Ever since "Toy Story" released in 1995, children everywhere dreamed of having their action figures come to life, envisioning plastic soldiers swarming sandbox battlefields, rubber dragons breathing imaginary fire and matchbox cars tearing across hardwood floors.
For the better part of a decade, video games have turned the absurd fantasy into a wondrous reality, starting way back with "Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure" in 2011. In this, players had to purchase out-of-game action figures to unlock in-game characters. After placing the figures onto a "portal of power" accessory, they would appear in the game, ready to be sent on adventures.
"Skylanders" was an immediate and rather astounding success, selling more than 30 million toys and collecting more than $500 million in revenue within its first year. The thrill of playing with an action figure, only to be able to bring him to life right on your television, proved to be an intoxicating combination, especially for children (the game’s primary audience).
However, this success was not without some controversy. While purchasing figures did unlock them in the game, technically all content was on the disc already. Purchasing the "Skylanders" action figures for $10 a piece only accessed digitally-locked content, which was already programmed into the $60 game.
And with 32 different figures to collect, that’s a $320 investment to see everything the game has to offer. As 5 sequels were released in subsequent years, this price tag only increased. If you wanted to play as every Skylander character ever released, you’d be looking at spending an estimated $5,679.
Anything that makes $500 million in a year is going to see some immediate competition. And if there’s one entertainment company that prints money like no other, it’s Disney.
Taking advantage of not only their classic line of films but their (at the time) recent acquisition of Marvel comics and the "Star Wars" franchise, Disney released "Disney Infinity", a toy-to-life game that functioned as a direct rip-off of Skylanders.
Perhaps the only game you can ever see Darth Vader fighting Baloo from "The Jungle Book", "Disney Infinity", even with it’s high-profile characters, never managed to achieve the same success as "Skylanders". Part of this can be contributed to the prohibitive costs. While character figures alone cost $10 a pop, new "adventures" (basically levels) would set you back $40 each. The base game, which already retailed for the above average price of $75, came with one of them. After three years of declining sales, Infinity was quietly discontinued.
"Lego Dimensions", yet another toys-to-life game that used popular Lego figures in place of the more molded, statuesque figures seen in "Skylanders" had an even shorter shelf-life than "Disney Infinity". Folding a mere two years after launching in 2015, the game never made a profit. Figures were of a pretty grab-bag variety, including packs built around everything from E.T. to The Simpsons. This lack of cohesion is partially what led to the game’s crumble.
The sole remaining competitor to "Skylanders" isn’t even a game at all, but an enhancement to several existing ones. Nintendo’s "Amiibo" figures, featuring such popular characters as Mario and Donkey Kong, are not tied with any one game in particular, but rather provide bonuses to a number of different Nintendo licensed projects. This versatility, combined with Nintendo’s high-profile in gaming communities, turned Amiibo’s into a near immediate success, with more than 50 million sold.
It’s not surprising that such a wonder-inducing concept like bringing toys to life would become a successful concept for video games. It’s also not surprising that greed and lack of foresight would flood the market and abuse the allowances of children (and wallets of parents) everywhere. While "Skylanders" is still set to release a new game this fall, sales have been declining steadily since it’s peak in the early 2010s. Other major competitors have ceased production.
While these games might not be what they once were, there’s still a whole generation of children who grew up with toys they could play with in the sandbox or on the television. And for that generation, these games really are something magical.