Monday, February 25, 2013

Skylanders & The Future of TableTop Gaming.


Here are my 6-year-old son's words describing what the Skylanders are:

“The Skylanders are a toy that goes in a video game. They are little toys and they go on a portal of power. They are little tiny guys that aren’t alive but they go in the game and they come to life. That’s pretty much it.”

He sums it up pretty well, and he had a huge grin on his face they entire time he was telling me, knowing that I was taking some time to write about his most favorite thing. Each kid winds up having that one favorite thing that rises above all other childhood things that they love more than anything else. For me it was Micronauts and eventually Star Wars. For my older son it was Ben10 and Pokémon. For my youngest son, it is most definitely Skylanders. 

It started about a year ago when my older son showed me the game and the toys. Right away I was skeptical. “Scam, moneymaker, gimmick!” was my initial response, and I resisted as I do about a lot of things that come along that we were not getting that game, and therefore would not be collecting all the toys. That was that.

Hehe. Naturally it did not end there. My older son kept talking about them and relating that some of his friends had them. He also kept us wandering over to them when we were in a Toys R Us, or a GameStop. It was inevitable that we’d get them. Rather then fight it I gave in on my own birthday and picked them up for “myself” last year and thus started our collection of Skylanders and my youngest son's attachment to them above all other toys. That is the thing about Skylanders—before anything else they are toys. That’s the hook or appeal to them beyond the game itself.


As videogames go, it’s not the best nor is it the worst. It’s a 6 out of 10 and reminds me of kid- style games like Mario Brothers. I only played it a few times myself. The one thing that makes the game special is that you put whatever actual Skylander toys you own on the portal of power­–a stand that is tethered to your game system. Once the physical toy is on the portal of power the game recognizes it and PRESTO! The Skylander appears in the game. This is cool. This is new. And kids love this. It manages to take an inanimate toy and make it come alive. This concept connects to that deep-seated knowledge that all kids and PIXAR have that our toys come alive under certain circumstances. :) This is a great idea and this is why Skylanders are so successful. Well, that and the fact that to have a richer game you literally need to collect them all. If you are missing a certain Skylander, Whamshell say, then you cannot play him in the game unless you have found the toy in reality. Get ready to get in the car, again, and again, and again, until you find Whamshell. Trust me, it never ends. Luckily I do not mind but if you are a parent who might mind, well, you have been warned. Odds are it’s already too late and you are in knee deep just like we are. Just go with it. Childhood is not very long so I think it’s worth it to see my son happy. They tend to bunch up releases of the game around the holidays, so you’ll be able to justify dropping a few beans on these toys and game.

Skylanders is now into its second game, Skylanders Giants. There are 8 giants and a host of new figures. These magically light up too. How exactly they light up when you put they toy near the portal of power is a mystery. They are called Light Core Skylanders. They have no batteries. The power is coming through the air, literally, to somehow light up small LEDs inside the toys and add to the whole coming-to-life aspect. Obviously some very clever people are creating these toys.  They are well made too. They stand up to my son's countless rough and tumble gathering up of his collection and relocating them throughout the house. Not a single Skylander has yet to break. Compare them to a similar but very delicate game/toy Heroclix that snap and break constantly and I am even more impressed by the Skylanders' durability.

Now after seeing the Skylanders similarity of a figure-on-a-base style toy with Heroclix, I also realized they also closely resembled many of the RPG miniatures we have here for D&D, Star Wars RPG, Pathfinder, AT-43, and Monsterpocalypse. The Skylanders are not unique. Toys on bases have been around forever. It’s their connection to videogames that makes them unique.

Hopefully soon Wizards of the Coast and other companies will realize that embracing new technologies can only benefit them. My earlier article on D&D and the iPad gives a few examples of apps out there but when you take the Skylanders model and apply more serious RPGs to it, the possibilities are endless.

A new company called ePawn has the right idea with an upcoming virtual tabletop gaming solution. For any real tabletop gaming, an iPad will simply not cut it and a larger screen will be needed. Unless Apple releases a larger iPad, companies like ePawn will be able to fill this market gap. The need is certainly there and despite the iPad's small size, there is already a tabletop iPad market sprouting up where Skylander-type figures get laid right atop the iPads touch-sensitive screen for interaction.  The possibilities for more serious RPG miniatures and tactical games are obvious. Games such as Heroclix, D&D, Monsterpocalypse, Warhammer, and just about any game that might use a map and miniatures to aid game play will have a home on larger touch sensitive tabletop screens or larger iPads.

Already the Skylanders look much like many of the existing D&D and Pathfinder minis. To someone who is not familiar with them it might even be hard to tell them apart. Since we play a lot of RPG games here in the house both boys have already used the Skylanders without the videogame and played with them old school on a tabletop with a dry erase map and dice. This was very nice to see happen and I even let my son DM a few games based on just Skylanders.

With all these new ideas percolating and bubbling to the surface it is only a matter of time. Skylanders will always be the first big hit that breached the reality/virtual wall and made it all common.

Now if I could just find Ninjini!

–A