One of gaming's greatest coulda-beens over the past decade came about when Activision offered to partner up with Nintendo on the Skylanders franchise and Nintendo shrugged and said, "Eh, no thanks." So Activision went on to make the series a multi-platform venture whose earnings currently stand in the billions of dollars — cash that surely would come in handy for Nintendo as it struggles to remain in the black with sagging 3DS and vaporous Wii U sales.
While things aren't entirely sour between Nintendo and Skylanders — as attested by the inclusion of Donkey Kong and Bowser in the Wii U and 3DS versions of this year's franchise entry, Superchargers — the Amiibo line definitely stands as Nintendo's attempt to make up for lost time and opportunity. To their credit, Amiibo has achieved a sort of premium cachet in the increasingly crowded toys-to-life space. Carefully managed scarcity (a Nintendo sales strategy dating back to the "chip shortages" of Zelda II in the '80s) and a wide range of game compatibility have turned Amiibo into precious rarities capable of instilling frothing demand among fans and inspiring particularly passionate collectors to wait in line at designated retailers several times throughout the year. How well Amiibo will continue to fare once Disney Infinity incorporates Star Wars properties beginning with Infinity 3.0 and LEGO Dimensions debuts as the fourth competitor in the field remains to be seen, though.
Clearly, Nintendo is banking on the continued success of Amiibo despite the growing competition. This week, the publisher announced two major Amiibo-based initiatives: First, a "giant sized" yarn Yoshi Amiibo which sells for a hefty premium (an almost-reasonable $40 in the U.S., a more painful €40 in Europe); second, a Shovel Knight Amiibo featuring the protagonist of last year's indie platformer by Yacht Club Games.
Of the two announcements, Shovel Knight seems the more significant milestone by far: After a year of Amiibo sales, Nintendo is finally opening the product line to licensing. Until now, Amiibo have been based on either Nintendo properties, or third-party characters with a presence in first-party brawler Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS. However, Shovel Knight (unfortunately) hasn't been inducted into the ranks of Smash Bros.; Nintendo has explicitly stated that his Amiibo will be compatible with the Nintendo platform releases of Shovel Knight and "future releases by Yacht Club Games." In other words, don't expect a Shovel Knight costume in Super Mario Maker or Yoshi's Woolly World; the shovel-wielding warrior exists apart from other Amiibo. It will use the same NFC tech as Nintendo's own Amiibo, but it won't work with Nintendo's software.
We can assume the same will hold true for future third-party Amiibo, whose arrival seems practically guaranteed. (Nintendo touts the Shovel Knight figure as the "first" indie Amiibo.) It's not at all unlikely that future publishers to leap into the Amiibo market will collaborate with one another; for example, you can almost certainly count a figure based on WayForward's Shantae — a multi-platform character, but one with deep historic ties to Nintendo hardware — as a slam-dunk. Given the spirit of collegiality (rather than competition) between like-minded indies, I would be surprised not to see Shovel Knight's Amiibo unlock extra costumes or characters in the next Shantae, or vice-versa. On the other hand, the prospects of seeing those characters and figures interact with, say, Splatoon II or New Super Mario Bros. NX seem unlikely. Nintendo has always adopted an ivory tower stance with licensing, and there's little reason to expect that to change just because it's sharing its NFC tech with third parties.
That being said, I'd like to think Nintendo has learned its lessons about treating licensees well after the blowback it suffered from its 8- and 16-bit licensing schemes. During the NES, Game Boy, and Super NES days, licensees were expected to shoulder the burden and cost of manufacturing and distribution at great risk; Nintendo took cash up front to produce cartridges for third parties, and that was the extent of their commitment. If a game flopped at retail, that was the licensee's problem, not Nintendo's. Many third parties ended up being burned by this arrangement, which had a great deal to do with the third-party exodus that happened once Sega's Genesis debuted, and again to an even greater degree during the PlayStation era.
The fact that Nintendo refers to Shovel Knight as the first indie Amiibo, on the other hand, suggests that whatever manufacturing terms exist for this new licensing venture put less of the onus on third parties. By definition, indie studios can't absorb the same costs as larger companies; and considering how big a deal Nintendo makes of its partnerships with small developers, it seems unlikely that their next step would be to bankrupt the few remaining creators that support the Wii U.
Then again, considering the scarcity we've seen for Amiibo properties that aren't Mario, there doesn't seem to be much chance of Shovel Knight stock going unsold at great cost to the publisher the way latter-day Super NES games did.
If they play their cards right, Nintendo could fill the last major toys-to-life niche that the competition hasn't bothered to explore: Other game properties. Consider: Skylanders is a self-contained universe whose only video game crossovers have involved Nintendo's limited cameos (you won't be playing as Bowser on the PS4 version of Superchargers, you know?) and, of course, Spyro the Dragon; Disney Infinity draws exclusively upon Disney's own vast stable of creations and acquisitions, including Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars; and while Warner Bros. announced just this morning the addition of Midway game properties to LEGO Dimensions (including Gauntlet, Defender, and Robotron), WBIE owns those franchises as the result of decades of mergers and acquisitions. Absent in all of these properties are meaningful collaborations with other game publishers — an area where Nintendo already has a significant foothold thanks to its Smash Bros. character crossovers.
Of course, there are logistical limits to just how all-inclusive Amiibo could be. No doubt a number of publishers are contemplating their own (belated, and likely ill-fated) entries into the toys-to-life field. We'll certainly never see WBIE or Disney Amiibo. And I find it hard to imagine that Nintendo's main competitors — rival platform holders like Microsoft, Sony, and even Apple — will give up likeness rights to their own properties to help line Nintendo's pockets. Even so, that leaves an incredible number of possibilities for Amiibo crossovers: Venerable third parties like Sega, Capcom, and Konami (can a Monster Hunter Amiibo be too far away? Or a Simon Belmont?). Indie devs like Nicalis (Binding of Isaac, Cave Story) and Image & Form (Rusty from SteamWorld Dig?). Even more obscure candidates such as Atlus wouldn't be out of the question; Etrian Odyssey Amiibo, unlikely as the idea seems, would bankrupt me. The potential exists here for Amiibo to become a tool for strengthening third-party relations (and, of course, the bottom line).
Interesting as the possibilities the Shovel Knight initiative creates may be, I actually find that jumbo-sized Yoshi Amiibo offers even more potential. Here, Nintendo is breaking away from the established niche of small, action-figure sized toys into a larger format, which means they'll be moving into a new space at retail. (Again, assuming that jumbo Yoshi is manufactured in sufficient quantities to actually create the need for shelf space.) This opens the door for Nintendo to expand its toy lineup to something beyond the existing Amiibo scale... and possibly beyond Amiibo. Given Nintendo's roots as a toy manufacturer, Amiibo has always struck me as an attempt by the company to re-diversify its business beyond the fickle video games market, and I'm curious to see how its oversized Amiibo works out and what we see along those lines further down the road.
In the meantime, I will sympathize with those who have reacted to these new announcements with dread rather than enthusiasm. Whatever Shovel Knight means for the future of Nintendo's toy and game business, it also means a giant hassle for anyone who hopes to unlock Shovel Knight's Amiibo-exclusive cooperative mode. The more things change....