Thursday, March 29, 2012

Skylanders -- Swinging virtual markets back into material goods

If you don't have an excuse to play Skylanders, find some family member who does. It's an enjoyable mix of Pokemon with Gauntlet (turns out I'm not the first to think of this, but the gameplay is uncannily similar), though the most fascinating thing for me is its use of good ole, old school, material toys. I'm old enough to remember playing with toys before video games, and even spending most of my free play time using toys I could move, rather than staring at the fancy sprites on the TV. If you asked me to draw the way a Star Wars figure with a lightsaber worked, I could probably create a drawing accurate to within a millimeter or two. You could give me five different types of plastic of varying solidity, and I could tell you exactly which was used to create Luke. That's the sort of obsessive concentration kids give things. I'm not saying you can't obsess over video games -- I have, and jokingly took the author of Indenture to task for not getting wall collisions just right in his remake of Adventure for the 2600. But there's something about holding a toy, not just make-believing, but simply holding, that would seem to be lost with video games. You might know your controller inside and out, but that's where the material exploration ends.

Skylanders puts that back into console gaming in an exceptionally creative way. There's something already magical about a totem. And the portal is awesome. It glows. It changes color depending on what's put on top of it. Seems it even rings the base of your statues with more concentrated color, but I didn't get to play too long before the PS3 was taken over by younger folk.

If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, this is a video game for one or two players, where you run around blasting monsters, collecting treasure, and occasionally healing yourself by grabbing food. It's decently 3D (as opposed to a 2D platformer). You have two attacks (at least?). And what character you play is determined by which one or two toys you've picked to place on the "Power Portal" pictured above. Your two attacks, the "elemental type" of characters you're using, etc, are all driven by these little statues. The game with 3 statues and the portal runs $60. Statues/figures are sold separately too for at one time as little as $5 and now around $10 a piece. There are, I think, thirty-two of the buggers now, though Toys R Us has their own, slightly different, "legendary" versions of four more, soon to be eight. One of the neatest hooks for me is that these things apparently remember when you earn them new powers, and they (with their powers) can be transferred from one platform to another. So your friend who used his figure on his Wii and powered it up could trade you for another figure you've used on your PS3 to allow you both to access different parts of the game.

I was happily surprised to find that that magic was at least partially inspired by Paul Reiche III. He's one of the fellows behind Mail Order Monsters, perhaps the mother of all of these stat-driven, totem-based games, as well as a number of Advanced Dungeon and Dragons modules. Reiche (who I just noticed I'd misread as Richie for decades) is Skylander's creative director. He also did Archon, and, even more impressive, its sequel, the gaming gem Adept, which for me is still a perfect blend of strategy and gameplay. He's also a guy I can't think of without this music going off in my head.

I'll try not to go too much into how having a good to sell in what was supposed to be a market now driven by digital distribution has to be a game-changer for Gamestop and, with their exclusive "Legendary" skylanders, Toys R Us. Instead, there's a very good article by Matt Matthews (full disclosure: a college buddy) over at Gamasutra from last December called How GameStop Is Conforming To A Digital Economy that details how important GameStop is to game publishers, and how the move to downloadable content (DLC) is affecting their stores. A quick quote:

The genius of GameStop's retail business model is that it combines a quick trade-in program with a large selection of games, both new and used, which can then be bought with trade-in credit. A highly-optimized distribution network ensures that many stores are well-stocked and GameStop's employees are trained to zealously promote products to consumers and extol the benefits of the trade-in system.

Publishers grumble, but the retailer is simply too big to ignore. For example, in its last quarterly statement Electronic Arts reported that 16 percent of its total net revenue came from direct sales to GameStop. Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world? They're just 10 percent of EA's revenue.

He then, and this is why his article is well worth the read, goes on to explain how GameStop has entered the "high-margin" for publishers world of downloadable content, though that sort of distribution seems at absolute odds for a brick & mortar store.

Again, though, Skylanders swaps out both that used-sales-plus-trade-ins and DLC models and swaps them out, I discovered, almost completely. First, the demand for the toys is insane, which is an absolutely unfathomable boon for stores. When I went to Toys R Us to pick up a legendary Trigger Happy (the most Gauntlet-elf-like of the characters I'd tried -- very fast runner with good ranged attacks), the cashier said that the truck that came in the week before Trigger's sold out the same day. In the recent load, they'd apparently recently gotten sixty or more Legendary Trigger Happys, and they'd sell out of them too before a week was out. Insane. Black Friday in March insane. And Toys R Us is smart enough not to sell these things online. I left with Trigger Happy, a Barbie movie, and some other silly stuffed animal that sings. Hello, impulse sales. That's something that's much less likely to happen when I buy online, if only because of the relative minimization of the number of times I hear a high-pitched "please!!!" That Apple put a music store in a pocket that goes everywhere I do was scary, but there's still something singularly powerful about a well-arranged, physical store that DLC will likely never completely recreate.

