Why The Future Of Gaming Might Not Be That Digital

It might seem like physical media is on its last legs. Between digital distribution, downloadable content, and the proliferation of online platforms like Valve's Steam and EA's Origin, the gaming industry seems to be inching closer and closer to virtual reality every day.

Then there's Skylanders.

Skylanders sold resoundingly well last year, landing in the 2011 top-10 despite its reliance on a gaming mainstay that publishers are trying to abolish -- physical objects. To play Skylanders, you take one of the game's action figures and put it on your Portal of Power, a plastic device that connects to your game console. The system recognises the data in your figure and transports that character to the screen, where you can use it to hack and slash virtual enemies.

In a world where everybody wants to save money by going digital, this might seem like an odd step backwards, but Toys For Bob head and Skylanders designer Paul Reiche says physical media is precisely what makes the series so successful. And he doesn't think it's going away.

"The attachment with a physical object is incomparable," Reiche told me at an event in Manhattan this week. "I've got my D&D characters, I still have my character sheets. They matter to me. I don't know exactly what they've been doing but I could probably give you a sense.

"I also have toys from childhood. I have Hot Wheels... I care about those things. And in fact, I will go on eBay and make sure that I can -- there are some accessories I never got around to getting as a kid. They have them now because they deserve them. That relationship cannot be matched."

"The attachment with a physical object is incomparable."

Even in a world where discs and cartridges are growing obsolete, Reiche says the potential for toys-as-games is broadening. Last year, Reiche spoke to Kotaku about his vision for a future of "bringing toys to life." Since then, he's only grown more optimistic.

"I've gotta tell you that technology is moving so fast that what we can do with toys every year will jump much faster than what you see in, for example, visual fidelity," he said. As toys grow more and more elaborate, the line between toys and games is starting to blur -- particularly with games like Skylanders, which blend the two.

Reiche is excited about the ways he and his team are making physical media even more physical. Action figures in the upcoming Skylanders Giants will use battery-free electricity to wirelessly broadcast power, not unlike the near field technology used in cell phones and Nintendo's upcoming Wii U controller. Though Reiche wouldn't elaborate on Toys For Bob's specific plans to keep their toy/game hybrids evolving, he did share a few broad ideas.

"These [Skylanders] toys change as you take them from game to game," he said. "But imagine if they were changing as you went around the world or as you called them on your phone."

"I think the opportunities for imaginative interaction between the virtual world that is magical and the real world that is tangible are just starting," he said. "Think about your experiences with your favourite toys and how an interaction between them and how an electronic representation would make you feel about that toy... I think you'll start thinking 'Wow, this would be kinda cool.'"

It's all about physical attachment, Reiche says. What if your toys remembered what you did together? What if your game characters had physical manifestations? What if toys, D&D character sheets, or even World of Warcraft avatars evolved and changed as you took them on adventures over years and decades?

Even in the age of digital everything, isn't it nice to have something to hold?


Comments

    slightly irrelevant, but i real wish they would make a game like skylanders but with yugioh cards

      They kinda had a go with Eye of Judgement. A ccg that utilized real cards that got translated into on-screen action using the Playstation Eye.

    The only folk who think that physical media is on the way out is the gaming media.

    “The attachment with a physical object is incomparable,”. Can't agree more. To see new release titles available for digital download for the same price (and in some cases even more) than a shelf copy, is suggesting that they are one and the same. This I find hard to get my head around.

    Stuff like skylanders will exist, but they're just toys. I can see them getting infinitely better in 20 years from now, but they're going to become a separate medium to games. Steam (and the Vita is giving it a shot) have already proven how much easier it is to get things digitally, so I think they will dominate the market more and more as time goes on.

    This is what I wanted them to do with Digimon. They "lived" in the little devices, but that was it. I'd love to see the things be able to interact with each other via a passive wireless connection, and at home, upload to your computer and you go exploring the digital world alongside them that way.

    Life Virtual is a massively under-explored relationship in this regard. I don't see why.

    It's not something that you will see in every game but how cool would it be if you made your character in a game (say Skyrim) and then they sent you your character as a figure.

    Obviously you would pay more for something like this but it could be a good incentive to purchase DLC.

      FigurePrints did it for WoW and you get some great figures from it. My brother-in-law got a figure printed each time he retired a character so he would have a physical reminder of the time he spent on that character and as a way to end his playtime with that character. He wouldn't want to go back to the character after it was printed.

    Personally hate anything that isn't physical, I wouldn't touch Steam or Origins with a 10 foot pole, especially Steam. Valve are a bunch of jack-offs.

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