Will anyone win the toys-to-life war?

Christopher Dring
Will anyone win the toys-to-life war?

It’s a little known fact that the term ‘toys-to-life’ is actually an Activision trademark.

The publisher coined the phrase to describe its 2011 game and toy hybrid, Skylanders, and it has since been adopted by executives at Disney, Nintendo and Warner Bros.

At that time, Activision hoped Skylanders would go on to lead a new genre, but not even it could have predicted its popularity. The biggest names in entertainment are making toys-to-life games featuring Star Wars, Toy Story, Mario, Batman and Lord of the Rings. In the UK, 20.4m toys-to-life products have been sold, generating £318m. 

But this genre is not an excuse to print money. In 2014, toys-to-life revenue declined five per cent – so the genre is facing some challenges. These are also expensive goods – starter packs range from £70 to £100 – so parents are unlikely to purchase more than one toys-to-life product.

And then there’s the shelf space. This Christmas there will be a hundreds of plastic toys vying for retail attention, including LEGO, Skylanders, Disney Infinity, Amiibo, Guitar Hero and Rock Band. 

Make no mistake, in the battle for toys-to-life supremacy, there will be losers. But who?

"The toys-to-life market is not
only continuing to appeal to
children, but to older gamers, too."

Lorna Simpson, GAME


Activision has yet to detail its 2015 Skylanders title, except to confirm there will be one.

Last October, MCV criticised Activision for failing to expand the brand outside of games and suggested the franchise would decline. We stand by that analysis, but just because Skylanders’ best years may be behind it, does not mean it is about to become the understudy in its own genre. 

“Skylanders is the No.1 kids’ game franchise in the world and outsells all top action figure toy lines,” says Activision’s senior VP of product management Josh Taub.

“The secret to our success has always been our commitment to bringing new innovation to each game, and we can’t wait to unveil what’s next. The popularity of Skylanders has been unmatched even with new entrants.”

Activision boasts that Skylanders remains No.1 globally, yet in the UK it was Disney Infinity that ended 2014 on top. It will be a tough year for Skylanders, and with no recognisable characters to lean on, it will need to do what Taub said in his quote: offer something unique.

DISNEY'S FORCE IS STRONG

Very little is know about the third Disney Infinity game, but if Disney’s 2015 movie slate is anything to go by, it should be huge.

With a new Avengers movie, two Pixar films and the anticipated new Star Wars blockbuster, there is certainly plenty of billion-dollar IP for Disney to capitalise on. 

Disney’s biggest challenge will be in regards to its quality. Last year’s Disney Infinity 2.0 received a mixed reaction from critics, and the publisher must ensure the game doesn’t slip critically again.

But with Star Wars rumoured to be heavily involved this year, Disney Infinity has a very good chance of attracting a wider base of players, including an adult audience.

"LEGO Dimensions has the
potential to appeal to a wider
audience than the traditional
toys-to-life customer."

Lorna Simpson, GAME


Speaking of older audiences, LEGO Dimensions was announced last month with a trailer featuring an adult and no children.

“LEGO games and toys have always served both young and adult audiences well,” says family gaming expert Andy Robertson. “Early excitement around LEGO announcements is usually from core gamers, but the long tale in sales comes from families and children. So, I expect we’ll see more child-focused marketing for LEGO Dimensions as it gets closer. 

“Content in the game that we know about also courts these two audiences with LEGO Movie, Lord of the Rings and Batman crossing a broad demographic, but the likes of Back to the Future more likely to excite gaming dads than children.”

GAME’s toys-to-life manager Lorna Simpson adds: “LEGO Dimensions has the potential to appeal to a wider audience than the traditional toys-to-life customer – just look at how many adults buy LEGO kits. With the introduction of Marvel to Disney Infinity in 2014, the toys-to-life market is not only continuing to appeal to children but more and more older gamers, too.”

LEGO Dimensions has the brands, plus a top quality developer in Traveller’s Tales. Yet its biggest stumbling point is its price. The game’s starter pack will set players back £100, making it the most expensive toys-to-life product. 

Robertson adds: “It does look like an expensive investment for families, although with the physical LEGO play aspect, comparative value is still reasonable. The biggest challenge will be persuading those already invested in Skylanders and Disney Infinity to buy another expensive plastic peripheral.”

"The core audience for Amiibo at
the moment is our older fans
who have the love and disposable
income, but increasingly we are
seeing younger fans buying into
the unique gaming experiences on offer."

James Honeywell, Nintendo UK


Nintendo sits in a unique position within the toys-to-life genre, as it’s not really a competitor at all. There is no direct game linked to the Amiibo toys (instead, they work with multiple Wii U and 3DS titles), there’s no portal and Nintendo has tried to position its consoles as the ‘home for toys-to-life’ – Skylanders, Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions are all on Wii U.

Nevertheless, Amiibo has been a real success story for Nintendo since they arrived at the end of 2014. Toys are sold out nationwide, and there are even Twitter accounts set-up to help Amiibo hunters.

“We hope to be able to do a better job of satisfying these needs with more stock becoming available,” says Nintendo UK head of consumer marketing James Honeywell. “What we hadn’t anticipated was the level of collectors wanting them, and this has seen demand exceed supply.”

The collectible nature of Amiibo has attracted older players, too.

From what we’ve seen the core audience for Amiibo at the moment are our older fanbase who have the love and disposable income to get in first, but increasingly with the launch of new Amiibo compatible titles like Mario Party 10 with the Super Mario Classic range and upcoming titles like Splatoon, we are now starting to see younger fans buying into the unique gaming experiences on offer," says Honeywell. "We hope this will continue to grow throughout the year and will culminate at peak with lots of kids asking for their own Amiibo. They really are the perfect stocking-fillers."

Nintendo’s challenge is almost the opposite to the other three toys-to-life giants: it wants to take Amiibo to a younger demographic. 

Key to this could be the creation of more toys-to-life video games. Perhaps Nintendo could even work with Activision, Warner and Disney and get Amiibo toys in their games.

Indeed, far from fearing the level of competition in the market, Nintendo seems to relish the opportunities it creates. 

“Competition always helps grow desire for new products categories and I’m sure that having amazing new products from LEGO and existing offerings will do so again,” says Honeywell. “I’m sure it will give our retail partners some headaches in trying to find enough space on shelf but they are very experienced in this sort of thing, so it should be a bumper Christmas.”

Honeywell is right, this should be a big Q4 for toys-to-life. But exactly how big the genre is going to be will depend on where retailers place their bets and how big the publishers are prepared to go in pushing the products.  

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Tags: skylanders , Disney Infinity , toys to life , Amiibo , lego dimensions

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