The flip side is that Gamestop, when I checked in, told me that they won't buy back the Skylanders game, and so had no used copies to sell! I was told that's because so many of the used portals had issues, but I'm not sure I'm buying that excuse. As Matt's article says, GameStop conventionally makes its cash not just selling used games, but "buying" them from customers for locked-in credit at GameStop. GameStop gets to have suppliers who agree, as part of their sales agreement, to become buyers. Brilliant. When GameStop sells used, Activision and other game publishers don't make another dime on those used sales, a position reminiscent of the Writers' Guild when they considered suing Amazon in their stare-down ten years ago.

Is the no-used-Skylanders position some sort of secret handshake? Is Activision saying, "We'll give you something tangible that'll make folks go to your store, but only if you don't sell the game to anyone without giving us our share"? That might explain Toys R Us' inside track on the Legendary Skylanders, who come slightly more powerful than the stock versions, and, obviously, are therefore a heck of a lot more desirable to gamers, a little like the Ultima Online Advanced Character. Toys R Us doesn't sell used.

So Skylanders' system seems to break down the two newest sales models for video game distribution, trade-in-to-used-sales and DLC.

Now the worst for me, and what I'd initially planned on blogging here, is the way even this kids' game requires some serious theorycrafting. That's not new, of course. Somehow, I got roped into writing a game guide for Pokemon Stadium, explaining how to use the in-game "rental" Pokemon to beat each round of foes from the game. Yes, I wrote this, right here. Which means I also played enough Pokemon Stadium to understand what all that jive in the guide means. And though it's not rocket science, it is a science.

A fun breakdown of requirements and their corresponding expense can be found here, at Kotaku, titled, "Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure Could Be The Most Expensive Game You Ever Buy".

For instance, each level in the game features doors that can only be opened by Skylanders of a specific element. The game comes with three. There are eight elements. Behind those doors lie short obstacle courses containing in-game prizes (power augmenting hats) that can’t be completely accessed unless you own a toy of each eight elements. With characters running $US7.99 a piece, that brings the total up to $US109.

But wait, there’s more!

Each Skylander unlocks its own heroic challenge in the game. Completing these challenges grants permanent stat and power buffs to whichever Skylander undergoes the trial, so in order to get the most power out of your characters, you’ll need all of them. Since only 12 additional characters are currently available, the total rises to $US165, and that’s before wave two even hits.

... and that's without having touched expansions. To see all of the game, you have to theorycraft-light your way to eight figures of different elements. If you think parents aren't going to say, "Oooops, I got you a second magic Skylander! Sorry!" fairly often, you've forgotten too much of your childhood. Further, to get the most powerful Skylander, you need every freakin' one. I've barely played, but I think that's meant literally. You have to have each one (and, again, there are 32-36 now, depending on how you count) to maximize the power of each one of your figures. You can't just play the heck out of the game with one or two. They'll still be relatively weak unless you buy THEM ALL. Muahahahaha!!!!

Even smarter? Embedded commercials!

As you play through the console game you’re constantly unlocking special powers for characters you don’t own yet. The game lets you know which power is for what character, and then shows you a preview of that character in action specifically tailored to making young children scream at their parents until they own one.

Eat that, Disney Channel!

The same sort of collecting craziness happens in WoW, of course, and it's what keeps us playing after a certain point; it's just harder to see the money leaving your pocket. There's a Pokemon-like "collect them all" mentality to WoW, whether it's "practical" stuff like gear, but gear that depreciates to worthlessness whenever Blizzard decides it should, or whether we're collecting just for fun stuff like vanity pets that I've managed to almost completely ignore. Minus my cats. And the Warbot. I really like my Warbot.

There's an addiction to collecting and a direct tie-in between addiction and successful marketing and markets (cigarettes, Coke, even Chips Ahoy), and though you can overdo Skylanders (Kotaku tallies up at least $320 of purchases for the "full" Skylanders experience), I'm awfully happy to once again see it popular to do some old school gaming -- where "gaming" here means just plain old "playing with toys". I guess that's also part of why I like FigurePrints, which makes the virtual characters a little more real. But at $28 for the game used with Power Portal and $10 for Trigger Happy, I don't think I've gone overboard just yet.

EDIT: Here's the best list of Skylanders I've found yet with some details on rarity. It's the first I've seen of silver and gold painted Skylanders that are apparently dropped in randomly with shipments to stores. Again, brilliant. The list even has a nice "Full Skylander Character Comparison" section with stats.

Release the mathes!

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