This weekend, mammoth game publisher Activision launched a new franchise, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure. It's an evolution of the character Spyro the Dragon which debuted on PlayStation 1 in 1998. What is notable is that it isn't just a game for consoles or to be played online—it is a line of 32 toys that work with a series of games in the franchise. Activision CEO Eric Hirschberg said, "Everything that happens to the character inside the game are written back into the toy's memory and then it travels with you wherever you go."
The company has taken the idea of portability further, allowing each toy (or character) to interact with all the different versions of the game, including for all the major game consoles, Nintendo 3DS handheld, mobile platforms (iOS and Android), and even the web version. "Even kids who don't own a console can buy a $7.99 toy, go home, enter a code into the website, and play with their toy online, or play with it on their parents' smart phone," said Hirschberg. And while the console iterations are different versions of the same game, the other versions are all unique and provide different gameplay.
What's does this all mean to a kid? Timmy can buy a Spyro toy, and do the usual imaginary fighting with it in the physical world, but then use the "portal" to make Spyro come to life and play the web game as him. He can play online with his friend Suzy who has her own toys from the franchise, perhaps the fish man Gill. As Timmy defeats enemies and unlocks new abilities using Spyro, those achievements get saved to the tech guts within the toy. Now, his improved Spyro can be moved to the Xbox game, or taken over to Suzy's house to play his version of Spyro on her Wii system.
The company knew they had an upward battle to convince children and their parents to take the plunge, and invest in these toys. Demonstrations of a real world/virtual world interaction would be key; Hirschberg said, "It's one of those games that really comes to life when you experience it hands-on." The company will be doing a mall tour at 30 locations nationwide, 60 Trucks with live demos will be driving around to events, and even a "House Party" program where more than 500 influential families will host Skylanders parties. They also targeted some influencers more directly, recently showcasing the game at the BlogHer conference for hundreds of mothers who blog, tweet, etc.
For a company best known for its hugely successful Call of Duty franchise, why did Activision jump into toys and the juvenile market? Hirschberg said, "We are attracted to innovation and things that can create a unique and valuable experience for gamers. With Skylanders we are seeing some of the same differentiating innovation that led to the first Guitar Hero games." The company's role in the music genre is what made the difference. "We manufactured guitar-shaped controllers and DJ turntable controllers—and while I wouldn't categorize those things as toys, they have a lot in common in terms of the manufacturing process and the supply process and the retail process—needing to demonstrate something that is unprecedented in the marketplace," said Hirschberg.
Ultimately, for the series to succeed in the market it will have to capture kids' love and attention. Hirschberg believes the games' storylines and virtual worlds, and portability into the real world, will be a draw. "In our dimension the [characters] are frozen so they appear to look like toys. And only you, the kid, can bring them back to life. So the kid has an active role in the mythology, because they are the portal masters that can unlock the Skylanders and put them back in Skyland to fight their battle."