Life at sea? A look at the future of Toys-to-Life

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

August 8th 2016 at 11:34AM
UPDATED August 11th 2016 at 6:17PM
Life at sea? A look at the future of Toys-to-Life

Until the recent demise of Disney Infinity, the toys-to-life category’s rise to success has gone relatively untested. In the wake of one sinking ship, Robert Hutchins looks at how choppy the sector’s journey is now likely to be.

When Disney pulled the plug on its toys-to-life brand, Disney Infinity, the gaming community was rocked by the studio’s departure from this seemingly prosperous sector.

Disney left what has been championed as a growth market and announced that Disney Infinity 4.0 would never see the light of day. In order to plug its own drain, Disney axed 300 jobs, announced its plans to close down its own game publishing operations and pulled out of the world’s largest video game and consumer tech show, E3.

But does this all mean that the toys-to-life sector is on the brink of a downward spiral?

Disney Infinity joined the toys-to-life battle in 2013, two years after the sector’s inception in 2011 with the introduction of Activision’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. The launch helped lift Disney’s interactive unit to its first annual profit of $116m by 2014. It was the same year Nintendo launched its own version, Amiibo, featuring a cast of popular videogame favourites. LEGO then entered the fray in 2015 with LEGO Dimensions.

From the outside, the market could not have appeared stronger, with four titles vying for shelf space and a number of young start ups popping their heads over the parapet.

“If you look specifically at the likes of Skylanders, that brand has been in steady decline since 2012’s Skylanders Giants,” says Chris Dring, editor of video games trade publication, MCV.

“However, it’s easy to point at a failure and at declining sales figures and suggest a market is about to collapse. There are still opportunities in this market. There were over 620,000 Disney Infinity, Skylanders and LEGO Dimensions starter packs bought in the UK last year, an increase of more than 21 per cent year-on-year.”

Clearly the toy and gaming community still has an appetite for toys-to-life. Why then, was it not enough to encourage Disney Infinity to ride out its choppy seas?

According to Disney CEO Bob Iger, the firm lacked a confidence in the stability of the business as well as its own self-publishing operations. However, Alex Fleetwood, the creator of toys-to-life title Beasts of Balance (a game that blends the principles of Jenga with a strategy videogame), believes Disney lacked the ability to innovate.

“Disney Infinity is the Farmville of today: a huge hit, but ultimately hamstrung by an inability to innovate fast enough on its core proposition,” he told ToyNews’ sister title, Develop, earlier this year.

“Neither Farmville nor Infinity managed to move beyond their core demographics, and both suffered from a similar misapprehension about the line of best fit between gameplay and business model.”

It may be a scathing assessment of a line that managed to bring heavyweight licences to the toys-to-life sector in Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar, but it’s one that reflects a wider shared vision for the market.

“I think of toys-to-life as an on-ramp for a much bigger market called ‘connected play,’” Fleetwood continues.

And he is far from the first to think so. In fact, the latest data from Juniper Research predicts that by 2020, revenue from the connected toys market will hit $1.2 billion in the UK alone.

According to Anki, the team behind Anki Overdrive, a concept that brings video game play to life through its car racing track system, the global potential for the ‘connected toys’ market is huge.

“The concept of toys that serve as a prop to unlock a character in the game has become big business in a very short period of time, but technology can do so much more,” Stuart Collingwood, general manager of Anki UK, Germany and UAE, tells ToyNews.

In the last five years, Anki has taken giant strides in condensing robotics and artificial intelligence into an accessible consumer products market. And the 3.2 million hours of logged Anki Overdrive gameplay attests to the popularity of its concept across the globe. Meanwhile, the firm continues with its plans to ‘define the future of play’ with the unveiling of its programmable robot Cozmo.

“Video games have spawned a new generation that live and play in virtual worlds,” continues Collingwood. “For that reason, a good tech toy needs to combine both the virtual and the physical and deliver the best of both worlds.

“Technology can push the toy industry forward and provide richer entertainment experiences for our children.”

So what’s next for the likes of  LEGO Dimensions and Skylanders?

“It’s a really exciting time for Skylanders,” says Josh Taub, senior executive producer of Activision. “We have launched Skylanders Battlecast and Skylanders Imaginators, and continue to remain focused on advancing the toys-to-life category by offering a level of innovation that has never been seen before in Skylanders.”

With the aim of driving player participation, Skylanders Imaginators encourages kids to create their own characters to play as in the new console release. However, the firm understands that a new title and a card game won’t be enough to keep it punching in the battle for shelf space among toys-to-life stockists.

The firm now hopes its brand new Skylanders TV series will help bolster the appeal of the toys-to-life brand beyond the video games and toy sectors.

“We believe that the way we are going after consumers is right,” adds Taub. “Our newest console game and toys will be out for holiday and Skylanders Academy, an animated television series, will debut later this year.

“Our track record and constantly evolving universe – in which we can introduce new characters and storylines – is what makes Skylanders exceptional in the toys-to-life space.”

Meanwhile, Warner Bros’ LEGO Dimensions  has been championed as a title that has brought ‘unprecedented interactive experience’ to the toys-to-life sector via its emphasis on the toy aspect of the whole enterpise.

It’s a concept that has worked well and having sold more than 165 million units worldwide, Warner Bros is now undergoing plans to take the title across the EU.

“There is incredible interest and demand for LEGO Dimensions from consumers and retailers,” David Haddad, president, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, tells ToyNews.

“We are expanding into Spain and Italy later this year and continuing to look at new markets for the future growth.”

And if you’re wondering if the demise of Disney Infinity has done anything to deter the ambitions of LEGO’s toys-to-life operations, then let Haddad’s sentiments instill some confidence in a sector that is still very much in its infancy.

“Our experience is that the toys-to-life space is sizeable and important for our business. With fewer options in the toys-to-life category, we believe there is an opportunity to grow LEGO Dimensions sales and we will continue to innovate and move the franchise forward.”

As LEGO has recently released its own line of Disney LEGO Minifigures, and with LEGO Star Wars a mighty brand in its own right, few would be surprised to see the likes of Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and Luke Skywalker make their return to the toys-to-life scene very soon.