The fourth installment of Activision’s hit Skylanders series, is bringing something unusual to department store aisles this October: a console style video game that you plug into your iPad, Android, or Kindle Fire.
On shelves the same day and date as the $74.99 Skylanders Trap Team "starter packs" for the Xbox, PlayStation, 3DS, and Wii you'll find a nearly identical starter pack—complete with a plastic "portal" that zaps physical figurines into the game as virtual characters—for tablet devices. It's an unusual strategy for a massively popular mainstream video game franchise, and upends the way most developers release mobile games.
The portal connects to the tablet via Bluetooth and comes with a controller, two game figurines, and two physical "traps," which allow players to take characters out of the game (to for instance, play with them on a friend’s console). Though it doubles as a tablet stand, it looks similar to the portals that have been sold with Skylanders console games over the past three years. Trap Team for mobile's is also similar to what you'll find in its console games.
"We’ve built mobile games in the past, but this is different than that," says Greg Wilson, the senior product director of Skylanders. "This is all the content, a tremendous amount of linear media, cut scenes, all of the levels, every Skylander character we’ve ever made going back to 2011, just like you expect in a PlayStation or a Wii."
Part of what has kept most console games from releasing similar experiences in mobile app stores are technological limits—mobile devices only recently came packed with enough processing power to handle complicated core games—but another big reason is business.
A console game like Call of Duty, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, sells for $60 in a physical store. But in app stores, most games are free. Some more robust mobile games, like a version of Madden Football that EA released in 2011, have experimented with charging $7 or $10, but even then, the app store takes a 30% cut of sales. "The barrier to entry is low and nobody is going to spend the money [to build a AAA game for mobile]," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. "Just like nobody is going to put $100 million or $200 million into a TV show. They won’t do it. It’s too risky."
But Skylanders owes much of its more than $2 billion in sales to physical figurines that work with the game, of which it has sold more than 175 million since launching in 2011. The game has something to sell other than its hardware. Even though Trap Team for tablets is technically a free download in app stores, kids who want to play with more than the two digital characters included in the game will still buy the portal—at the same price as they would pay for the console game. To the accountants at Activision, the purchase of a tablet game and a console game looks about the same. As Pachter puts it, "There are probably as many tablets out there as there are consoles, and the overlap isn’t perfect. This is a good idea."
Most console game franchises don’t have this luxury. If they were to launch an app game that mirrored their console games, they’d be competing not with toys in a toy aisle, but with millions of apps in an app store. That’s a bit trickier. But it hasn’t stopped other gaming companies from developing more robust games for tablets.
For years, Apple has leaned on ChAIR Entertainment’s Infinity Blade to demonstrate the potential of its mobile devices for console-like gaming. Activision released a $7 Call of Duty game for mobile last year, but in March closed the studio that made it. Bringing a more console-like experience to the tablet is an idea with enough momentum that game controllers for the tablet are a category (Google recently acquired one company that makes a controller for Android devices called Green Throttle Games).
"I think the lines are blurring in terms of the actual device," says Karthik Bala, the CEO of the Activision studio that created the tablet version of Skylanders Trap Team. "With this kind of experience, they kind of forget that this is a tablet. This is an experience that happens to use a tablet. The device itself becomes transparent."