Sep. 20, 2013 at 6:43 PM ET
The video game everyone is talking about this week may be "Grand Theft Auto V," but just a day after the new GTA took gamers by storm, a surprising challenger threw its hat in the ring.
I'm talking about Rovio Entertainment's "Angry Birds Star Wars II," the sequel to Rovio Entertainment's wildly popular experiment in cross-branding. The new game gives "Angry Birds" fans a lot of the same content they know and love with some welcome adjustments —120 new levels and, for the first time, a campaign that lets players "join the Pork Side" and play as the villainous pigs.
But what's intriguing about "Angry Birds Star Wars II" is what's outside the app. In partnership with Hasbro, Rovio is launching "Angry Birds Star Wars II" with a number of physical toys, "Telepods," that interact with the mobile game through a plastic base that situates the action figures on top of the smartphone or tablet's camera to scan the toy's QR code and then bring it into the action onscreen.
Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co., told NBC News that the Telepods are Hasbro and Rovio's attempt to enter into the fast-growing field of kid-friendly entertainment products that combine the virtual experiences of video games with real-world toys.
Companies have been trying to combine digital and physical media like this for quite some time, McGowan said. But it wasn't until the unexpected success of Activision's multibillion-dollar Skylanders franchise that people began to see the idea as anything more than pie in the sky. Both Disney and Nintendo have introduced competing console games in recent month with "Disney Infinity" and "Pokémon Rumble U" respectively. And when it comes to making hit kids products, the two companies are hitting all the right notes.
"You've got 'Angry Birds' and 'Star Wars,' which are both very powerful franchises already," McGowan said. "So why wouldn't it work?"
Aside from the fact that it's a mobile-first product, what sets "Angry Birds Star Wars II" apart from these other toy-game hybrids is the fact that "Angry Birds" is not a premium product. A starter pack for "Skylanders" or "Disney Infinity" will run you more than $75, but all of the Angry Birds games have cost a dollar or two at most, leaving Rovio to make up the rest of its profits through in-game advertising or peripheral merchandising.
Turning an often freemium, decidedly "casual" game into a premium product might seem daunting. But Jeff Labovitz, global marketing director for Star Wars at Hasbro, told NBC News that having a lighterweight alternative to pricey games like "Skylanders" or "Disney Infinity" is what families will find appealing about "Angry Birds Star Wars II." Ranging from $4.99 for an individual character to $39.99 for the full-blown "Star Destroyer Set," Labovitz said that the toys were meant to be more flexible than their older rivals — both in terms of their price and their compatibility with non-gaming hardware like iPads and Android phones.
"You don't need a $200 console, you don't need a $60 game, you don't need a $20 statue," Labovitz said. "These aren't just static statues that you just put into a console game."
A lower price is certainly attractive. But McGowan noted that the runaway success of "Skylanders" has already shown that parents are willing to combine toys and video games in higher-end packages. And while "Angry Birds" and "Star Wars" may be more recognizable brands, that's not necessarily a good thing.
"The flipside of awareness is fatigue," McGowan said. "'Angry Birds' is a powerful franchise, but people might be tired of it."
With 100 million-plus downloads for the first "Angry Birds Star Wars," it's hard to take that concern too seriously. But either way, Labovitz thinks the success of the new Telepods experiment will come down to how well it taps into something that kids never grow tired of.
"There will always be a need for great physical play with toys," Labovitz said. "There's always going to be this desire for kids to play not just with screens."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.