It's a gaming franchise addictive enough to send shivers down the spine of any parent of a console-owning tween. But now Skylanders, Activision's multimillion selling concept that ingeniously blends collectable toys with video game action, has competition. Disney recently unveiled Disney Infinity, which goes down the same route of offering collectable figures that transform into video game characters when placed on a special platform.
Buzz Lightyear, Mr Incredible and company may be looming over the horizon (expected in June) but Skylanders won't give up its dominance without a family-friendly fight. In an exclusive event held alongside Nuremberg's enormous toy fair last week, the latest edition was unveiled with high hopes it will be able to keep its loyal devotees hooked while ensuring parents are appeased at the same time.
Where last year's Skylanders Giants introduced larger figures with new skills into the mix, Skylanders Swap Force stirs things up a bit more. Among its line-up of 56 new collectable figures come 16 characters with swappable top and bottom parts that can be connected by magnets. But aside from giving the toys a new playable edge, the real genius lies in the fact that this is an essential element of the video game. Players who find that the character they're using perhaps doesn't have the features needed for a quest can mix and match with others.
For example, Washbuckler (a pirate octopus, no less) might have a handy cutlass and bubble gun but moves pretty slowly due to his tentacles. Put his top on the base of the nifty Magna Charge, however, and you've got Wash Charge, with cutlass, guns and a handy speedwheel. And with 16 swappable figures come 256 different combination possibilities, enough to counter any obstacle the new Skylanders universe throws at you and generating countless different games at the same time.
"Video games often used to be a linear experience, from the beginning to the end of an adventure," says Guha Bala, the founder of Vicarious Visions, the Activison-owned developer that has been working with Skylanders since 2011. "But now, by mixing and matching to configure your Swap Force for the right combination, it becomes a creative exercise. It becomes something that builds choice and empowerment to the child. And that's a whole new type of compelling play that's different to just being glued to the TV set."
The beneficial aspect of Skylanders is something that Activison is obviously keen to emphasise, particularly the manner in which it encourages children to cooperate using each other's collections and enables adults to drop in and out of a game should they wish. "Also, you can have longer increments if the parents are OK with that, but with the gameplay, shorter increments like 10 minutes is still fine," adds Bala.
With Swap Force, the creative element is added, too, with users having to think logically to create the right character needed for each puzzle.
But for any parent cursing the ground that Activision walks on, Skylanders Swap Force needn't require a huge investment. Although a new portal (the block the figures must sit on to interact with the game) is needed, all previous Skylanders characters can still be used, each given some souped-up HD graphics on screen and carrying over whatever skill points have already been earned.
Swap Force will be launched in time for Christmas. Woody and Buzz shouldn't get comfortable.