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It’s an exciting time to be both a gamer and a game developer. The fierce competition for eyeballs and thumbs in a growing digital gaming industry is pushing out-of-the-box thinking for new ways to unwind in front of the TV, computer, or mobile device.

Electronic gaming has been consistently exceeding the classic American go-to for weekend fun–the movie box office–for years now by over $10 billion per year. Now that digital gaming has become a sure bet for companies and investors, everyone wants a piece of the pie. Mobile gaming is taking the cake, expecting to beat out console gaming revenue with an estimated $22.3 billion this year – a whopping 30 percent of all digital gaming revenue.

Toys to Life collectable figurines
Source: NintendoLife

Console gaming is under pressure from mobile. Gamers are seeing less investment in brave, new triple-A titles and more focus in the tried-and-true brand reboots, hopefully bringing fans back with each sequel. It’s a low-risk move that potentially risks burnout from a gaming community that’s always getting served something new and fresh in mobile gaming.

However, console gaming hit a sweet spot with a new concept called “Toys to Life”. For the unindoctrinated, Toys to Life is a gaming genre which requires collectible toys that plug into a console in order to interact with digital components of a video game. Individual toys such as miniature characters, vehicles, and “power up” coins are placed in combination on an electronic mat that is plugged into the console. Adding characters, weapons, and coins to the mat in combination alters the game experience by unlocking new capabilities, treasures, and worlds. Essentially, gamers “bring their toys to life” in the game, which can be a dream come true for young gamers who have dreamed of their favorite toys springing to life like a scene from Toy Story.

Skylanders Giants Toys to Life play set
Two boys playing Skylanders Giants.

Toys to Life is the perfect storm of potential for console companies. Popular entertainment franchises can be rebooted over and over with new play experiences. The collectible offline aspect of the figurines give a boost to supplemental revenue. And the whole concept cashes in on the popularity of high-tech gadgets beyond the console box.

How much money is Toys to Life raking in?

Toys to Life accounted for 10 percent of all software and accessory sales in the United States between 2014 and 2015, indicating a viable and self-sustaining gaming segment. And this year, the entire Toys to Life industry is expected to hit $3 billion in sales this year. That’s a projected 4 percent of all digital gaming revenue – not bad for a console sub-genre of game.

Don’t get too excited: such stellar returns aren’t going to eclipse mobile gaming. Mobile gaming is earning nearly ten times the revenue of Toys to Life. And the two genres appeal to two different types of gamers: mobile has the capability of jumping between indie and big-name publishers across many different genres of games, while Toys to Life will always be limited to large development houses thanks to the costs to develop a complex system of online and offline play. Mobile games are also more affordable and easier to access where Toys to Life require a larger investment and unique hardware.

Skylanders Giants for sale
Skylanders have outsold traditional action figures. Source: GameDynamo

And while the revenue is impressive, there are signs that suggest gamers are maxing out their budgets already. Sales rose only 2 percent between 2014 and 2015 where they rose 45 percent the previous year.

The Pitfall of a Packed Toys to Life Market

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Toys to Life is a high-risk play for console companies in that the genre requires more resources to develop than simply a screen-only experience. And with competitors scrambling to get a piece of the action, developers are feeling the pressure to push out new products within a short amount of time.

SKYLANDERS, the original franchise that put the Toys to Life genre on the map in 2011, has released five installments over the last four years. The latest, entitled “Skylanders Trap Team”, has been receiving criticism from players that the game and accessories feel like a “low-quality cash grab”.

Disney has upped the ante with their wildly popular INFINITY game collection. The entertainment powerhouse is capitalizing on their vast portfolio of pop-culture icons such as Pixar film characters (think Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.) and Marvel superheroes to attract attention from existing fans of the genre as well as loyal Disney fans. The recently announced Star Wars Infinity play set has all but guaranteed Disney’s number-one position ahead of SKYLANDERS for upcoming releases.

Disney Infinity Star Wars

Not to be left out, Nintendo has been hoping to attract younger collectors with their Amiibo collection. The figurines are no less expensive than their Infinity and Skylanders counterparts–but the key difference is the amount of investment. Amiibos are intended to enhance existing game experiences so that no additional games are required. Mats and platforms for the toys are already built into the Nintendo controllers.

For example, if you’re playing Super Smash Bros. on WiiU, you can “import” your own Amiibo character by placing it on the game pad. This is a character you can take with you to a friend’s house and continue to build up through more powerful levels. The toy itself eliminates the need for a memory card and the WiiU game pad acts as the mat that are a required purchase in other Toys to Life games.

Nintendo Amiibo Toys to Life

And finally, Warner Bros. Interactive has a big ace up their Toys to Life sleeve. The anxiously anticipated Lego Dimensions video game will be released in September 2015. The property itself can take advantage of many popular franchises it already has partnerships with such as Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, and Back to the Future.

How much does a Toys to Life game cost?

Toys to Life is a relatively big investment for any gamer. Where mobile game experiences range from free to several dollars (or more if you enjoy free-to-play games), Toys to Life requires much more. We’re talking the digital console game, the hardware such as the plug-and-play mat, and the toys themselves.

The Toys to Life price for a starter kit of each different game can range from $65 to $100. This typically includes the video game, the mat, two collectible characters to get started, one “play set” piece that unlocks a world, a few special power-ups, and sometimes a web code to access more online content. Sure, a player can have a go at a mission with the starter set, but if they really want to unlock the magic of a Toys to Life game, they will need to build on it.

Disney Infinity Starter Pack

Next comes the deceptively pricey end of the deal: collecting the toys. Players will want to–and in some cases, need to–purchase more collectible characters, power-ups, and worlds to expand on the experience. Some bosses will be near impossible to beat without specific skills or characters, and one world can be limiting for the initial investment. Play sets come with two new characters and a new world, and typically range between $20 and $40. But if you want to collect all available characters, you’ll need to buy some individually at $13 – $17 a pop.

Here’s the bottom line. Assuming you’re the collector type and want to build out an entire Toys to Life play set, you’re looking at the price of a new console: $250 or more.

Should I buy Toys to Life games?

Is this price tag worth it? Depends on your level of enjoyment and commitment to the game. If this is something you plan on playing as frequently as any other title you drop $60 on, perhaps you should move on. But it’s worth mentioning that Toys to Life developers are in it for the long haul: unlike most console titles, Toys to Life games are intended to be expanding worlds with additional developments being integrated even after the release. If your console is Internet-enabled (as most are these days), you can share your sandbox environments you’ve built yourself and play in others. For example, you can build your own race track in Disney Infinity and challenge others to play.

Personally, I’m passing up the Toys to Games movement. I have a track record of being obsessed with finishing off my collectible toy sets. And with so many amazing mobile games, tabletop games, and indie computer games becoming available, I don’t want my time or budget to be monopolized by an investment that’s the price tag of a whole new gaming console.

It’s clear that Toys to Games aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The genre has captured the hearts and wallets of fans, and with mega-companies like Disney and Nintendo jumping into the fray, you know it’s here for the foreseeable future.

Do you think Toys to Life games are a new fixture in digital gaming or a passing fad?

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