Electric Retrospective – Playtime’s Over: The Rise and Fall of Toys to Life

Sean Mullins
Technology Columnnist

Nintendo’s Amiibo figures were one of many competitors in the Toys to Life market. Photo from Nintendo

Gaming is no stranger to fads- e.g. Guitar Hero’s plastic instruments. However, it’s tragic to see fads fade away because many are built on fascinating ideas, such as Toys to Life.

Toys to Life describes physical figures used to interact with games. Though some games use other methods, they typically use near-field communication (NFC) to recognize figures, so they use a portal device that recognizes figures by a chip on the bottom.

The genre successfully appeals to three consumer groups. Since many Toys to Life series are entertaining games even without the figures, gamers can enjoy them. The figures bring in children since it doubles as a game and a toy, and collectors desire rare figures and those of their favorite characters.

Skylanders wasn’t the first series to use figures to unlock ingame content- a more obscure title, “U.B. Funkeys,” beat it to the punch. However, “Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure,” released by Activision in 2011, was the first to use NFC figures. Set as a revival of the Spyro the Dragon franchise, it was immensely successful, though it lacked its competitors’ brand recognition due to the long-gone mascot.

“Spyro’s Adventure” was praised for innovating with its NFC figures, as well as being an enjoyable adventure. While it kickstarted a franchise with five annual sequels, Skylanders also set the stage for three major competitors.

“Disney Infinity,” released in 2013, was a similar game featuring Disney and Pixar characters. While its campaign was basic and could become tedious, Infinity’s strength was Toy Box mode, which let players mix elements from the game and create their own worlds. Two sequels were made- “Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes” in 2014, which added characters like Hulk, and “Disney Infinity 3.0” in 2015, which focused on Star Wars.

It’s worth mentioning that Activision offered Skylanders as exclusive to Nintendo during the production of “Spyro’s Adventure.” While Nintendo passed on exclusivity, the series was made available on its systems, and the company saw opportunity in NFC figures. After testing the waters in 2013 with the unremarkable “Pokemon Rumble U,” Nintendo entered the fray in 2014 with Amiibo, which were NFC figures of Nintendo characters.

Nintendo had one advantage over the competition: Amiibo can be used across multiple games in different ways. For example, an Amiibo figure of Kirby could unlock an outfit designed after him in “Mario Kart 8,” but that same figure could be trained in “Super Smash Bros. 4” to become a sparring partner. Because figures could be used across different series, Amiibo stayed relevant as new games supported older figures in new ways.

One issue with Toys to Life is that most figures are statues, which makes them difficult for them to work as toys. Naturally, a toy company took a perfect opportunity. “LEGO Dimensions,” released in 2015, was basically another LEGO game at its foundation with Toys to Life added. Players received LEGO pieces with each purchase, so any figure could be taken off its base and played with like any other LEGO set.

Dimensions was a crossover featuring various franchises, including LEGO’s property such as “The LEGO Movie,” as well as movies, shows, and games. Dimensions was outlined for a three year plan, but instead of annual releases like Skylanders or Infinity, Dimensions was updated to be compatible with new figures. The Year 2 update, released in 2016, introduced new franchises like “Adventure Time” to the game.

It seemed Toys to Life was an unstoppable juggernaut in the industry. However, six years after Skylanders began, the genre’s future is uncertain for a few reasons. Children’s interest in toys is declining as technology becomes more easily available. In some cases, figures are understocked, which leads to scalpers selling them at high prices, but other figures are overstocked, wasting shelf space.

While some competitors are reasonably priced, some Toys to Life series take a toll on wallets. At full price, buying all content for LEGO Dimensions costs over $700, which is higher than most consoles. The market burned out consumers due to price issues, which wasn’t helped by the oversaturation of its four competitors, two of which had annual game releases.

In 2016, Disney closed Avalanche Software, who developed Infinity, and plans for a fourth game were cancelled. The future of Dimensions is unclear, as LEGO is cutting jobs due to falling sales and no news has come of the long-anticipated Year 3 update that was anticipated to begin in late 2017.

Skylanders is seeing success as a brand, including “Skylanders Academy,” a well-received Netflix animated series set for its third season in 2018. However, while the games continue to see positive reception, recent installments missed sales expectations, and the games are on hiatus for 2017.

Amiibo sales were mostly carried by the Super Smash Bros. line, since it included 58 fan-favorite characters across Nintendo’s franchises. Thus, Amiibo peaked mid-2015, as most of the Smash roster had been released, and declined when the Animal Crossing Amiibo line released. Despite Animal Crossing’s popularity, this line was tied to the critically panned “Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival,” and it took up space for figures people wanted.

However, Amiibo remain successful, despite other franchises’ fate. New games on the Switch featuring Amiibo content like “Super Mario Odyssey” have provided Amiibo with relevance once more, and sales are doing better, though far from their tremendous peak.

While it started off strong, Toys to Life was brought down by overpricing, overstocking, and oversaturation. Amiibo managed to survive plunging sales, but series like Skylanders were forced to go on hiatus. Disney Infinity couldn’t live up to its name when it ended abruptly, and it’s unsure whether LEGO can continue Dimensions as the company restructures.

For such a brilliant concept as combining toys and games, it’s rather disappointing what’s happened to the genre. Sadly, for most of the competition, it’s time to put the toys away.

(Note: As this column underwent editing, LEGO Dimensions was officially cancelled. Go to the Electric Retrospective blog at https://electricretrospective.wordpress.com for more info.)


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2 thoughts on “Electric Retrospective – Playtime’s Over: The Rise and Fall of Toys to Life

  1. Interesting post. I didn’t know Toys to Life was on its way out, so I guess I wasn’t really on the ball about news regarding it, huh?

    Also, mad props for acknowledging U.B. Funkeys as the true first Toys to Life game. 🙂

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