Toys-to-death: the untimely demise of a genre14 minute read

Jim Cullinane looks at the fast paced decade-long period where a genre was born and lost in all too short a space of time


Imagine for a brief moment being a young child once more. You have the world of TV at your fingertips with shows and video games and all sorts of digital entertainment. Now let’s imagine that you could pick up your favourite super hero toy and do something magical with it. You now have the ability to make the character appear within your show or your favourite video game. The character comes to life and bows to your every command in pure Technicolor (yes I am that old) brilliance.

As you will be aware, several companies achieved this to amazing effect. We had Lego characters, dragons, Disney protagonists and antagonists, super-sonic space vessels and more. All of these had the ability to bring a physical toy-to-life on our very screens. So why did every child’s dream ultimately fail? Console Yourself is here to delve into the details behind “toys-to-life” games.

Skylanders Imaginators

Play that U.B. Funkey music

There are several big hitting names within the toys-to-life genre which people recognise as such. Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions and Skylanders are quite possibly the most recognisable. But these franchises were not the parents of this intriguing concept.

Skylanders is often considered the first of the toys-to-life genre as it started life in 2011. However, there were several franchises that had started up prior to this. U.B. Funkeys were the first entry into this genre back in 2007. The game was created by Mattel and it lasted three years before dicontinuation.

U.B. Funkeys

The gameplay is similar to more modern toys-to-life variants as it contains a USB hub in which players can place a figurine. The figures came in normal, rare and very rare variants, allowing a collectible side to the game. Each figure purchased unlocked a new area of the game when connected to the hub, meaning the game had an almost “physical” DLC system. We were unable to verify launch prices, but with more than 45 figures you can expect a total game price of near £500/$500, which is possibly the reason for the discontinuation of this franchise, especially as toys-to-life was a new concept at this point in time.

After U.B. Funkeys there were a couple of other attempts at this genre. Jakks Pacific created an LCD handheld device and a range of toys to connect to the game. Bio Bytes, as it was known, was released in 2007 and was a similar gimmick to the toys-to-life genre without the ability to purchase additional figurines.

F.A.M.P.S.

F.A.M.P.S. was launched in 2009, once again by Mattel. The game was more of a desktop customization application, allowing players to change their computers desktop appearance depending on the toys that were connected the to hub. Each figure also unlocked new mini games and also allowed a “safe” social media network for people to talk on. The software was discontinued in 2011 and since it was download only it has become lost media.

Spyro’s Adventure

Next in line to tackle this niche market was the launch of Skylanders, quite possibly the most recognised franchise within this genre. 2011 saw the release of Spyro’s Adventure, the first of a line of six separate games from what would become a huge success. Spyro’s Adventure was initially intended to be a second reboot of the Spyro’s The Dragon franchise, and was first conceptualised as a new trilogy of games. Within the first five months on sale Activision managed to shift 30 million toys with a whopping $500 million of sales. The game was a phenomenal success, ranked the top-selling kids’ game of 2011 and has spurred comics, television shows and novels as spin-offs to the series.

Skylanders

The franchise took many turns, with another five games and a multitude of figures, variants and even vehicles to broaden the playability for the gamer. In 2013, after the release of the 2012 game Skylanders: Giants, the franchise had already earned $1.5 billion in sales across just two video games and accessories. After the launch of the sixth game Skylanders: Imaginators it is believed that the franchise could have made more than $4.5 billion in sales.

Gotta catch ’em all!

Before the release of Disney Infinity there was a launch by Nintendo from the development skills of Ambrella. Pokémon Rumble U (ポケモンスクランブルU, Pokemon Sukuranburu U) was a 2013 release for the Nintendo Wii U. The game is a sequel to the 3DS game Pokémon Rumble Blast. There were certain gameplay changes to the game in comparison to its predecessor, and it also included the introduction of peripheral toys. There were 21 western released figures which all made use of the Wii U GamePad’s NFC functionality.

