As long as there's been video games, there have been hordes of imaginative players who've made their own characters for said games. Some of those characters are simple variations on old ideas ("This is Sonic the Hedgehog, but with speed holes all over his body!"), while others are highly complex, fully-formed ideas.
The next installment in the Skylanders game series, Skylanders Imaginators, is engineered to appeal to character creators of all stripes. The gimmick driving this 3D action game is customization -- specifically, the power to create your very own Skylander and play as them in the game.
According to a press release distributed by Activision earlier today, Imaginators lets players fiddle with their Skylander's "appearance, powers, abilities, names, catchphrases, musical themes, and much more." Kotaku's Mike Fahey, who previewed the game, says the customization system is quite detailed, even allowing for players to adjust the length of a particular character's ponytail.
The Skylanders games traditionally co-exist with toys, and Imaginators is no different. As cool as it'd be to physically assemble your own Skylander with LEGO-style bricks and beam them into the game, that'd be a bit complicated with today's tech (give it a few years). Instead, Imaginators' collection aspect revolves around "Creation Crystal" toys, which serve as an elemental base for your character. Flavors include Light, Dark, Air, Fire, Water, Life, Undead, Earth, Magic, and Tech.
But Skylanders fans probably aren't going to be satisfied with collecting Crystal-shaped toys, even though they do look pretty cool. In addition to Creation Crystals, players can also collect 31 "Sensei" character toys that teach fighting skills to the players' custom characters, as well as increase their level caps. Most of the Senseis are newcomers, though some reformed villains are taking up the teaching role.
Don't worry if your old Flashwing figurine is wasting away on your shelf, though. Like most Skylanders games, Imaginators is backwards compatible with previously-released toys.
The "Make your own Skylander!" direction Activision and Toys for Bob are taking with Imaginators may ultimately wind up saving the franchise. The emphasis here is on character customization, not toys. It almost feels like a compliment to Super Mario Maker. Instead of telling kids to build their own game levels, though, they're inviting kids to make their own heroes. That's pretty cool, especially if the level of character customization is as nuanced as Fahey believes it might be.
But as Disney's recent exit of the toys-to-life industry indicates, hawking plastic monsters to kids isn't as easy as it used to be. Buyer fatigue is a problem, as is the simple fact kids are growing up and out of Skylanders.
That might be why Imaginators focuses more around building a character in-game than bringing them to life through an outside influence. People of all ages love making their own heroes, and assembling your own avatar admittedly sounds cooler to a self-conscious twelve-year-old who doesn't want to be scorned for playing with a bunch of "toys."
What's more, if the toys-to-life bubble does actually pop, games like Imaginators will have already helped cut the cord between the Skylanders series and its toys. After Guitar Hero, Activision probably learned a few things about the problems that come with chaining games to plastic accessories.
Look for Skylanders Imaginators on October 16 for the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and Wii U.
We're at E3 next week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!