.

Like Skylanders’ vehicles, the toy side is strong for Dimensions. The expansion sets and minifigures work as well as real Lego blocks as they do a smart video game tokens. To ensure this, Dimensions has taken the unusual step of allowing players to separate the NFC base from the character to which it relates.

It’s a compromise to ensure strong physical play value but may diminish the toy-screen character connection. Also parents will need to keep tabs on the small (expensive) plastic bases, if you lose them you can no longer access the character in the game. Also, this has the potential for young players to mix up minifigures and bases, leading to all kinds of confusion — and arguments.

The best feature of Dimensions is the integrated use of the Toy Pad USB peripheral. By placing the smart minifigures on a particular color coded part of the Toy Pad players trigger a range of different effects (growing, shrinking, teleporting for instance) required for puzzle solving. It turns the Toy Pad from a simple reader into more of an interactive play tool.

Amiibo

Unlike Skylanders or Disney Infinity, Nintendo’s Amiibo characters work with a range of games. Also, whereas owning a Skylanders or Infinity figurine grants you access to play as that character, the Amiibo more often brings the character in as a companion or opponent to play with.

Nintendo also has the advantage of including the NFC technology in the Wii U GamePad. No additional starter pack or USB peripheral is required to access Amiibo on the Wii U. Also, the New 3DS includes this some technology, while older 3DS owners can access amiibo with an add-on peripheral. This all works to keep costs down.

Not enough product to meet demand resulted in some frustrations for Amiibo collectors, but generally, the capability to unlock additional content in different games with a single figurine has been well received.

Bolstering the need for more substantial content than costumes, modes and weapons, this year, Amiibo teamed up with Skylanders to bring two special edition dual-purpose characters. The Bowser and Donkey Kong Amiibo are only available in special Skylanders Superchargers packs for the Wii U, 3DS, and Wii. They function as both Skylanders and Amiibos by twisting the base.

The value of Amiibos is good where players can use them in multiple games. But while you can unlock content without a hitch if you want to record progress on an Amiibo in two games, you need to wipe one set of game data before it can be written to by another.

Picking and choosing the particular characters that appeal or offer specific features is key to keeping costs down, something that is helped by not needing to buy a USB peripheral on most Amiibo platforms.

Anki Overdrive

For some, toys-to-life has to involve plastic figurines and console games. Of course, the concept of toy-game hybrids is much broader, and more interesting, than this. Anki entered the space last year with Anki Drive, a slotless racing toy that used an app to track progress, upgrade cars, and steer them around the track.

The novelty is the robotic cars’ capability to automatically keep themselves racing round the preprinted roll out mat. This enables the player free to steer left and right for the ideal racing line and fire virtual weapons at opponents. The play happens on the floor with the physical cars, but is augmented by a virtual play space possible because each car knows where the other are.

Anki Overdrive is this year’s game, and it solves one of the biggest drawbacks of the previous release by adding snap-together customisable tracks. This not only opens up the interest but also makes possible a new range of gameplay modes. King of the Hill, for example, pits each car against each other in a race to survive for 60 seconds without being shot or “taken down.”

Between races, players connect the cars to the app to purchase upgrades and new weapons from the points earned in the races. A.I. opponent commanders can also be loaded into the cars if other human players are not available. This also adds a substantial campaign mode with fully voiced characters, back story and ongoing progression.

Again, this isn’t cheap. The starter pack comes with a collection of tracks and two cars for around $149.99 and additional cars are $49.99. An ideal setup would be the Starter Pack, two extra cars, and one or two track expansions.

With this in mind, it’s a good thing that last year’s Anki Drive cars are compatible with Anki Overdrive, as are the old mat-style circuits with this year’s new cars.

Disney Playmation

At the toy end of the genre is Disney’s new Playmation experience. This offers wearable tech for kids branded around The Avengers, Star Wars, and Frozen. A combination of audio narration and sound effects, haptic feedback, infrared shooting, and sensors enable the technology to create an active challenge for youngsters.

Through a series of missions, players are instructed to run, jump or hide as other sensors in the room track their progress. This combines with lights and sounds to create a surprisingly absorbing and interactive story.

Between missions, players check their progress with the Playmation app. This also enables them to upgrade their tech with new powers, abilities, and story chapters. Purchasing additional figures related to one of the franchises unlocks new abilities and missions.

At around $119.99, this again isn’t the cheapest of games, but it does offer an active experience like no other video-game. Some will suggest this isn’t, in fact, a video game at all. While this may be true, it also extends the physical play in a virtual direction, with progress and upgrades much like we are used to on screens.

Certainly, having played a mission or two, it feels like you’ve just played a video game, as it has the same thrill of achievement and progression. But players have been actually running around, hiding behind curtains, and physically aiming their Iron Man power glove to take down the bad guys.

Even without the Star Wars, Avengers, and Frozen brands, this would be a popular product. With those juggernauts added in, this is certainly one to watch in the top Christmas game lists.

Conclusion

With such a range of toys-to-life options available, the choices can seem bewildering. However, some research around the games and franchises important to your family will soon determine which is right for you.

For instance, Marvel characters are only available in Disney Infinity, and DC Comics characters only in Lego Dimensions. If brick-building is a big driver, that’s another tick for the Lego game, but if virtual game creation appeals more, Infinity will be a better fit.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this is to be aware of total costs before investing in one product. The majority of games can be played for many hours and completed without additional toy purchases. As ever playing these games with your children will not only make them more fun, but ensure you understand how additional toy purchases will enhance the experience.

Andy Robertson is a family video-game expert for broadcast and national press. He runs the Family Gamer TV channel on YouTube.

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