With Lego, Disney and Activision fighting hard for the toys-to-life market and Amiibo, Anki and Playmation products adding further innovation, enjoying the trend without overspending can be a challenge. Here’s WIRED’s guide on how to manage your — or your kids’ — expectations this year.
Toys-to-life games rewrite the rules of engagement for children’s entertainment. Rather than saving progress to a file on the console or tablet they use Near Field Communication (better known as NFC) to wirelessly record data on a related toy.
Place the toy character on a USB reader plugged into the console and they instantly appear in the game. Swap the toy for another character and progress is saved ready for next time.
The experience usually enters the home with a Starter Pack that includes a basic set of toy characters and the game itself. To access more of the on-disc content additional toy purchases are required. These are released in a number of waves through the year offering a total of 30 or so collectable characters for each franchise annually.
It’s engaging and enjoyable both on the screen and living room carpet, but can become costly if players attempt to collect every toy figurine — running to many hundreds of pounds. However, the Starter Packs generally enable you to complete these game without further purchases and careful selection of additional toys can maximise value.
The latest addition to the toys-to-life family is from Lego. This combines TT Games’ usual polished, humorous and arguably unadventurous formula and adds smart NFC Lego mini-figures. As with the other games, placing the character on the USB Toy Pad peripheral beams them onto the screen.
Although Lego Dimensions is the most expensive toys-to-life starter pack (£94.99 from GAME) it also has the greatest breadth, including 14 different brands like Doctor Who, DC Comics, The Simpsons, Back to the Future, Scooby-Doo and Ghostbusters. Unlike its competitors, all these locations are available in the Starter Pack adventure mode without additional purchases.
In addition to the main adventure Dimensions includes an open world for each brand as well. You require one mini-figure from the franchise to access these. As Gandalf, Wyld Style and Batman are included in the Starter Pack you can use the Lord of the Rings, Lego Movie and DC Comics open worlds out of the box.
Additional Team and Fun packs add more playable characters for the different franchises as well as unlock their related open world. Level packs add additional franchise levels to the main adventure as well as unlocking the open world.
The Toy Pad itself adds some additional novelty in Lego Dimensions as players must move characters to different colour-coded segments to trigger in-game functions and solve puzzles. It’s an intelligent addition that increases the value of the physical toy and substantiates it as more than an expensive plastic content key.
Playing through the main adventure in the Starter Pack is a good way to identify which brands you want to expand on. To collect all the Gold Bricks in the game players will need characters from each of the 14 brands as some require a combination of franchises to unlock special areas.
Disney Infinity 3.0
The third iteration of Disney’s toys-to-life game brings in talents from major studios like Ninja Theory, Studio Gobo and Sumo Digital to bolster the fun for more avid games. The main draw this year is the Star Wars adventures and figurines.
The games splits this content into three playsets. Twilight of the Republic comes in the low priced Starter Pack (£44.99) and covers Episodes I-III. The Rise Against the Empire playset covers Episodes IV-VI but is only available at launch in the PlayStation special edition pack. A month later it will be sold standalone as well. The Force Awakens playset covers Episode VII and will be released later in the year.
Other playsets include adventures and figurines for Inside Out and Marvel. The latter of these will be coming after launch to expand the adventure mode from two to four players. There are also new classic Disney characters including Micky, Minnie, Olaf from Frozen and Sam Flynn and Quorra from Tron although these don’t include a playset adventure.
A big part of Disney Infinity is the game creator known as Toy Box mode. Expanded again this year with more tools and techniques this provides a surprisingly flexible game development environment where players can mix up any of their Disney Infinity characters.
A good way to save money on Disney Infinity is to purchase the Disc Only version that enables players to re-use last year’s USB peripheral. This, combined with a playset, also enables players to buy just the content they require.
It’s also worth noting that the 2.0 and 1.0 playset adventures from previous years are not compatible with the new 3.0 version of the game without an update. The characters can be used freely though via a 3.0 Toy Box update for either 1.0 or 2.0 versions of the game.
Skylanders started the toys-to-life sector back in 2011 with Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure. This year the innovation focuses on a range of toy vehicles to complement their on-foot heroes. This adds value on the toy side of the equation with each vehicle offering some form of articulated play along with unlocking on-screen characters.
