Skylanders Imaginators Stays Competitive By Playing Fast and Loose with the Toys-to-life Genre

Skylanders Imaginators Stays Competitive By Playing Fast and Loose with the Toys-to-life Genre

Toys For Bob attempts to reclaim an increasingly crowded format by changing the rules.

We're at E3 this week, covering the year's biggest gaming event. Be sure to check out all our coverage on our E3 2016 hub!

If ever you need a handy parable about the self-destructive nature of capitalism, look no further than the games industry's habit of seizing on one company's success and imitating it en masse, burning out a great and profitable idea in just a few short years through massive oversaturation.

Sometimes, an idea has enough flexibility and appeal to survive. Games about endless zombie hordes went big a decade ago when Capcom created Dead Rising, and this week at E3 we've seen probably half a dozen new zombie games ranging from Sony's Days Gone to, yes, another Dead Rising. There's enough versatility in the idea of fighting zombies to allow many different interpretations of the concept, from jump-scare horror (Resident Evil VII) to mindless slaughter (State of Decay II).

More often, though, the industry is only too happy to destroy a promising idea through rapid overuse, like a disease virus killing a host by propagating so quickly it shuts down its body's systems. We saw it a few years ago with the music game genre, which hit big with Guitar Hero and Rock Band, only to implode under the weight of millions of plastic instruments a couple of years after reaching the mainstream. The format still hasn't recovered; Harmonix's attempt to resuscitate Rock Band last year went disastrously for the publisher, and the chances of us seeing another game that involves playing fake instruments alongside licensed rock songs anytime soon seem terribly slim. A great, addictive format, cut down in the prime of its life!

And now, we see the same thing happening with toys to life. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure kicked off an amusing idea back in 2011, and within a few years the idea of toys that interact with games through the use of near-field communication chips had reached saturation. Nintendo has amiibo, Warner has LEGO Dimensions, and Disney Interactive has Infinity... well, had. After last fall's overstuffed toys-to-life retail battle, Disney was the first to wave the white flag of surrender. Despite the fact that Disney Infinity 3.0 did remarkably well for the company, Disney executives saw the writing on the wall: The competition will only grow stiffer, as the market grows smaller, and parents become increasingly frustrated at having to buy hundreds dollars worth of toys for a single video game.

What does that mean for the three core game/toy lines that remain? For Warner and Nintendo, probably not too much. Both companies have plenty of other products to fall back on, and in any case toy connectivity isn't even central to the associated franchises. Nintendo has wisely used amiibo to enhance games without making any release dependent on toys (save Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival, whose dismal performance likely guarantees we won't be seeing more toy-centric releases from Nintendo). Meanwhile, the LEGO franchise continues to truck along both with and without toys, Dimension existing in tandem with the more standard releases like the forthcoming LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

For Skylanders, however, the increasing volatility of the toys-to-life market poses an existential crisis. The series revolves entirely around figure connectivity, and (the recent strategy card game spinoff notwithstanding) Skylanders basically doesn't exist without toys to connect to. Perhaps not surprisingly, Activision and developer Toys for Bob are taking a pretty big step with this year's Skylanders sequel to keep their bread-and-butter franchise relevant.

Skylanders Imaginators basically throws out a fundamental rule of the toys-to-life concept: Namely, that the characters you see on screen perfectly correspond to their associated toys. The earliest pitches for Skylanders hung from the hook that you were playing with the toy in a virtual space, and that's something that has continued to hold true throughout the series and its imitators. LEGO Dimensions even applies that philosophy to the LEGO construction concept, allowing players to reassemble their interactive LEGO kits into new forms, mirroring those new configurations on-screen. Last year's Skylanders Superchargers was the first time any of these games really broke with that cardinal rule, and then only slightly: The Supercharger vehicles could be upgraded in-game and would change design slightly, while the toys themselves of course remained static. And Skylanders have always been able to don silly hats in-game as armor. But fundamentally, the linked design of toys and virtual characters has remained inviolable until Imaginators.

The new game will be accompanied by 41 new toys, which is roughly typical for the series. 31 of those characters will be "sensei" figures, new or returning Skylanders characters who alone enjoy access to Imaginators' new combat mechanic (a limited super attack called Sky Chi). The other 10 toys, however, will effectively be blank slates: A crystal housed in a clear tube, one for each of the series' 10 elemental types. They're a bit like the elemental traps in 2014's Trap Team, except that instead of forcing you to capture bad guys to use in combat, the Imaginators crystals allow players to roll their own characters of their own design.

Toys For Bob has really gone all-in on the customization mechanic. While players mostly will be working with preset parts rather than facial sliders, that is something of a necessity since Skylanders aren't just basic human characters. The game begins with dozens of head, body, arm, and leg parts to choose from, ranging from animal skulls to fabric dolls to lizard women in design, and it appears there are hundreds more components to unlock, seemingly at random, throughout the game. Sliders come into play for body size (including a separate tail thickness gauge), and players can fine-tune their color choices with impressively granular detail. Not only that, but you can more or less redesign your character on the fly at any time.

As a base, of course, the elemental crystals you use determine the nature of your characters — Life, Fire, Air, etc. — and you also pick a role from one of 10 different character classes, such as archer and melee fighter. For a kids' game, there's an enormous amount of freedom of customization available in Imaginators... too much to allow the Imaginators characters to exist in toy form as anything besides generic templates. I did ask if Activision plans to offer a 3D printing option, maybe a premium service to allow players to convert a crystal into a custom figure based on the character saved inside. The response wasn't "No," but rather, "We don't have anything to talk about regarding that at this time," which is not a denial.

For now, though, Imaginators will allow players to create their own custom characters through the power of their imagination even as it requires them to use their imagination to visualize those characters as toys. If that's the compromise the series needs to make to avoid going the way of Disney Infinity, though, I doubt fans will be too terribly put out.

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