Life Support: Is toys-to-life finding a place in the toy market?

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

August 6th 2015 at 4:52PM
UPDATED August 14th 2015 at 4:47PM
Life Support: Is toys-to-life finding a place in the toy market?

The toys-to-life sector is booming, generating over £318m in sales in the UK alone, yet the toy industry remains unsure. ToyNews looks at how the latest wave of products has the potential to change minds.

The toys-to-life genre has been fighting for a place within the toy industry ever since its inception.

It was back in 2011?that the US videogame publisher Activision first coined the now famous – or infamous - term ‘toys-to- life’ to describe a new wave of toys boasting the ability to bring characters ‘to life’ via videogame content.

The company’s ground-breaking launch, Skylanders, is now credited with making that first intrepid leap to brace both the videogame and toy camps, and in doing so, it opened the floodgates to similar products from some of the biggest names in entertainment.

Today, Disney, Nintendo, Warner Bros and LEGO have all produced toys-to- life videogames featuring some of the most iconic properties around.

Despite the fact that the UK alone has seen the toys-to-life sector shift over 20.4 million products and generate £318 million in sales so far - it is still to be fully embraced by the independent toy retailer.

Arguments vary from matters of margins and shelf space to questions over just how much of a toy a toys-to-life product really is.

“We have toyed with the idea time and again, and our barrier is that for the size of the product and its cost, it’s risky to think of the stock that could be left sat on the shelves,” says Helen Gourley, owner of indie toy store, ToyHub, when asked why she chose to opt out of Disney Infinity 3.0 this year.

“I believe that these products offer 100 per cent of the play solution to children. But toys shouldn’t be about offering the whole solution. Kids want to use their imagination. Give them part of the solution, and let them?fill in the rest.”

Recent launches in this space have taken steps to address the concern that the toy element itself is an afterthought when compared to the videogame aspect?of toys-to-life titles.

Until now, the static nature of the products featured in Disney Infinity, Nintendo’s Amiibo and Skylanders has meant that the toy can extend little further than a collectable figurine.

However, a new wave of toys-to-life products are injecting the toys with a new level of playability, offering them credence as standalone products.

LEGO Dimensions, Disney and Hasbro’s Playmation and Vivid’s Real FX have?all been billed as the next generation of toys-to-life and suggest that maybe the sector has a fighting chance at winning over the indies after all.

LEGO Dimensions is a videogame that merges physical brick building with console gameplay.

The range features a cast of characters and play-sets from various?hit licences including The Simpsons, Batman, Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who.

“What you get with LEGO Dimensions is something that you can actually play with, rather than just leave on the shelf,” explains Family Gamer TV’s Andy Robertson.

“The sets include proper LEGO that kids can build, re-build, remove from the bases – where all the tech is kept – and just play with as they would any other piece of LEGO.”

In fact, it was during an interview about LEGO Dimensions that Soren Torp Laursen, president of LEGO Americas, stated that the Danish firm was ‘not prepared to release the toys-to-life game until it was sure that the videogame didn’t detract from the physical side.’

Well, it appears these sentiments have curried favour among toy retailers as the launch has piqued interest with some indies. Managing director of Toymaster, Ian Edmunds, believes that LEGO Dimensions has a rightful place in the toy shop, but feels the next hurdle is when it comes to the subject of distribution.

“These are toys, and they should be sold in a toy shop,” he tells ToyNews.

“But the problem is getting hold of them.?They don’t tend to come from toy distributors. LEGO Dimensions is coming from Warner Entertainment, which isn’t a criticism, but it has a different way of operating.

“If there is nobody actually selling these to toy shops, then toy shops tend not to get them.”

For the smaller retailers, it appears that bridging the game and toy industries is a harder task in business- terms, than it is in product.

There may be solace in the fact then that Disney’s Playmation - championed as the next leap in toys-to- life - is being manufactured and distributed by industry experts, Hasbro.

Playmation aims to bring toys-to-life gameplay to the physical world with connected, wearable tech, app technology and a series of game sensors that put kids in the middle of stories themed around different universes like Marvel’s Avengers, Star Wars and Frozen.

Scheduled to launch in the US later this year, with a UK release not far behind Playmation will make its debut with a Marvel- themed play-set, in which kids are given an Iron Man ‘repulsor’ arm piece that will interact with an app and various beacons placed around the room or garden. Kids will then undergo a variety of missions, during which they will receive commands and be tasked with performing various activities.

“Playmation essentially uses connected tech to put players at the centre of the action,” Jerry Perez, SVP global brand leader at Hasbro, tells ToyNews.

“Toys-to-life are about physical objects enhancing screen-based experiences. Well, Playmation flips that on its head and takes the best digital play experience and adapts that to the physical world, not to a screen.”

The sets feature figures which can be connected to bases to unlock extra content for kids to engage with, all while encouraging them to be active.

“This is an entirely new dimension being added to the toys-to-life phenomenon,” continues Perez.

“Nine out of ten parents tell us they are open to new technology that will help to get their kids active, so we believe this meets the needs of the whole family.”

So, with Disney Infinity and Skylanders continuing?to innovate with new titles, LEGO Dimensions putting toys at the forefront of a videogame and Hasbro’s Playmation taking toys-to-life away from the screen and into the real world, surely it’s only a matter of time before we see the category fully embraced by our industry.

With firms behind the genre making an effort to help their creations suit the toy space, it seems about time that the toy retail landscape returned the favour.