The main adventure provides both classic Skylanders platform action as well as land, sea and air racing sections requiring a particular class of vehicle. The vehicles can be customised with money earned in the game, and pair with a particular Skylander driver for super power-ups.
There is a whole Kart Racing mode provided on every format where two players can race locally or four online. Although still to be confirmed, the Wii and 3DS versions are titled Skylanders Superchargers Racing and appear to feature this kind of racing experience on its own.
The Starter Pack (£84.99) provides a vehicle and starter characters. This is enough to play through the entire game although won’t grant access to the sea and air races without additional toy purchases.
Skylanders does a fantastic job of supporting all the previous figures in the new game. This not only breathes new life into older toys but also offers a cost-effective way to expand the fun with cut-price second hand figurines.
The game can also be purchased in standalone form so players can re-use their existing Portal peripheral. This year support is extended right back to 2011’s Spyro’s Adventure, again making it a cost-effective option.
Nintendo’s amiibo figurines are slightly different. Generally these bring in companion or competitor characters rather than offering the ability to directly control them.
Unlike Skylanders and Disney Infinity they work on multiple Nintendo games, unlocking characters, costumes, modes and weapons. This adds to the novelty and value considerably.
This year the Nintendo Wii U, Wii and 3DS versions of Skylanders include toys that function both as amiibo and Skylanders. A switch on the base converts between the two, doubling the uses of the figures.
amiibo toys are cost-effective as you don’t need to buy a peripheral to use them. The Wii U game-pad and New 3DS handhelds have the NFC technology built in. This not only reduces the cost but avoids too much clutter.
Focusing more on the toy side of the toys-to-life equation, but still retaining a strong gaming feel, Anki Overdrive are robotic cars controlled by a smartphone or tablet app.
The cars work by reading a pre-printed, slot-together track as they drive, and automatically keep themselves on course. This leaves the player free to find the perfect racing line, fire weapons and chase down competitors.
Different gaming modes are available such as King of the Hill, Battle and Race. Between races players can use the app to upgrade car performance and purchase new abilities and weapons.
Computer competitors can also be loaded into the cars to race against. Here players follow a campaign mode complete with narration, character voice-work and story progression.
The Starter Pack comes with a range of track pieces and two cars. Additional cars can be purchased separately. Up to four cars can be raced on the track at one time, with a combination of AI and human drivers.
A good cost-saving for Anki Overdrive is that the game supports all last year’s cars from Anki Drive via a simple firmware update. This year’s game also provides a wider range of possible circuits as opposed to the original’s fixed track.
Playmation is the most toy-centric of these products, and some would argue it’s not a video-game at all. At its core the Playmation wearable tech creates a real world active game that earns points back in an app. The app can then be used to upgrade the tech with new abilities and better stats, as well as download new missions.
The gameplay itself, which is perhaps hardest of all these to describe, is controlled through a wearable Avengers branded tech glove. This has a speaker that instructs the player on what do to (run, shoot, hide and find cover) as well as adding sound effects to reflect their progress.
An infrared beam on the glove can be used to target other toys placed in the room, while lights and vibration offer further feedback.
The Starter Pack includes a basic setup that can be expanded with more Marvel characters. Each additional figurine can be used to unlock new abilities and weapons as well as relating to further missions.
The first release of Playmation has 25 Avengers missions but more are planned for Star Wars and Frozen, along with an extended range of toys.
The toys-to-life craze has been aggressively pursued by publishers as a key way to make video-games for young players profitable. The value in the home comes from the combination of on-screen gaming and carpet play with the toys themselves.
Players who only use the toys to unlock on-screen content rather than as a play thing in their own right will find less value for money. More recent toys-to-life products have increased this real-world play value with buildable sets, mini-figures and articulated vehicles.
Choosing one platform over another is an important route to value. The temptation to purchase across the different products should be avoided as this will likely spread family budgets and play-time too thinly.
Also, completing the game with just the Starter Pack is important. This ensures that players can select the additional content they really need as this is advertised throughout the game when they encounter characters and areas requiring new toys.
Finding the toys-to-life game that includes the brands and play-style most appealing to your family, and then being selective over which additional packs to purchase will avoid over-spending and maximise enjoyment.