Children's console games have come a long way in recent years. Gone are the motion controlled mini-game bundles and second rate movie tie-ins. In their place we have experienced and talented developers working with budgets the size of blockbuster movies.
The key to this brave new age has been the addition of toys. Not just any toys, but smart playthings that unlock content in the game and automatically save progress to a chip buried in their plastic shell.
The price of this gaming revolution is, well, just that: the price. The multi-billion-dollar toys-to-life genre is not easy on family finances.
The real cost is in the on-going spend these games can trigger. Buying a starter pack gets the game in the door, but to access the whole experience a series of character, vehicle and campaign expansions need to be purchased.
For example, the cheapest way to access every open world area in Lego Dimensions is $US184.90 - and that's in addition to the $US99.99 Starter Pack, bringing the total cost up to $US284.99:
- Fun Pack Doctor Who, Cyberman and Dalek $US14.99
- Fun Pack DC Aquaman $US14.99
- Fun Pack Ninjago Lloyd $US14.99
- Fun Pack Chima Cragger $US14.99
- Fun Pack The Simpsons - Bart $US14.99
- Fun Pack - Wizard of Oz Wicked Witch of the West $US14.99
- Fun Pack Back To The Future Doc Brown $US14.99
- Portal - Level Pack $US29.99
- Jurassic World - Team Pack $US24.99
- Scooby Doo Team Pack $US24.99
If you wanted to access every area within these worlds you would need to add further characters with the particular special abilities each one requires. The cost of buying everything would be well over $US300.
Let's be clear: this would be a massive amount of content, offering a lot of value in terms of on-screen play-time in addition to the brick-building fun. However, families may not see this pocket-money-eating juggernaut coming when they purchase the Starter Pack.
Disney Infinity follows a similar model, although it adds complexity by restricting where and when you can use the extra toys you purchase. For example, to accrue a complete collection of Star Wars Disney Infinity 3.0 characters would cost $US178.88 in addition to the $US49.99 Starter Pack, bringing the total cost to $US228.87:
- Yoda $US13.99
- Obi-Wan $US13.99
- Darth Maul $US13.99
- Ezra Bridger $US13.99
- Kanan Jarrus $US13.99
- Sabine Wren $US13.99
- Zeb Orrelios $US13.99
- Luke/Leia PlaySet $US24.99
- Darth Vader $US13.99
- Chewbacca $US13.99
- Han Solo $US13.99
- Boba Fett $US13.99
If you wanted to add in The Force Awakens, Classic Disney, Inside Out, Marvel, Good Dinosaur and Zootopia characters, the costs would grow further.
Assessing value here is more difficult. Unlike Lego Dimensions where toys unlock both a character and a related open world, Disney Infinity toys simply grant access to the character. Also, again unlike its competitors, you have to collect tokens in the game to earn the ability to use a new Star Wars character if it's from another Star Wars era.
Muddying the water further is that both Disney Infinity and Lego Dimensions release toys in waves. This means that the cheapest route to certain content is only available if you wait until a month or two after the game launches.
For instance, to access the Rise Against the Empire adventure in Disney Infinity without having to buy the big $US89.99 Special Edition Starter Pack you need to wait until the playset is released on its own next month.
Equally, the cheapest way to access the Back to the Future open world in Lego Dimensions is via the Back to the Future Doc Brown fun pack for $US14.99. However, this is not available until January, meaning that to access it at launch requires the $US29.99 Back to the Future level pack.
Skylanders Superchargers fares a little better on the cost front with a slightly more restrained set of characters available at launch. To collect all these would cost $US146.91 in addition to the $US74.99 starter pack, for a total cost of $US221.90 (not counting the Wii U exclusive figures):
- Sea Shadow $US14.99
- Sky Slicer $US14.99
- Crypt Crusher $US14.99
- Dive Bomber $US14.99
- Shark Shooter Terrafin $US12.99
- Stormblade $US12.99
- Fiesta $US12.99
- Dive Clops $US12.99
- Deep Dive Gill Grunt in Sea Racing Pack $US34.99
Identifying value is easier in Superchargers because characters are sold individually and work anywhere in the game. However, the complex combination of terrain (Air, Land and Sea) and element required to access in-game areas means that you need to own a total of ten carefully selected vehicles to access every area.
Skylanders does have the big advantage of allowing any of the hundreds of existing toys to be used in the new campaign unrestricted. This greatly reduces the pressure to buy new characters as a family's collection grows from previous years.
This benefit seems likely to be matched by Lego Dimensions going forward and certainly offers an advantage in these two titles compared to the more restrictive Disney Infinity. Disney Infinity does, however, have its hugely impressive Toy Box game creator mode, where any character can be used. Here players can access powerful and intuitive tools to make and share their own adventures, and all that can be accessed with just the Starter Pack.
Just Say No?
Are parents doomed to being the bad guys and endlessly saying "no" to children's requests? The short answer is yes. Even though I get a good number of these games to review in the home, I still find myself needing to resist requests for more of these toys at supermarket checkouts.
But better than a flat "no" is to understand how to get best value out of these toy-to-life games for the family. Get it right, and not only does the cost headache go away, but they can become a really valuable part of leisure time.
A good rule of thumb is to exhaust the Starter Pack before adding expansions. These generally offer tens of hours of game-play and can be completed without additional purchases. Add-on packs should be seen as nice-to-have extras rather than must-have additions.
Skylanders and Disney Infinity both have super cheap routes to purchase because of their backwards compatibility with the USB peripheral used to read the toys. You can reuse your old Disney Infinity base with the stand alone Disney Infinity 3.0 game (either via the disc or download) and one play-set.
Less visible at retail is the Skylanders Superchargers Portal Owners pack. This is available to download directly on the console and can make use of any older Skylanders portal to access the toys in the game make it better value. This is further underlined by not needing to purchase this year's toy characters to play the new game: you can simply re-use your existing Skylanders.
Lego Dimensions, being in its first year, does require the more expansive Starter Pack to access the game. Here, getting best value is about playing enough of the main game before choosing expansions.
On that point: although Level packs are more expensive than the Fun packs, they have the added benefit of unlocking a level in the campaign for that franchise in addition to the one you get for free in the Starter Pack. All the packs also unlock the open worlds for their brands.
The final tip is to play older games. This can keep costs down because of the rapid discounting of older titles. It also enables you to play games on older systems, rather than being forced to upgrade (only Skylanders still supports the Wii in 2015).
Going back to Skylanders Spyro's Adventures, Giants, Swap Force and Trap Team offers a strong experience at a much reduced cost — particularly if you pick these up second hand. Also, these older versions support specific Adventure packs that can also be found at a fraction of the cost in the used game market.
Older versions of Disney Infinity have even more going for them than the reduced price. Not only does 1.0 and 2.0 of the game get you started with the Starter Pack and toy box but they also support specific adventures not available in newer versions. If you or your kids want to experience a wide range of Marvel adventures, then 2.0 is worth considering. If you want to play with Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, Cars, Monsters University or Lone Ranger, then 1.0 could be a good version to start on.
The bottom line is that if you don't keep an eye on things, kids' video-games can end up costing you way more than you expect. The best way to manage these costs is to play the games with your children, so you understand just what it is they really need.
Get it right, and modern kids' games have much more to offer families than the cheaper, simpler and ultimately much worse experiences of years gone by. Whether learning how to program in Disney Infinity's toy box, introducing your sons or daughters to Doctor Who or Back to the Future in Lego Dimensions or taking to the race-track in Skylanders Superchargers, there is plenty of value here to match the price-tag - as long as you can still say "no" when you need to.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour with a U from the British isles.