Since January, the folks over at Disney have been working overtime to dazzle young gamers with Infinity, an upcoming title that blends collectable figurines with an RPG-style video game. If the gimmick sounds familiar, it's because you've probably already played Activision's version: Skylanders.
The whole concept is undeniably perfect for Disney, but it was Activision's idea first, and they've already transformed the concept into millions of dollars. So, the question on everyone's mind is this: Can Infinity dethrone Skylanders?
Now, it would be easy to answer yes and cite Disney's massive bank account and decades of dominance, but that would be ignoring one very important thing: Skylanders is currently the most profitable video game franchise in the industry.
Yes. You read that correctly.
Hardcore gamers always seem to have a hard time believing me when I tell them that Skylanders is bigger than titles like Call of Duty and Halo. But It is. "Skylanders is the number one best selling game in the industry," said Activision Publishing's CEO Eric Hirshberg at last week’s press event in Santa Monica. “Not just in kids games."
So, the idea that Disney can simply waltz in and casually displace Skylanders is a little ridiculous. This is a firmly established franchise that has the support of the industry's biggest publisher. And Activision has its boxing gloves on.
The frontline for this battle won't be fought from the director's chair or the animator's desk; it'll be fought from the marketing department. This being the case, Activision's own advertising wing is about to go to the ropes. And I was able to sit down with two of the men at the top of the food chain: John Coyne and Philip Earl.
The duo is fond of the word magical when describing Skylanders, which seems a little ironic considering that their competition practically owns the copyright on that particular word. Skylanders, as a brand, is as strong as it ever has been, and they aren't worried about a Mickey Mouse invasion. They're just looking forward to the next wave of Skylanders toys to hit the market, which is going to happen very soon. So, for them, it's easy to be optimistic.
"When you come in to work once a week and you get to see notes from a ten year old," says Earl, whose job title is literally Marketing Magician, "it's just cool." And, according to Coyne, Activision's Vice President of Marketing, Skylanders isn't just an entertaining waste of time: “You know there are kids in very unfortunate situations," he explains, "and to do some of the things that we've been able to do that have been meaningful to those kids that are having a really tough time, that really makes it worth it."
Swap Force is the subtitle on the next chapter in the Skylander’s catalog. The game is named for its ability to mix the characters' powers by swapping parts on the figurines. According to Activision, there are over 250 possible combinations, and each has its own unique set of strengths and challenges. It's the next logical step in a franchise that was constructed around the thoughtful combination of physical figurines and digital media. Activision has found a way to increase the interactivity level on a game that's more physically immersive than anything else on the market, and that’s genuinely impressive.
There's really no telling how long Activision can keep innovating, but John and Philip don't seem nervous. Skylanders has become a yearly franchise that rakes in more coinage than any other series on the market. So, until something catastrophic happens, I suppose there's no need to worry.
"When you create a market for this, like we have, you have to understand people are going jump in," said Philip Earl. But the thing that gives Skylanders a leg up in this fight is that it's not connected to a gigantic catalog of previously existing franchises. People don't expect Skylanders to meet a certain set of criteria or contain a specific collection of characters. So, the potential for disappointment isn't quite as pronounced as it is for Disney.
It's really hard to tell if the market can handle two figurine-centric titles, but I think it probably can. Skylanders proved that the market exists, so an expansion of that market doesn't seem crazy at this point.
As I was packing up my gear after the interview, I was surprised by how excited I felt about the next Skylanders title. I've never been a huge Skylanders fan, and I had already played Swap Force a few hours earlier, so there was really no reason for my excitement. But Coyne and Earl’s overuse of magical somehow got to me. I know that Skylanders doesn't appeal to my particular demographic, and I have nothing invested in the title, but with Infinity hitting shelves in August, Skylanders feels like the underdog somehow. And part of me wants to see Skylanders slay the giant, even though, technically, they're the biggest name in gaming.
There's something to be said about good marketing, and since John Coyne and Philip Earl won me over during our 15-minute conversation, Infinity will need some pretty heavy ammunition to dethrone Skylanders.