Pokémon Rumble U

Each figurine also added content to the game, much like toys-to-life games released prior. The reason that this sub-franchise to Pokémon didn’t stay around is the poor reviews that the game received. Whether this was due to the commercial failure of the console platform it was developed for, or just the game itself remains to be seen, however there have been no plans announced to reboot this Pokémon toys-to-life concept.

To Infinity and Beyond

Disney Infinity was the next heavyweight to try to take the throne in 2013. It boasted a toys-to-life game that would allow gamers to use memorable characters from a bunch of Disney franchises. The original game had an arrangement of toys, from Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Toy Story and more Disney and Disney Pixar franchises. It also contained a surprise Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas who is part of the Disney company Touchstone. The first game sold globally as well as the original Skylanders game, with more than $500 million in sales globally.

Disney Infinity

Soon the game become a lot more admirable when Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes, or Disney Infinity 2.0 as it became known, was launched in 2014. Appealing to a more broad audience it introduced many of the Marvel superheroes that had become increasingly popular over the last few years with the commercial success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The game was split into sub-sets, with Avengers, Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy all having their own set of levels and toys. Official numbers were never released but Disney expected an easy $1 billion in sales just from this second variant of the game.

The third installment came in the form of Disney Infinity 3.0 which focused primarily on the Star Wars franchise which had just seen new films after the Disney acquisition of Lucas Films. The game brought Star Wars characters to the franchise, as well as some more Marvel characters and more familiar faces from the Disney films. The game launched in 2015 and the Star Wars element alone brought in a fast $200 million in sales at launch.

“I’m not an actual bat, Gandalf”

Lego Dimensions launched as a new competitor to the genre in 2015. With a new twist on the style of toys-to-life players not only got a Lego toy when they purchased new characters and vehicles, but they also got to build them as well as building the hub. For the first time in my life I was able to drive a Delorean through The Hobbit’s Shire, with Scooby Doo as the driver and Batman as my sidekick. Taking a visit to Red Dwarf, Green Hill Zone and even the Ghostbusters fire house was all made possible with the amazing selection of mini figures and vehicles of the Lego franchises.

Lego Dimensions

The great part about Lego Dimensions is the fact that some packs are “level packs”. This meant that as well as the characters and vehicles, you were given an entire new mini-game of sorts to play. The Sonic the Hedgehog pack for example was an amazing addition to the Sonic franchise and acted as a game in itself. There were also “Story Packs” which added huge amounts of content and levels, broadening the game with masses of content and even a new portal to build in each pack. The game was well received, with 80% in aggregated reviews, and for good reason too.

Falling with style

July 2016 brought about the news from Disney that the studio Avalanche would be closed down and with it the Disney Infinity franchise cancelled. The decision came within the period of Disney Infinity 4.0 being created (even some of the toys – I have a couple of prototypes). The reason of the cancellation was the drop in profits by 2% in the second quarter of 2016. Profits dropped to $1.2 billion and the operating income had also reduced to $357 million – neither of which sound like small numbers. Disney had also decided that it would be cheaper to farm out games to other development companies instead of keeping them in-house.

January 24, 2017 saw Warner Bros. purchase Avalanche Software, reopening the studio to further the Disney franchise. Their first game was Cars 3: Driven to Win. There seemed a glimmer of hope that Disney Infinity 4.0 might make a return as Warner Bros. now had the rights to two toys-to-life franchises, but it was not to be and the next year brought about a realisation of this.

“Did That Just Happen?” – Deja Vu, Skylanders

In February 2017 it was confirmed by Activision that there would be no new game releases or toy releases within the Skylander franchise. It was never stated that the series is cancelled, and it is currently classed officially as an on-going series. However it has been more than four years since the last launch of a Skylanders game since the Nintendo Switch release of their sixth title. It would have seemed relatively normal had this announcement not come within seven months of the cancellation of Disney Infinity.

