The digital revolution is starting to look a lot more physical.
As the Electronic Entertainment Expo, North America's largest video game trade show, gets set to launch on Tuesday — with virtual reality headsets expected to be the talk of the Los Angeles Convention Center — it turns out that the big thing in gaming has already arrived in the form of toys.
More specifically, tiny plastic figurines of princesses, wizards or animals that connect with wireless technology and spring to life in a video game when placed on a plastic tray. Toys to life, as the growing category is called, is a featured part of franchises such as Activision's "Skylanders" and "Disney Infinity." But what landed seemingly as a fad four years ago appears to have impressive staying power, and room to grow. Since "Skylanders" launched in 2011, the category has generated more than $2 billion in sales, according to the market research firm NPD Group.
The biggest surprise, say analysts, may be that the field isn't even bigger than it already is.
"The toys-to-life game category is limited only by the potential of the toy category," says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. "If you take every toy and make it come to life, that's more fun than imagining it coming to life. The thing I've been flabbergasted by is that there isn't a Transformers toys-to-life game, or a Barbie toys-to-life game. I'm sure there will be. There should be. There should be a Hot Wheels toys-to-life game."
But there will be a "Star Wars" toys-to-life game when it becomes a part of the "Disney Infinity" world later this year. And much to the chagrin of parents who have already invested in these tiny armies, the field is only going to further expand this fall when "Lego" enters the market with its "Lego Dimensions" title, a genre and licensing mash-up in production by TT Games and Warner Bros. Interactive that will bring together "Back to the Future," "Batman," "Lord of the Rings," "The Wizard of Oz" and more.
It's a kid's game, one soaked with nostalgic brands, making it a relatively safe purchase for Mom and Dad. But it's not just kid's play.
If you're an adult, the correct terminology is not toys but, rather, "collectibles," at least according to a certain reporter with plastic Nintendo and Disney characters sitting on his bookshelf. Nintendo, which calls its toys-to-life figures "amiibos," has reported that it has sold more than 10.5 million figures since their launch late last year, and I think they make excellent desk accessories.
I'm not the only adult charmed by this category.
Disney Interactive executive John Vignocchi says it was somewhat of a revelation to learn that nearly half his audience consists of grown-ups. This fall the company will release "Disney Infinity 3.0," and add-on purchases will allow players to explore worlds inspired by the original "Star Wars" trilogy as well as this December's "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens."
"We're appealing to young and old and male and female," Vignocchi says. "Our latest data says that something crazy like 52% of our audience is ages 1 to 17, and then the remaining 48% is 18 and up."
Expect those numbers to even out when "Star Wars" is added to the mix. But Vignocchi has another theory for the category's success. Simply put, mainstream video games have looked rather similar for the past 10 or 15 years. Aside from Nintendo, which generally ignores industry trends, games have gotten longer (some an oppressive 80 hours or more), more violent and often star men.
"Maybe some of the experiences in video games right now are very repetitive, very much the same," Vignocchi says. "'Infinity' offers something different."
The toys-to-life genre has not only reignited the family games sector but also brought back a sense of lighthearted fun to blockbuster gaming.
"The model from the get-go in our game was 'Nothing is sacred,' " says Doug Heder, a producer at Warner Bros. Interactive working on the "Lego Dimensions." He appeared to be joking, but "Lego Dimensions" also opens with Gandalf walking the yellow brick road.
All of these games work differently. Nintendo's amiibo figures play with multiple games, unlocking extra content or mini-games when placed on the console's GamePad. "Skylanders" plays out like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon show, with over-the-top characters, corny but cool voice-overs and villainous sheep.
"Disney Infinity" can get a little complex; it's essentially two games in one.
The game is partly a build-your-own Disney adventure tool, allowing players to craft kingdoms, race tracks, battle arenas and more. Then, say, Elsa from "Frozen," Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man can all duke it out, provided one has bought the $13.99 figures. I, for one, find the creation tools a bit overwhelming and prefer to play the "Infinity" mini-games, included with some figures, or larger Disney/Marvel adventures, included with the so-called play sets.
"Lego Dimensions" looks to fit somewhere in between "Skylanders" and "Disney Infinity." In its favor will be a comedic tone inspired by "The Lego Movie" and the ability to see characters from "Scooby-Doo" intermingle with those from "Wizard of Oz." At a media preview in advance of E3, it was hard not to be smitten by Batman mistaking Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz" as the DC Comics super-villain.
All have their drawbacks, namely a relatively high price tag. It's not at all difficult to be out $150 after buying a starter pack and a few add-on toys. "Skylanders," for all its silliness, will subtly encourage players to buy more figures by keeping certain content off-limits.
Still, what each company is bringing to E3 looks to be an improvement on the past. "Skylanders," which has sold 240 million toys since its introduction, will launch "Skylanders Superchargers" in September, a title that will add toy vehicles to the mix. Unlike the toys of yore, which are static figures placed on stands, the vehicles will all have moving parts, meaning kids can better play with them when the game is off. The title is listed at $74.99.
"This year's game will have over $40 worth of toys. It is not an inexpensive purchase, but it is a high-value purchase," argues Activision exec Josh Taub.
"Lego Dimensions" comes with actual Lego toys. In-game prompts will encourage players to construct figures such as a Batmobile on the fly. "Disney Infinity 3.0" has me excited because its mini-games look more robust than ever, especially a run-and-jump puzzle game inspired by "Inside Out."
The appeal? Don't ever discount the power of toys and cartoons.
"It looks like something," Vignocchi says, "that a mom or dad gamer — or non-gamer — would say, 'I'll give this a try.' "