Toys are the new video games. A quick glance at the Skylanders stand at your nearest Wal-Mart offers all the evidence you need of this new phenomenon in action. Kids today are being drawn to the video game industry not through the electronic wizardry of Nintendo or Sega, but by the shiny plastic figurines that are lining up the toy aisles of every retail outlet in the country. How on Earth did we reach this point, you might be asking? Actually, it isn’t all that dramatic a shift from the way video games used to operate, and in many ways, this is actually a revival of the way gaming was originally advertised.
If one wishes to see the origins of something like Skylanders, then one need look no further than to the history of Nintendo. That’s right, the Big ol’ N itself is the grandpappy of not only the modern video game industry, but of toys, too. Any die-hard Nintendo fan can tell you that the company got its start as a toy manufacturer during the Meiji Era of Japan (1868-1912,) where they primarily sold hanafuda cards (Japanese style playing cards) to children. Hanafuda cards were playthings that were bright, colorful, and a great way for families to come together and bond while having fun at the same time. This colorful style and family-friendliness would eventually pay off big time when Nintendo eventually broke into the video game industry in the 1980s. And, boy, did they ever break into the video game industry, as I’m sure you are all aware. Not only did Nintendo revive the rotting carcass that was the console video game market in North America, but they also established the business model for the entire industry that is still followed to this day. However, they did not accomplish this feat with only games, but with toys as well.
Toys played a huge role in Nintendo’s success in North America, both during the launch of the NES and beyond. One of the biggest draws of purchasing an NES was being able to play your new fangled game machine with a nifty little robot buddy named ROB (Robotic Operating Buddy, for the initiated.) This little guy served little practical purpose while you were actually playing your games, but he sure did make the NES look cool. ROB was, after all, not actually a peripheral but a toy made to make the NES a more attractive package. And attractive it was, as kids around North America got riled into frenzy over the novelty of playing with their very own robot pal (I know, because I was one of them.) This kind of gimmicky marketing would become a stamp of Nintendo’s business philosophy. Products such as the Game and Watch, the Zapper, and the Power Glove were all designed as playthings to be toyed with, rather than being tools to enrich one’s gaming experience. One can also make the comparison that the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS are evolutions of this philosophy. All of these systems focus more on flashy (but fun) gimmicks that immediately grabs one’s eye in the name of making them more immediately appealing to a wider audience. As much as this tactic can be criticized, it may be the only salvation for the current business model of the industry.
Yes, believe it or not, the whole industry is going to have to follow Skylanders’s example if it wants to survive. Some may feel that advertising video games as toys (or straight-up turning them into toys,) will lessen gaming’s reputation as a legitimate entertainment medium. History shows us, however, that the best way to build credibility is to nurture the interest of the next generation. And the key to maintaining a connection with the younger generation as the years go on and technology progresses is through toys. While Skylanders and Nintendo may not be the most popular things amongst some hardcore gamers, there is no denying that the industry could stand to spend a little more quality attention towards kids. Most major titles today are not aimed at little Timmy and Susie, but their dad using his home theater downstairs or their big brothers hanging out at college. To keep kids interested in video games, it’s necessary that the industry bring back that same sense of flash and wonder that Nintendo employed back in the 80s. Companies like Microsoft have already been doing this with products such as the Kinect, and it is only going to become more widespread as digital distribution becomes more and more mainstream. When streaming media and cloud gaming finally become ubiquitous, the only way publishers may be able to keep people interested in physical copies of their games is to include cool action figures with every purchase.
If the industry is going to transition into the oncoming era, then developers are going to have to take on the role of toymaker (at least in some capacity.) Bundling toys with video game consoles might seem like a bit of a step backwards, but it’s actually a prime solution for the growing issue of physical distribution. Since most developers are hitting gamers’ wallets up for DLC anyway, why not throw a toy into the mix? Not only that, but if marketing some of today’s video games as toys will help nurture future gamers’ passion for the hobby, I say that’s a fair trade.