A glimpse at the future of Activision’s other billion dollar franchise, Skylanders

Skylanders swap force

Call of Duty is Activision’s flagship gaming franchise. Since 2010 the series has produced annual iterations, each of which have gone on to smash the billion dollar mark and crush entertainment records in their wake.  It is the publisher’s golden child and financial cornerstone, but it’s also the flashy big brother to another wildly popular billion dollar Activision franchise: Skylanders.

skylanders-swap-force-1371221816671_1280x720Despite its financial success, the Skylanders series is still very much in the shadow of its more mature companions at Activision Blizzard, at least within the gaming community. The more hardcore fans tend to see it as a merchandise-driven game, plus there isn’t a lot of crossover between a military shooter and an adventure title built around accumulating and using toys. Yet Skylanders continues to carve out a niche for itself and find success. So much so that Disney has even emulated the concept with its upcoming Disney Infinity, a game so reminiscent of Skylanders that Disney hasn’t even bothered to deny it is a direct competitor to it.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Skylanders combines physical toys and video games in an action-adventure made for players of all ages. It’s a brawler with different characters using unique powers to fight their way through bright and colorful worlds. The hook, however, is the Portal of Power, a peripheral you connect to a gaming console that contains a sensor capable of reading character data off the base of a Skylanders toy. Placing a figurine on the portal brings them into the game along with all saved upgrade data. These action figures are sold individually, ranging in price from $10 for a single toy/character to $25 for a pack of three. Two players can play at once, and gamers can take their own Skylanders figure to a friend’s house and put it on that portal to add their character to their friend’s game.

skylandersWith the average age of gamers hovering around 35, Activision took a chance in trying to plug a hole in the family entertainment gaming market. Skylanders is made with younger players in mind, but it was also designed to be fun for that older demographic – the gamers that now have kids themselves. It may be the kids that push the parents to buy the games and toys, but the gameplay (not to mention the quality time it creates) is what takes the sting away from dropping a sizeable amount of cash on the ever growing lineup of merchandise.

“With a franchise like Skylanders, it’s kind of limitless where we can take it, because there aren’t rules,”

And the gamble has paid off, in a big way. In February 2013, the franchise topped the $1 billion mark, thanks in part to over 30 million toys sold. The original game, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, has since spawned three iOS titles, a console sequel in Skylanders: Giants, and the franchise is just getting warmed up. Later this year on October 13, developer Vicarious Visions will introduce the third Skylanders title for consoles, Skylanders: Swap Force, and an entirely new set of toys along with it.

“The opportunity to innovate around toys is pretty vast,” John Coyne, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Skylanders, told Digital Trends. “There’s a whole industry built around toys, and they’ve done pretty well innovating over the decades.”

Skylanders_SWAP_Force_Magna_Charge_top_Swash_Buckler_bottomWith the upcoming Skylanders: Swap Force, all the previously purchased toys will be compatible with the new game. You will, however, need a new portal that will be included with the game’s starter kit, as the toys have changed. The subtitle is an accurate description of the gameplay mechanics that define Swap Force: you swap different parts of your toys to create new characters. It’s an evolution of the current game, but like the original idea, it has never been done before. 

“With a franchise like Skylanders, it’s kind of limitless where we can take it, because there aren’t rules,” Coyne said.

Each new toy will come with an upper and a lower body part, connected by a magnet. Each toy part will have its own upgrade tree, and combining the different pieces will offer new gameplay options. Mixing and matching powers can produce unpredictable results. Sometimes you will need a specific type of character power or body type for things like access to secret areas, but previously leveled up characters can be brought into Swap Force with all of their upgrades. It means purchasing even more toys, but previous purchases are still useful. Burning a loyal audience by negating all the expensive add-ons they purchased separately would be a bad move, and Activision knows it.

Skylanders_SWAP_Force_Wash_Buckler_(top)_Blast_Zone_(bottom)_with_enemiesThe franchise walks a thin line, but it has managed to find a successful balance so far. Skylanders is an original approach to gaming, combining the new idea of interacting in a digital world with a physical object, with the very old idea of requiring additional purchases. It also encourages the concept of collectible toys, an idea that goes way, way back. Anyone that remembers the “Pogs” fad can attest to the pull of collectability – rewarding that with in-game content is a smart idea.

“The truth is you have to evaluate it on an ongoing basis”

Activision is one of the pioneers when it comes to selling add-on console gaming content, as witnessed by the now-regular Call of Duty map pack expansions. which are big business. Finding a new and creative way to present this business model to the public without angering the fans has proven to be the key to the billion dollar franchise success that Skylanders is.