Skylanders

Skylanders was the most profitable toys-to-life franchise to-date. It had sold over 250 million toys, easily crossed the $3 billion sales threshold and also became the 11th biggest console franchise of all time. The reasons for the cancellations were never fully disclosed, but critics believe it was down to saturation of the market and toys-to-life games becoming too expensive to the consumer. One issue that was the final nail in the coffin was the worldwide closures of Toys R Us stores, which was one of the main points of income for the Skylanders franchise.

“I will have them all, I will control their power! I will make… universes collide!”

October 23, 2017 was a sad day for Lego Dimension fans as Warner Bros. confirmed the cancellation of the franchise. All packs were to be discontinued and there would be no sequel in the works. The issue with Lego Dimensions was the ultimate fact that game and accessories need to be discounted after a certain period of time.

With the discounting of the year-one packs of characters and levels came problems for Lego. The price of a mini figure and vehicles bricks, as well as the NFC chips meant there was little to no room for profitability, whilst also remaining competitive to other toys-to-life brands. Other brands, such as Disney Infinity and Skylanders used cheaper parts in the manufacturing process, whilst Lego used real Lego – and any parent will know that this is not a cheap commodity.

Lego Dimensions

The issues further transpired that Lego sets usually need specific moulds to be created which adds a premium to the price. Lego Dimensions sets needed the same treatment, with the underlying fact that there were several characters and parts that were not available in other generic packs. This means that limited-run items like this cannot be stored for future use or even mass produced as other sets would not benefit from these parts. So if a Lego Dimensions set did not sell, or was reduced in retail price it ultimately affected the entire production profit of Lego.

Warner Bros. did try to make this less likely over the three years by releasing more crowd-pleasing franchises and smaller sets, but the sales started to plummet within the second year. One issue was the marketing around the reboot of the Ghostbusters movie franchise and the tie-in to the game. Due to the movie performing miserably (even having the internet award of worst received movie trailer in history) it affected sales heavily. With the loss of profits and TT Games being more focused on their classic game lines Warner Bros. pulled the plug entirely. It became apparent that Warner Bros. had now entirely shifted away from the toys-to-life genre, taking any Disney Infinity prospects down with it.

Episode IV: A New Hope

Starlink: Battle for Atlas launched in 2018 on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was a near open-world space pilotting game published by Ubisoft under the development skills of Ubisoft Totonto and Virtuous. The announcement came as a shock to the gaming world as it was once again a toys-to-life franchise, which was already dead in the water, yet Ubisoft wanted it to be the fourth big hitter in the genre. The difference with the Starlink model was that the toys were an optional addition to the game. The player could either pay for all the ships, pilots and weapons digitally at a huge discount, or choose to collect the toys.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas

The fact that Ubisoft had given players the choice from the offset showed that they knew that toys-to-life are not affordable by everyone who plays video games. But by doing this they also marketted against themselves. They were playing a cheaper, digital age against the toys that they had already mass-produced. Whether or not they honestly believed that they had enough innovation to revive the failed genre, it almost felt like Sega’s Saturn vs. 32X issues all over again.

April 4, 2019 saw the cancellation of the Starlink toys in an unsurprising statement revolving around poor sales.

An individual basis

So what happened to all these franchises? Disney Infinity died due to the profits not being big enough for the corporate big dogs while Lego Dimensions was fundamentally flawed from the start due to the cost of production. Skylanders saw an untimely death due to the loss of their biggest retail chain and some over-saturation of the market and Starlink just should never have happened, at least at the time that it did happen. So the reason the genre died is not limited to one benefactor. Each franchise imploded on itself for different reasons, so did the genre actually fail?

It is safe to say that the toys-to-life genre is definitely dead and buried and all in less than 10 years from its birth. Whether or not the hiatus on Skylanders is ever lifted or Nintendo imagine something spectacular for their Amiibo franchise the world is yet to know.

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