Super Star War on the SNES. I was 14 when my best friend and I headed into London with our hard-earned paper-round cash to buy the most anticipated game of my life.
I paid an incredible £90 for an advance import, but I wasn’t disappointed. When I got home I arranged my favourite Kenner Star Wars figures around the TV before popping in the cartridge and losing myself in 16-bit fun.
Back then my experience was enhanced by simply having the physical toy to hand while enjoying the digital experience. It increased my sense of immersion and somehow gave both the game and toys a greater meaning. Maybe I was a weird kid, but I loved my Star Wars toys; I loved video games too and I wanted to celebrate both simultaneously and totally lose myself in the fantasy these products created.
So when I first saw Skylanders I immediately understood the appeal. An awesome game where you play with different characters by ‘teleporting’ them from the physical to the digital world via the ‘portal of power’ peripheral. Buy more toys and you have more characters to play with in the game.
Disney Infinity took things one step further, by combining a catalogue of awesome Disney IP and finely crafted figurines with a range of digital playsets. Being a Disney fan, I felt a natural affinity to certain characters and play sets which further enhanced my desire to collect the toys and buy more digital content.
And then came LEGO Dimensions which incorporated brick building mechanics to promote physical interaction to further engage players. An exciting development for the genre and an evolutionary step ahead of the competition.
By the end of 2015 we were set for a successful future, with three big players dominating an exciting new sector that promised to change the way we played with toys and video games forever.
Then earlier this year everything stalled. Disney Infinity was cancelled, LEGO Dimensions seemed to be underperforming and Skylanders showed signs of waning popularity after posting disappointing sales figures and laying off developers associated with the product.
High manufacturing costs, distribution problems and lower than expected digital sales have all been cited as challenges facing the sector, and a reason for diminishing returns. However, they’re surmountable problems and not really the reasons why these once successful products are waning.
I believe that consumers have an intrinsic, unconscious desire to close the gap between physical and digital play. That deeply interactive experiences are more immersive and rewarding. And by engaging physical senses and movement/motion it’s possible to create truly magical experiences that connect with consumers on a deeper emotional level.
So why are people losing interest in these products? It’s fatigue.
The innovative offering of yesteryear simply hasn’t changed that much. It’s been five years since Skylanders launched, and since then there hasn’t been a great deal of change within the sector. Sure there have been incremental improvements across the board, and the kind of graphical enhancements you expect when you move from one console generation to the next, but no great innovations to propel the genre to the next level.
The term ‘Toys-to-Life’ was coined to describe the ‘bringing to life’ of physical toys in the digital world. It describes the Skylanders/Disney Infinity/LEGO Dimensions experience perfectly. You buy a physical toy, place it on a special base that’s connected to your games console and that toy is transported into your digital world for virtual play. It’s a magical transition the first time you see it, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.
The first time I showed Disney Infinity to my seven year old niece she loved it. For about five minutes. She quickly bored of playing the game and wanted to play with the toy. But unfortunately in all of these products the character needs to remain firmly placed in the base in order for the experience to work. Once the magic of teleporting your toy to the digital world is over, you’re basically just playing a video game.
Wouldn’t it be much more magical if you could continue to interact and play with your toy throughout the game? If physical play was encouraged and rewarded rather than discouraged? If your actions in the real world could contribute to your objectives in the digital?
It’s this notion of blending physical and digital play seamlessly that I feel is the key to future success for Toys-to-Life.
Pokemon Go has shown us that the blending fantasy and reality can be incredibly appealing. And not just with kids – as the top grossing global app on the App Store it’s clear that adults are responding well to these kind of experiences too.
And technology is getting cheaper too. Bluetooth, motion sensors, LED and audio visual technology is more affordable than ever before. And when paired with the processing and communication capabilities of even the cheapest smartphone, you can build some amazing experiences. Add AR/VR tech to the mix and you can achieve the incredible.
What’s been holding us back thus far isn’t the availability or affordability of technology – it’s lack of imagination and unwillingness to invest in these experimental and truly innovative experiences.
But the landscape is changing fast. At Gobo, we’re working on a very different Toys-to-Life product with a daring and ambitious partner, and I’m aware of other developers and toy manufacturers who are also set to make waves in this space. Jumo’s Infinite Arms (set to release later this year) is just one example of how innovation and technology are taking the genre to the next level.
So my prediction for the sector? Toys-to-Life 1.0 is coming to an end. Even profitable products like Skylanders and LEGO Dimensions are seeing diminishing returns and it’ll be difficult to stave off the inevitable.
But at a notional level, the Toys-to-Life experience still has enduring appeal. Physical and digital integration can increase consumer engagement and immersion significantly, and the proliferation of smartphones and affordable mobile technology means it’s possibly to create truly magical experiences cheaper and easier than ever before.
But whilst the first generation of Toys-to-Life products saw developers bringing physical toys to life in the digital world, future experiences will bring toys to life in the real world. Truly magical experiences where your actions in the physical world complement and enhance what’s going on in the digital.
Technology can finally fill the gap formally filled by my imagination, all those years ago when I played Super Star Wars alongside my Kenner figures.
To me the future for Toys-to-Life seems very bright indeed, and I’m very lucky be in a position where I can help define what that future looks like. It’s an exciting opportunity for us at Studio Gobo - one that almost feels magical.