“I think there’s a difference between letting your audience tell you what to make, and providing what you think the audience wants, and understanding the nuances of how you interact with them,” Joshua Taub, senior vice president for Skylanders business unit said.


Now that Skylanders is a proven hit, Activision and the developers involved face the difficult task of creating frequent iterations of the games that innovate without wearing down the audience. It’s a lesson that Activision learned with its first billion dollar franchise, Guitar Hero. Between 2005 and 2010, the Guitar Hero franchise produced 24 games including mobile titles, spin-offs, arcade games, and more. It effectively killed the franchise (the 11 Rock Band games in roughly the same time frame didn’t help) through exhaustion and over-saturation. There is a long term strategy and the story will continue beyond Swap Force, but Activision is taking a somewhat more conservative approach to this series than it did with its rhythm games.

“The truth is you have to evaluate it on an ongoing basis because the toys and the game have to come together in the same way,” Taub said. “But there’s an arc that’s out there.”

Skylanders may never have the name recognition that Call of Duty or Guitar Hero before it did, but it is a vital piece of Activision’s financial strategy. With a billion dollars on the line, this is a franchise that is here to stay.


The history of Battle Royale: From mod to worldwide phenomenon

Battle royale games like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds’ and Fortnite have become the biggest trend in video games. The genre is also pushing the envelope in streaming and eSports in a way that might hint at the future of the industry.

Who needs a Switch? These 25 games prove there's fun to be found on 3DS

The 3DS is home to a large library, including some of the greatest games Nintendo has ever published. We've compiled this list of some of the best Nintendo 3DS games currently available.

The 25 best SNES games

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System might be the greatest game console ever made, but what are the best titles for the system? Here are our picks for the best SNES games, including A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger.

These are the best video games you shouldn't leave 2018 without

Developers showed up with a number of amazing games this year. Each capitalized on something unique but there's always one that outdoes them all. Here are our picks for the best video games of 2018 and game of the year.

‘Kingdom Hearts III’ out in the wild, director asks for support to stop spoilers

Kingdom Hearts III has been leaked, with several copies of the game out in the wild. The game's director, Tetsuya Nomura, responded to the situation, calling for help from gamers to stop spoilers from spreading online.

The DualShock 4 is one of the best controllers ever, and you can use it with a PC

Sony's new DualShock 4 controller has become a fan favorite, and some people want to use it with a PC. Here's how to connect your DualShock 4 and start using it, either with an official adapter, or unofficial software.

Project Stream testers get to keep a free copy of ‘Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’

Those who participated in Google's technical test of Project Stream won't be able to access the service to play Assassin's Creed Odyssey after January 15, but they'll get to keep the game on PC anyway.

Newest ‘Destiny 2’ raid already completed by two-person team

The latest raid in Destiny 2: Forsaken is Scourge of the Past, and a two-person team has already managed to complete it. The task took 15 hours of trial-and-error effort before the duo managed to take down the final boss.

Need a discounted Xbox bundle by Christmas? Walmart has you covered

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have both come and gone, but you can still save some cash on a new Xbox One bundle at Walmart. Both the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X are on sale now.

With our Steam guide, you can give the gift of gaming this holiday season

The holidays may have passed, but it's always a good time to give the gift of gaming (especially when there's a Steam sale)! Here's our quick guide on how to give a Steam game as a gift.

‘Fortnite’ update 7.10 brings a rotating selection of modes big and small

The latest update for Fortnite introduces 14 Days of Fortnite, an event that brings back large and small battle royale modes as well as brand new ones to enjoy during the holiday season.

New Xbox consoles are reportedly code-named ‘Anaconda’ and ‘Lockhart’

Microsoft's next-generation Xbox plans reportedly consist of two separate consoles. One, called "Lockhart," is a more affordable machine, while "Anaconda" is designed with more horsepower.

Gifting a PS4? Avoid long updates and start gaming right away with our guide

The PlayStation 4 makes a great Christmas gift, but there are quite a few things you need to do before you can play. Here's how you can prepare a PlayStation 4 for gifting in advance.

ViewSonic’s 1080p gaming monitor lets you experience the action in style

ViewSonic is catering to gamers with its latest monitor, the XG240R. Featuring a 1080p 144Hz panel, RGB lighting, and a fast 1ms response time, you can conquer your opponents and do it in style.