Aug. 26, 2013 at 10:19 AM ET
Technology may not have been sophisticated enough to bring your G.I. Joe toys to life when you were young, but kids now get the next best thing: toys that come to life inside a video game. The craze started with Activision's "Skylanders" franchise, and now Disney and Nintendo are getting in on the action figure action.
"Skylanders" works like this: You place a figurine onto a plastic platform known as the "Portal of Power," which is connected to your game console. Suddenly, the character appears on your TV, ready to fight pixellated bad guys. Think Mario meets Playmobil.
"Disney Infinity," a mashup of beloved Disney and Pixar's franchises (Captain Jack Sparrow, Sully the monster, etc.) with similar gameplay just hit the stores. Meanwhile, Nintendo will begin to roll out an interactive Pokémon army at the end of August, to pair with the Wii U game, "Rumble U."
"As they say, it's the highest form of flattery," Eric Hirschberg, CEO of the "Skylanders" publisher, told NBC News of the competing products. "It was only a matter of time," he added.
Seeing as Activision has made more than $1.5 billion off two "Skylanders" games since the series debuted in 2011, Hirschberg has a point. But now that the time for the great game-toy battle has come, how will kids choose?
"All three of these offers have their own strengths," Piers Harding-Rolls, an analyst at IHS Electronics and Media, told NBC News. "Skylanders" has a "first-mover advantage in terms of consumers and retailers," "Disney Infinity" has an "iconic, well-loved" brand name, and "Rumble U" taps into that "gotta catch 'em all" mentality that's made Pokémon what it is today.
But Harding-Rolls admitted that, when it comes to competing with Activision, Nintendo and Disney will have their work cut out for them. "Pokémon Rumble U" is an exclusive title for a console that isn't selling well. And "Infinity's" success isn't a sure bet for a division of Disney that's posted losses for 17 of the last 18 quarters. According to a report from the Wall Street Journal, the game itself cost more than $100 million to develop.
But Bill Roper, VP and general manager of product development for Disney Interactive, insists that the company has something that could even win over "Skylanders" fans: the "Toy Box," an open-ended portion of "Disney Infinity" that allows players to create their own worlds using bits and pieces collected from Disney franchises.
Ultimately, Roper thinks "Infinity's" gameplay is "more mature" than a game like "Skylanders," which gives kids a linear, often simplistic experience.
There's a lot of money to be had with these toy-based games. The "Disney Infinity" starter pack will run you $75, but if you want to play through "The Incredibles" with a friend or family member, you'll have pay $13 for an additional character. "Cars" and "Toy Story" playsets cost another $35 each. All in all, you could easily spend $250 on "Disney Infinity," which is more expensive than some of the devices the game runs on.
So, can you play with them?
With that much money on the line, the question is whether or not the "Infinity" characters actually make good toys. Roper said that Disney wanted to make the characters feel more like collector's items than simple playthings — what you'd see at a comic book store, rather than in the Walmart kids aisle. " The Pokémon "Rumble U" toys, meanwhile, are entirely optional, giving the player's virtual Pokémon extra powers to take into the battle arena. Available for $4 a pop exclusively at GameStop (the game itself is just $18 as a digital download through the Nintendo eShop), there aren't any new Pokémon to be found here necessarily, but the action figures have at least been stylized as collectibles in their own right, bearing a cute resemblance to their polygonal in-game counterparts.
Hirschberg told NBC News that the "Skylanders" franchise is taking the opposite direction with the upcoming "Swap Force" series, due out in October. For the first time, players will be able to mix and match different parts of the action figures. Hirschberg insists that this will add to their overall value not just as parts of a video game, but also as toys beyond the virtual, screen-based world kids are so often glued to.
"Wherever kids play, we want to be able to bring these toys," Hirschberg said. And as for the question of name-recognition, he said Activision has something more important that all gamers crave: novelty.
"Since when does recognizability trump originality?" Hirschberg asked. Instead of relying on known franchises, he said, "let's have confidence in gaming'sability to tell great stories."
Thing is, "Disney Infinity" may not even have to worry about originality. With the entire Disney and Pixar universe to mine from, Roper said, that the possibilities to mix and match characters in interesting ways is, well, infinite.
"There are so many ways to do that," Roper said. "That's why we haven't felt like: 'Let's go make our own IP!'"
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.