The Game Has(n’t) Changed – Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

Insidious.  Manipulative.  Exploitative.  Mercenary.  Any or all of these words are likely to pop up in whatever review of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure you so happen to read.  Everyone feels the need to point out the inevitable additional cost gamers, or more likely their parents, are going to incur due to the core design behind Skylanders.  Bait the hook with a competent multiplayer game utilizing cutely designed characters and an interactive gimmick.  Now set the hook by allowing some areas of the game to only be accessed via use of certain characters, which must be purchased separately.  Release just before the holidays; retire. 


While nobody has been shy about pointing out the mercantile drive behind this design, the rancor you’d expect to see is missing.  Most are pretty tame, suffused with a glum resignation of the “it was bound to happen eventually” variety.  This is both amusing and bemusing: where the hell have these people been?  Anyone who lived through the 1980s should be very familiar with what Activision has done with the latest incarnation of Spyro.  I can’t even say I hate them for it, as I usually would where The House that Bobby Defiled is concerned, for they’re merely taking a page from someone else’s playbook.  Who?  Hasbro.  G.I. Joes?  Transformers?  Yep, them.  They did it first and did it right.  Millions of dollars worth of toys sold doesn’t lie.

Wind your clocks back, kids, to the days where the Golden Age of video games was just dawning over the horizon.  Children still played outside (no, really!) and boys had their toys.  Specifically, G.I. Joes or Transformers – typically both.  These toys weren’t overly expensive at a few dollars per Joe or anywhere from $5 to over $40 depending on your chosen Transformer.  Although, there was a catch, oh yes, there was.  Somewhere along the way, someone made the realization that if you release them as one part of a set, then you have an inherent hook built into the toys, which will naturally drive sales.  This had a bit of traction with G.I. Joes, though most of their “sets” were merely palette swaps of already established toys, but where Hasbro really stuck it to parents everywhere was with the Transformers toy line.  They started with the broad brush of Autobots and Decepticons.  Good vs. Evil, ok, cool, we get it.  Next, Dinobots.  Oh! What a novel approach (for the time), introducing the idea of subgroups to everyone’s favorite robots in disguise.  So, Dinobots, five of ‘em.  They raked in at least $15 for a Dinobot, multiplied by the number of Dinobots, with most kids having at least 2 thanks to the aforementioned hook. Easy math.  After that, the three Insecticons were introduced.  Same method applied.  Dollars started to roll in as the “gotta catch them all” psychology was implemented in full swing.  Then, Hasbro, realizing this strategy worked, declared open war upon the pocketbooks of families everywhere by upping the ante.

Bigger is better, yes?  So let’s make some big robots in the form of the Combiners, establish them as badasses in the canon, and hit the markets!  And the master stroke?  The only way to get these giant robots is by buying all five of the toys that they’re comprised of.  So, you’re looking at spending roughly $30-$35 (in late 80s dollars).  Otherwise, no big robot; and why the hell wouldn’t you get all of the components?  What would be the point?  So, as soon as they’ve hooked a kid for one, it’s an even-money bet they’ll get them for the next four.  Those magnificently greedy bastards.  Caveat Emptor.  If there’s a more bald-faced way to force consumers to pay up for the full experience, I don’t know what it is.

Oh wait, that’s right, we’ll carry this mentality thirty years into the future and purpose-build a videogame that locks out segments of the world in the event the player does not possess a particular character, which we’ll charge for over and above what was paid for the not-inexpensive core game.  This brings us back to Skylanders, and the unabashedly forward stance of: if you want the whole experience, you’re going to pay extra for it.  Period.  End of List.  Not that the core game is short-changing players in the quality department, since the hue and cry would be a whole lot more energetic were that the case.  Still, to the mind of 9-year-old Johnny this is not an acceptable state of affairs – particularly when little Timmy and Bobby already have some of the Adventure Packs.  Soon, you’ll hear, “Moooom!  The one you got me doesn’t have those parts!!  You have to buy that special or I can’t play it!!”

Again, this same conversation took place thirty years ago, but the context at the time was that Mixmaster ( though cool) was not sufficient, because Frankie just got Mixmaster and Bonecrusher.  Since he already had Long Haul and Hook, he only needs Scavenger to make Devastator!  See?  Plus ça change…

So, welcome to the new frontier, folks, it’s finally arrived.  Except it’s really the old frontier with new flora and fauna.  Interacting with toys via the TV is nothing new, but Skylanders represents the first easily accessible means to do so through your video game console.  No, R.O.B. doesn’t count.  Also, just thinking of it in the same light as DLC is missing the train too.  Downloadable content is nothing new.  We’ve been navigating the value-add quandary of DLC since the days of horse armor, but this goes beyond DLC, in that mom and dad are getting hauled off to the toy store to purchase physical objects designed for unlocking virtual playscapes. 

I can’t recall the last time we saw such a raw “my way or the highway” approach to gaming from developers, and certainly not one aimed at kids.  Though, someone was bound to figure it out sooner or later.  We, surprisingly, didn’t see much of this with Pokemon, or Yu-Gi-Oh, despite the plethora of games devoted to each license, but my guess is that people couldn’t nail down how to best monetize the content in each game, so they restrained themselves to just releasing different games.  We got our first bitter taste of the new formula by needing to pay extra for the full experience earlier in the year with Magic: 2012, and it seems, now, with Skylanders.  The unholy conjunction has been achieved, and the floodgates have opened.  Developers and publishers are going to be watching the Skylanders sales figures with hawkish attention, and if enough green comes in, then you can bet Christmas 2013 is going to see a lot more of this.

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