Toys to life – dying a death?

To describe the world as fast-paced would be to revel in understatement. Trends and fashions change on a monthly basis, in tune with the whims of the buying public. A good example came in May, when Disney shut down its Infinity venture, spinning the Toys to Life genre into an existential crisis.

Was one of the strongest performing sectors of 2015, with 7% growth over the year, running out of steam?

Toys to Life is the cheesy name given to games that interact with real-world toys or objects, usually using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. The biggest player in the genre is the Skylanders franchise, which uses scannable cards to bring Top Trumps style gameplay to life, showing the battles between your card and your opponents’ on the device you scanned the card with. This might sound simple, but it’s the most lucrative franchise in the genre, with $3 billion in sales in the past 4 years.

So, why did Disney shut down its foray into this seemingly attractive market?

Genres like this, which use a well-defined set of real-world tools to interact with a gaming environment, can be self-limiting.

Once you’ve released your game and a couple of different sets of cards, there’s no room for expansion. Skylanders overcame this problem by developing vehicles which interact with their established card games, but Disney obviously thought the pickings were too slim, and the pressure to innovate, too much.

Many analysts have compared the Toys to Life genre to the explosion of Rock Band and Guitar Hero-style games in 2008/2009. This game type was suddenly omnipresent, then, just as suddenly, disappeared as the craze ran out of steam. Publishers tried hard to innovate with new packages such as Beatles Rock Band, and new peripherals (remember DJ Hero?).

In the long term though, it wasn’t enough to overcome the fundamental limitations of a genre that was essentially based around playing along to songs. Put simply, people got bored.

So, will Toys to Life go the same way?

The consensus is that it’s possible, but not inevitable. On the one hand, the swift exit of a big, deep-pocketed player like Disney would seem to be a sure sign of a downward trend. If Disney couldn’t make a go of it, with its infinite IP of characters to draw on, as well as the steamroller marketing campaigns that accompany its film releases, then who can?

Plenty of observers are more bullish though.

They argue that there is now more space in the market for more agile, innovative developers to come in and exploit.

Compared to the Rock Band genre, Toys to Life has much deeper creative reserves to draw on. It’s not limited to musical instruments; it could apply to pretty much any object you can insert NFC technology in – toy cars, drones, cuddly toys. A good example of how the genre could innovate its way out of this corner is the Taiwan-based studio Monkey Potion. Their latest project is a board game with NFC chips inserted into all of the playing pieces, enabling the game to interact with its associated mobile app, thus tracing each turn and replicating it on screen.

So don’t write Toys to Life’s obituary just yet. As with all gaming industry trends, keep a close eye on where it goes next – you might just spot the next Skylanders.

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