Forget Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, Activision Blizzard has a new superbrand on its hands. Christopher Dring speaks to VP of marketing John Coyne to discover how the publisher is taking Skylanders from its new kids IP to this year’s biggest toy franchise...
If there’s one thing Tony Hawk Ride and DJ Hero taught us, it’s that Activision and plastic accessories aren’t always a good mix.
The poor sales of those titles, plus the death of Guitar Hero, marked a low point for the Call of Duty publisher. And it was something that its closest rival (you know who we mean) was more than happy to remind people about again and again.
The criticism was clear: Sure, you may have the biggest entertainment property of all time. But what else have you got?
So the arrival of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was greeted with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Will Activision answer its critics?
“Whenever you launch something new, there is always that risk that it won’t work and it won’t resonate with consumers,” admits Activision’s VP of marketing for Skylanders, John Coyne.
“But by the time we launched, we knew the level of retail support we were getting, we knew the level of media support we would be putting behind it.
“And the more people who got to see it and interactive with it, those doubts disappeared.”
TO THE SKIES
Skylanders has been a huge success. The figurines were the industry’s biggest selling accessories last year, and demand continues to outstrip supply. Meanwhile, the online virtual world – Skylanders: Spyro’s Universe – has over 1m users.
No wonder Activision has now billed Skylanders as its next $1bn franchise.
“We see video games these days as very much a legitimate form of entertainment,” continues Coyne.
“As Call of Duty and other games show, this medium can create lifestyle brands for both children and adults. So in terms of Skylanders becoming an entertainment brand, I think we do have a very good opportunity.”
A crucial part of this is licensing. This Christmas you can expect to see Skylanders everywhere, on backpacks, clothes, lunch boxes and more. Activision has even signed a deal with Penguin to produce a range of books.
Coyne adds: “We have just held a licensing conference here in the UK, with 150 people attending.
“You can sense that things are going well when people are approaching you about licensing opportunities, rather than you having to approach them.
“Hopefully Skylanders will be everywhere. It tends to be like that once kids get into something, they really get into it. You see that on a number of movie and TV properties. It becomes a lifestyle thing for them. We are seeing Skylanders follow that curve.”
It could even be a TV show.
“We’ve seen products do well, especially in the launch phase, without a TV or movie component,” says Coyne. “But we have to wait and see. It’s just the way kids spend their time these days. They are as happy watching a TV show as they are playing a video game.”
Activision has taken the toy element of Skylanders very seriously. It has hired experts from the toy world, including Coyne, who has worked at Mattel and SpinMaster. And the publisher has also taken cues from how the toy industry promotes its products.
“Traditionally with a video game you spend a lot of time and effort on the pre-launch activity and then after launch it goes quiet,” explains Coyne.
“With toys it is the opposite. You don’t really do any marketing beforehand, you do it after you’ve launched. With Skylanders we have done both. We are continuing our TV and trade support throughout this year. It really is a hybrid model. And going by the way the toys are evaporating from shelves, it is certainly working.”
Indeed, for retail Skylanders has been somewhat of a rare blessing.
Even the game’s DLC is physical. While you can download a map pack in Call of Duty without leaving the house, to unlock an extra level in Skylanders you have to buy an adventure pack. From a shop.
“We could have done downloadable content, but it just felt more Skylanders to have an adventure piece that you put on the portal to open up a different world. That magic is really important to this franchise,” explains Coyne.
Big kids properties often have a longer shelf life than your typical triple-A shooter, and that’s certainly true of Skylanders.
But it’s not just been the regular arrival of toys that has kept fans engaged. There’s that online virtual world – Skylanders: Spyro’s Universe.
“This is a living, breathing part of Skylanders because we are continually updating it,” adds Coyne.
“It keeps people engaged with the franchise and is a big part of our future plans.“With Universe we wanted to give people a different entry point. You can start on the franchise from here before making a purchase. We wanted to give Skylanders the widest possible audience.”
The next giant leap for Skylanders arrives this Christmas in the form of Skylanders Giants.
The new game will be a crucial step in Activision’s bid to create a new $1bn franchise.
The title boasts new (and yes, giant) figurines, new gameplay elements, and even new technology. The new Skylanders toys will now light up as players move them towards the portal, without batteries or an on/off switch. How about that for magic?
“We learnt from the original Skylanders that the importance of innovation to reinvigorate and stimulate a market place,” concludes Coyne.
“It is incredibly important we keep that innovation going. And with Giants we have not only got the innovation in terms of gameplay, but we have also got the physical innovation in this new lighting technology. We are not resting on our laurels. We will keep on challenging ourselves.”
This year is dominated by big core gaming sequels. We have a new Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, Resident Evil and so on.
But for all the hype these big budget core games receive, the real retail No.1 of the year might actually be a kids game.
And one that you can’t download.
HOW RETAIL HELPS SKYLANDERS TAKE FLIGHT
Skylanders and retail have struck up quite a partnership.
You can see the characters lurking throughout Tesco’s games section. Amazon and Play.com both have dedicated microsites. Even specialist games retailers are embracing the unique products.
Meanwhile, Toys ‘R’ Us has backed the series in a big way, and was even involved in the unveiling of the new game, Skylanders Giants.
“Toys ‘R’ Us has a fantastic relationship with Activision and has got behind the concept from the launch,” says Toys ‘R’ Us marketing director Mike Coogan.
“Skylanders is hugely creative and with further innovations to come this year, we are very excited to partner with Activision to ensure that Skylanders remains a superb brand for years to come.
“Skylanders is a truly unique and innovative technology, and the feedback from our customers has been immense. Both families and kids love the product and the demand is huge.”
Skylanders marketing chief John Coyne adds: “Coming from the toy industry, I never underestimate the importance and power of retail.
“That hands-on experience, to be able to see something and interact with it at retail, was something we knew was going to be important from the get go.
“Kids are going back to the store week-in week-out looking for new Skylanders toys, which is a great thing for the retail industry.”