Yesterday, before a maelstrom of date reveals and other news, the pricing emerged for Disney Infinity, which put parents and their bank managers on alert. It also instantly raised comparisons with the Skylanders series, now two games old, which despite differences in approach to the actual gameplay — sandbox experimentation against dungeon crawling mechanics — are ultimately following the same business plan. Sell a core game along with starting peripherals, and include a high number of optional extras that expand and improve the experience on offer.
The selling point is simple, combine two of the most fun things in the world — toys and video games. When Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was unveiled, many kids and big kids alike surely had broad smiles on their faces. They must have, because it rapidly became a runaway success, with stores unable to maintain stock of the most in-demand figures; these toys became a sub-market of their own, with cynical eBay sellers often obtaining them through good fortune and flogging them online with a tasty mark-up. It took the "collect-everything" instinct integral to so many games — whether in the form of achievements or side-missions — and gave it a physical, real dimension. You weren't collecting trinkets that flash up on your screen, but actual cool-looking toys, so fantasies of childhood were fulfilled for gamers of all ages.
Though it didn't need another behemoth, with Call of Duty already on the books, that's exactly what Activision has. It's thrown a bone to keen players by ensuring that figures and portals from the first game are fully compatible with 2012's Skylanders Giants, with figures thankfully functional across the many platforms in use. One of the strengths of the series is actually made simple because of the toys. The basic NFC (near field communication) chips in the toys store data; while limited to basic stats of progress and attribute levelling, it means that you can take your toys to a friend's house, pop them on their portal and jump into the game with your character as you left it on your console at home. It simply adds to the cool factor of the experience.
At the risk of puncturing fantasy a little, however, let's break down the "magic" behind the toys. While it may be easy and reassuring to regard the figurines as clever technology that are doing new things for gaming, it's actually relatively old, basic technology. One example would be travel cards for subway/underground services in cities such as New York or London; you may have a travel card that you update with funds to pay for tickets, you simply swipe over a scanner and the funds are deducted — your stats are updated. NFC tech is cheap enough to be included in cards for all-manner of access (some stadium season tickets use it) and it was inexpensive enough for Nintendo to include in the GamePad on a relative whim, with an Iwata Asks revelation even showing that Nintendo management decided to announce the feature before warning the hardware team.
It's perhaps surprising that it was as late as 2011 before the concept of NFC-enabled toys took hold, though it could be speculated that it may have been avoided due to a fear that consumers would react negatively to the concept of a game becoming an expensive undertaking. In fact, some sentiment of negativity towards the pricing is evident within the Nintendo Life community in reaction to Disney Infinity, with not just figurines but extras such as Play Sets and Power Discs adding to the cost — collecting all of the characters will cost, by our rough calculations, around $175. Even accounting for the potential for the $34.99 Play Set Packs to include a toy and/or Power Discs as extras, though that's not clear, the cost for the whole experience is likely to be well over $200; then there'll be the promised and inevitable future additions to the range.
Yet here's the issue with this, not just in Disney Infinity but also with the Skylanders series — this is on-disc DLC. It's a phrase that's dirty to a lot of gamers — and is contradictory in itself — particularly those with gaming experiences on Xbox 360 and PS3. Capcom bore the brunt of plenty of anger in Spring 2012 when it was revealed that 12 game characters 'exclusive' to the Vita version of Street Fighter X Tekken were discovered on discs of PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game. Capcom had to admit that the characters were locked on the disc and would be sold as DLC, prompting many to ask why they were paying extra money for content already in their hands.
In practice, it was extra content always planned for additional sale; Capcom simply made life convenient by keeping it on the disc and minimising the download requirements. However, while gamers have become more than accustomed to paying extra cash to download extra content — though in some cases wondering why it wasn't in the main game — the news that some of this 'DLC' was really just locked away was aggravating, breaking the distinct boundary between the game content out of the box and online extras. For older gamers that remember pre-DLC gaming it's a simple stance — surely all of the content on the disc should be available as part of the retail price, and DLC should be a separate entity.
The debate about DLC and whether it's stripping value from core games has been debated elsewhere, yet let's be clear — Activision and Disney are following the same practices of on-disc DLC with its toy-based games. The toys don't have detailed character models and animations included on their simple NFC chips, that's all on the disc. The chip in the toy communicates with the reader in the portal, and the basic code is quickly interpreted by the software to retrieve the character data, stage area or power-up from the game disc.
The Portal of Power and its figurines aren't impressive, innovative gadgets that bring magic to a video game. It's cheap, off-the-shelf technology, and gamers are required to spend large amounts of money on these toys to get everything out of their game disc.
If we take a direct view, Activision and Disney are charging hundreds of dollars for gaming content that can fit on three retail discs (if you count both Skylanders entries and the upcoming Disney release). It's here that value is in the eye of the consumer, with the plastic toys and extras that perch on their shiny portals being "collectables". That's all about opinion and perspective, and whether you will indeed keep and treasure the toys in years to come.
The purpose of this article isn't necessarily to admonish perceivably manipulative business practices. In the cold light of day the toy industry — out-with video games — thrives on producing cheap goods for cents and pennies and selling them at a significant mark-up. Toys and these Skylanders collectibles can bring great joy and satisfaction to children and indeed adults, as equivalents have for multiple generations over many decades. They may be cheap plastic goods, but their value to the owners is obviously greater.
All Activision and Disney are doing is playing into the sentimentality that toys bring, which do and will continue to delight consumers. It's important, however, to see it for what it is. The Portal of Power and its figurines aren't impressive, innovative gadgets that bring magic to a video game. It's cheap, off-the-shelf technology, and gamers are required to spend large amounts of money on these toys to get everything out of their game disc.
Capcom got taken to the cleaners for relatively modest on-disc DLC. Are toys all it takes to make it all OK?