[Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg talks with Gamasutra about bringing new life to the Spyro series with Skylanders, and how the company's toy-based approach with the game could pay off big.]
Over the course of its history, the Spyro the Dragon series has sold more than 20 million software units. But like any 13-year old franchise, it was getting a little long in the tooth - and had long since lost any qualities of a cutting-edge video game.
The October release of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure has changed that, though. By combining physical action figures with a unique peripheral and a video game, the title has captured the attention of the mass market (and more than a few core gamers). While sales figures aren't yet available, the game has buzz - often a critical factor in long-term success.
That makes it even more astonishing that Activision very nearly went a different route with the game. The original plans for the next Spyro title were more along the line of previous entries in the series - a safe bet that might sell fairly well, but wasn't expected to break out.
"We were looking for a new way to reinvigorate [the series] and [our developers] came to the table with this idea of bringing physical toys to the game, and that got everyone's imaginations firing," says Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing in a Gamasutra interview.
"It took what was a smallish, moderately ambitious project and turned it into a larger one." Bay Area-based veterans Toys for Bob (Disney's Extreme Skate Adventure) developed the lead version of the title for the Wii, with XPEC Entertainment handling Xbox 360, PS3 and PC ports and Vicarious Visions making a 3DS version.
It's a game that, from the start, was meant to appeal to families. Action figures are sold with a peripheral (dubbed the "Portal of Power"), which plugs into the Wii, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. When a player puts the action figures on the portal, that character is instantly imported into the game.
And while family-friendly games usually aren't warmly received by game review outlets, Skylanders has earned decent marks from critics. (It currently boasts a 79 Metacritic score.) Game Informer called it "an engrossing experience," while Wired declared it "an awesome family game [that]... should hold anyone's attention."
"That's been the most gratifying part for me," says Hirshberg. "Core gamer reviewers say 'I know this was made for kids, but I can't stop playing it.' ... I think we were able to elevate it out of kid land. ... There's [also] a little nostalgia for core games because a lot of them grew up as toy collectors. I think it triggers something fundamental in people who share this mindset."
Marketing a game like this, that straddles industry fences, isn't something that's Activision's expertise. Rather than revealing Skylanders at Game Developers Conference, E3 or any other video game industry event, the company chose to debut it at the International Toy Fair - and is working closely with retailer Toys R Us for the launch of the game.
The company's betting that the toy aspects will be an easier way to attract customers, given the crowded nature of the video game market at this time of year - and having the toy giant as an ally in doing that is a major advantage.
"Toys R Us does an exceptional job of demonstration, which is key to marketing this game," says Hirshberg. "We've found that any kid who gets his hand on it and sees the character comes to life wants to play it."
To that end, the packaging of the figures lets players take them off the shelf and instantly put them on the portal (hooked up to a game system running the game in stores) to show off the title.
The ingenious part of this plan - or the devious part, depending on if you have kids begging you non-stop - is the continuing income stream potential of Skylanders. The starter set, which includes the video game, the portal and three characters, runs $70 - with additional sets of characters costing $7 each or $20 for a three-pack. It is, in essence, a game of collectables, that's laser honed to get kids to beg their parents to buy more.
Activision also plans to release many additional figures from the game over the next several months. Ultimately, over 30 characters will be released for the game. By the time all's said and done, some players are likely to have spent nearly $300.
Hirshberg defends the pricing, noting that Skylanders isn't limited just to consoles, but also includes a Web world, upcoming iOS and Android apps and physical toys.
"I think we've been very, very careful with our value proposition," he says. "Obviously, if we sell a lot of toys to any individual family, then they've made a significant investment, but they've gotten significant value, also."