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.”
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?