Why Skylanders Matters to Kids

Andy Robertson

It’s clear that Skylanders matters for videogame publisher Activision and for Penguin with their licensed book deal, but why does Skylanders matter for children? All will be explained in this guest post by family gaming expert Andy Robertson.

If you’ve not come across it already Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure is a videogame that uses collectible toy figures to grant access to characters and levels in the game. Interesting but not that unusual?

The real novelty is the Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology that saves a child’s progress in the game to the toy figure without the need for it to be plugged in (or buttons to be pressed). Not only that but you can take your toy to a friend’s house and play on their version of the game no matter which platform (360, Wii, PS3) they have.

My daughter took a while to realise that she could do this, but once she did it became one of her favourite things to do after school with her friends. This marks the first element of Skylanders’ videogame gospel, use technology to create a simple experience. This combines with the physical aspect of the toy figures to create the next reason that kids love Skylanders: imaginative play.

I was interested to read that many specialist gaming press found Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure to be a cynical marketing ploy. I’m usually pretty hot on companies over-selling to my family and really hadn’t noticed this with Skylanders. Talking to my boys about the game I realised that what the specialist reviews hadn’t taken into consideration was how much value there is in playing with the toys away from the game.

My children make up all sorts of games to play with the figures, and in actual fact spent just as much time playing with the toys on their own as they do in the electronic worlds. The toy figures also come with a series of Top Trump style trading cards, and these have also proved to add considerably to the enjoyment. My boys will sit for hours in their room playing various Skylanders card games.

The second element of Skylanders’ gospel is that the physical component of the game must be as high quality as the electronic component. Activision pulled a master stroke here. Firstly they stumbled upon a real talent in I-Wei Huang, the character design at develop Toys for Bob with latent clay modelling desires. Huang leapt at the chance of modelling the toys as well as the videogame characters, and along with substantial investment in the process, the result is a toy of real artistry and quality.

Playing with these characters in the game while their physical representation sits on the portal peripheral that reads and writes their RFID information is an experience that my kids have responded strongly to. It makes them want to add to their collection of characters, and in some ways calls into question the need for Skylanders to push new figures quite so hard with their in-game videos.

The third element of Skylanders’ gospel hooks into this collectability: offer a steady stream of new and special edition characters. Had all the Skylanders characters been available from the start, it would have been a lot less exciting to play. With new figures appearing through the first year of the game’s life the experience felt fresh and current. This is further underlined by the follow up game Skylanders Giants in the Autumn which will enable players to use their existing characters as well as offering new Giant and Light up variants for the new adventures.

My kids have really enjoyed collecting the characters and a big part of this is waiting for new figures to come out, pawing over their poster to decide which to spend their pocket money on. Less popular was how hard some of the figures are to find – an aspect of Skylanders where they are tripped up by their own success. Rare figures often show up on eBay for five or six times their RRP, something my kids just don’t understand and find quite frustrating.

These three elements, simplicity, quality and collectability combine to make Skylanders a great idea. Delivering this alongside a game that offered well judged ways for children to play together and with a marketing campaign that played these strengths turned a good idea into a big success. This has become popular with collectors as well as young gamers, who avidly purchase each new Skylanders figure.

As Eric Hirshberg (Activision CEO) recently said in a Skylanders Giants interview with me, Skylanders was the only game in the top ten of 2011 that wasn’t a sequel — when you include the toy figure sales.

Hirshberg highlighted that the real challenge is to now take Skylanders forward in a fresh way that also honours the investment families have already made in the existing figures. Skylanders Giants, (the sequel) has so far been well received but it will only be as more details are made available about how the original figures and game are supported that we will be able to judge if it is up to this challenge.

My kids are already lapping up any news and information about Skylanders Giants, but I’ll be keeping an eye on how hard the new game sells them new figures, as I’m sure will other parents who’s offspring have the Skylanders bug.

Andy Robertson (@GeekDadGamer) appears as a family gaming expert on Radio 4 and reviews family videogames. He is a father of three children (4, 7 and 9).

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