Toys to life is now a well-worn term in gaming, rising to prominence when Skylanders started to take over the world. Employing simple NFC technology that had long been part of the lives of daily commuters with travel cards, for example, it turned figurines into vital video game accessories - making stacks of cash in the process.
The Skylanders series has been hugely lucrative for its publisher, Activision, and Disney has been pitching in with its Infinity series; the latter, though, has struggled to maintain momentum. Nintendo adopted a different approach with amiibo, of course, with the figures working across a host of games on Wii U and 3DS while utilising the New Nintendo 3DS and GamePad, albeit with a portal on the way to support older portable models. The big N's range has been such a success that it's struggled to keep up with demand, of course, and its flexibility has led to third-party involvement and diverse yet often simple features and unlockables.
Into this crowded market comes LEGO Dimensions, which is undoubtedly a significant threat to Skylanders and Infinity. LEGO is, after all, the most lucrative toy brand in the world, and is teaming up with the TT Games range of titles that have arrived in impressive numbers over many years. Frankly, it's been surprising that it's taken this long to come to market.
Speaking to the game's Associate Producer Mark Warburton at EGX in Birmingham, we asked him to pitch the title and highlight why, in such a fiercely competitive market, Dimensions can succeed.
We've got 10 years of experience in LEGO games, LEGO has a lot of experience in toys, and Warner Bros. has the muscle of entertainment behind them, so we just pull all of those ingredients together, mix them up and try to do something special.
This has always been an idea that's been fermenting, mixing up characters and brands together. We do building with LEGO all the time when making the games, so why not do that in real life? Kids play with LEGO, of course, and we wanted to blur the lines between physical and digital play.
We're working on a review for this on Wii U, but what's striking when simply opening the box is the feeling that we're actually opening a LEGO set rather than a game. That sounds silly after seeing many trailers emphasizing that point, of course, but opening the box to find a hefty instruction booklet and multiple bags full of tiny LEGO pieces drives the point home that this is a little different from its competitors. While amiibo and Infinity toys are solid un-movable figures - with the exception of Game & Watch - and Skylanders has some customisation, LEGO Dimensions requires quite a bit of initial time just to construct the portal and original figures.
Warburton was keen to emphasize that the technology behind this isn't as simple as might be expected, while "toys to life" is a term that's more literal when applied to the game.
The hardware came along at a level to make it possible. You can have up to 7 characters or vehicles on the portal, put them anywhere. It also registers where the characters are placed on the toy pad so we can make that not just a spawning device but also a sort-of controller as well that feels like it's pulling you into the game. So when you say "toys to life", it does actually feel like you're bringing your LEGO pieces to life.
Of course, for all of the buzz that comes with the concept come question marks over its structure and price. The Starter Pack is a little cheaper on Wii U than it is PS4 and Xbox One, for example, but it's still a hefty investment. Then you have the expansions that come with fairly handsome price-tags of their own, cashing in on popular franchises to lure in fans of all ages. We asked for a solid idea of the value these expansions offer, and Warburton naturally emphasized the positives both for those that buy these packs and others that decide it's a cost too far.
All of the brands are woven into the main story mode, so if you don't buy the Doctor Who pack, for example, Peter Capaldi's still in the story. For example if you do go out and get the Doctor Who Pack you get a standalone level, which is a sizeable one. You also get an adventure world which is a massive open-world area full of quests, things to do and different characters. There are also hidden areas in the main game that can be accessed with the extra pack's toys. There's still plenty of content if you don't get the extra pack, though.
The number we keep coming back to is the Portal pack, as we can say that if you play the Portal level in the game and the pack it's longer than the original Portal game. Plus a lot of LEGO games is about replayability, so if you get the Doctor Who pack you can play through the story again with the Doctor, with K9, just as you could previously with Batman and Wyldstyle.
The original Portal is actually relatively short, so it looks like a few hours of content is on offer, though it's something we'll explore further.
In fairness to Warburton, even in the presence of an attentive Warner Bros. PR supervisor he was keen to re-assure us that the Starter Pack does at least represent a reasonable investment in the 'platform'. The terminology for these toys-to-life brands often references them as systems within systems, especially due to the price, but carefully constructed portals should be useful for a reasonable amount of time. TT Games, at least, is conscious that parents and fans only have finite sums of money to spend on the series.
We don't want a new portal, at least for a couple of years. We waited for the technology, that was key for us, so we can keep plugging in new characters and packs to that as we see fit. Toys to life as a whole has a cost factor for entry - I have kids that are probably going to pester me to buy these things. So if you have the starter pack, for years and years to come you can grab a new character and it'll just work, and it'll keep updating on and on so that over time it becomes bigger and bigger.
When looking at Dimensions, with its dozens of LEGO bits, handsome packaging and enough major IPs and franchises to shake a stick at, it's tempting to wonder about the future of all those standalone LEGO games that arrive on a yearly basis. Are they still relevant in the long-term, will they fade away in favour of Dimensions and its ever-expanding range?
No, is the simple answer. Evidently sales are still reasonable enough on these games from a Warner Bros. perspective, and from the perspective of TT Games Warburton was keen to say that more of these titles will follow after LEGO Avengers. Intriguingly he was also keen to keep the branches separate when we proposed an amiibo-style solution of multiple tie-ins, with the Dimensions portal and figures interacting with separate standalone LEGO games. It could happen, of course, but the official line is that it's not on the cards right now.
The likes of LEGO Avengers and these games aren't going anywhere, we love playing around with these sorts of franchises. Dimensions though is something that, as a company, we feel like we've been building towards for a long time, so we want to give it the push it deserves.
We want Dimensions to be a system, in a way, always plugged in and expanding, so we want that to be focused on its own content. There haven't been conversations about pulling in other content.
Only time and sales figures will tell the story of whether LEGO Dimensions will take over as the leader in the lucrative toys to life market. It's hard to bet against it, though, through virtue of brand power alone. Combining huge third-party properties with the world's most popular toy range and a continually successful game range seems like a golden ticket, if ever we've seen one.
If Nintendo wants to push amiibo further in the future, perhaps a LEGO tie-in as opposed to Skylanders will be the way to go.