It may be the result of sheer proximity to Disney Infinity's untimely demise, but my appointment to see the latest from Activision's Skylanders franchise had a distinct pall cast over it. If Disney couldn't make it work, how would Skylanders? What does this mean for the self-coined "toys-to-life" market as a whole? Activision began the meeting by addressing it head-on when I asked what lessons they had learned from the competition.
"What we learned from our competitors is that our drive for triple-A gameplay--a really quality game at the center of these--is not only crucial but necessary to succeed," said senior VP Josh Taub. "Our heart is as a game company first, and so continuing to lean into making great games is where we're going to stay in this, because we think it's what makes Skylanders unique in the marketplace."
His unspoken point was clear: Disney had the brand recognition, but we've got the gameplay. And he's right. I've long maintained that in terms of pure mechanical precision, Skylanders was at the top of the genre. Even so, the latest from Toys for Bob carries the distinct impression that it's a reaction--not only to Disney Infinity but to the market forces that led to its shuttering.
Imagine All the Skylanders
The latest is Skylanders Imaginators, a concept said to be inspired by the reams of fan art the team receives regularly from young Portal Masters. Pages upon pages were splayed out on the table of the presentation room, with crude crayon drawings and obvious tracings. These were Skylanders as created by the players themselves.
The solution, then, is a Skylanders game that uses a character creator as its central gimmick. Every Skylanders game since the original has come up with some new bang-zoom feature, usually centered around the toys themselves. This concept is much more focused on the video game aspect, although your created character resides inside a "Creation Crystal" toy for the series-defining portability.
I had a brief, hands-off look at the character creation toolset, and it does seem appropriately flexible to be the game's central concept. You begin with an element, as determined by the Creation Crystal you're using, and then you choose from one of 10 battle styles like Knight, Sorcerer, or Brawler. After that, you select from scads of options for the various body parts, down to the shape of its pupils. You can set the colors to your liking, or select a preset paintjob that will give your customized Skylander a unified look. Elements that require a more professional touch, like animations, come with presets. Finally, you can set your Skylanders' catch phrase by stringing together words and selecting voice options, like fridge poetry.
All that said, it doesn't appear quite as open as some of those imaginative drawings that were sitting on the table. Your customized Skylander will still be a generally humanoid creature, which fits right in with the Skylanders asthetic.
Looting with Senseis
The mix-and-match bodies allow for another expanded aspect: loot. Skylanders games have often hidden chests that house stat-boosting hats or Skystones cards, but Imaginators instead squirrels away buckets of body parts and weapons for your Skylander to equip. You can continue to edit your Imaginator creation throughout the experience using these items. It's no secret that Skylanders has always taken cues from Diablo, but introducing a greater variety of loot, and the random aspect of earning new pieces by replaying a stage, may give this one more longevity.
On the other hand, that does mean that some parts you may want to use in your creation will be roped off until you get them, so players may not be able to make their ideal creation right from the start.
Of course, this is still a Skylanders game, and that naturally means new figures to collect. Along with your own custom Skylander, Imaginators introduces "Senseis"--masters of the battle classes that you choose from when creating your character. The senseis unlock unique weapons, raise the level cap for all Imaginators, and unlock abilities for Imaginators within their battle class. They also each have a unique "Sky Chi" ability that's more powerful than your average Skylanders move set.
Imaginators will introduce 20 Senseis--two per Battle Class--along with 11 Villain figures that are also masters of their respective classes. That makes 31 figures in all, along with the element-based crystals.
Challenging the Mouse
In all of this, it's easy to see echoes of Disney Infinity. Skylanders Imaginators continues a slow, progressive trend of reduced toy production in Skylanders games. The number of toys is roughly equivalent to last year's Superchargers, but the static Creation Crystal toys are less ambitious than vehicles with moving parts like wheels. It seems likely Activision is carefully avoiding overcommitting to the toy production, and emphasizing its strong gameplay hooks instead.
Not to mention, the focus on character creation leverages the freedom in the Skylanders realm. Disney's strength was in its ties to its recognizable franchise properties, and a series like Skylanders simply couldn't compete on that front. Instead, this concept seems tailor-made to leverage that weakness as a strength, by both taking the focus away from authored characters and introducing an element that Disney could not have easily replicated in its own game. It comes off as a clever jiu-jitsu reversal of market competition, albeit one that's no longer necessary.
"We have no rules and no entanglements, nothing in our history that puts us in a box," Taub said. "What you see today is something that frankly only Skylanders has the freedom to do."
Finally, inasmuch as Skylanders has established some recognizable faces, Imaginators aims to give them more personality. A large set of them will appear in the game as characters themselves, letting Toys for Bob experiment with using them as distinct actors in the world. An impending cartoon series called Skylanders Academy is likely to attempt the same kind of further definition.
For their part, the Toys for Bob representatives reiterated that the fan community inspired this idea. That may very well be so, but it must have been a happy coincidence that the concept also directly addressed its biggest competition.
Toys-to-Life, Still Alive
Altogether, Skylanders Imaginators looked to my eyes to be a smart reaction to market forces. Some of those are no longer relevant, but the reactive quality brought out some unique strengths in the series. The character creator looks genuinely fun and flexible, the revised loot aspect promises a lot of replay, and the Senseis add to the gameplay in various ways without competing for the central focus. It may be a pivot, but if Skylanders games remain this nimble, the "toys to life" genre may have more life left in it than we thought a few weeks ago.
This Skylanders Imaginators preview was based on a hands-off demo of the game at an event where transportation was provided by Activision.