Set for even big­ger life at E3

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Todd Martens

The dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion is start­ing to look a lot more phys­i­cal.

As the Elec­tronic En­ter­tain­ment Expo, North Amer­ica’s largest video game trade show, gets set to launch on Tues­day — with vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets ex­pected to be the talk of the Los An­ge­les Con­ven­tion Cen­ter — it turns out that the big thing in gam­ing has al­ready ar­rived in the form of toys.

More specif­i­cally, tiny plas­tic fig­urines of princesses, wiz­ards or an­i­mals that connect with wire­less tech­nol­ogy and spring to life in a video game when placed on a plas­tic tray. Toys to life, as the grow­ing cat­e­gory is called, is a fea­tured part of fran­chises such as Ac­tivi­sion’s “Skylanders” and “Dis­ney In­fin­ity.” But what landed seem­ingly as a fad four years ago ap­pears to have im­pres­sive stay­ing power, and room to grow. Since “Skylanders”

launched in 2011, the cat­e­gory has gen­er­ated more than $2 bil­lion in sales, ac­cord­ing to the mar­ket re­search firm NPD Group.

The big­gest sur­prise, say an­a­lysts, may be that the field isn’t even big­ger than it al­ready is.

“The toys-to-life game cat­e­gory is limited only by the po­ten­tial of the toy cat­e­gory,” says Michael Pachter, an an­a­lyst at Wed­bush Se­cu­ri­ties. “If you take ev­ery toy and make it come to life, that’s more fun than imag­in­ing it com­ing to life. The thing I’ve been flab­ber-gasted by is that there isn’t a Trans­form­ers toys-to-life game, or a Bar­bie toys-to-life game. I’m sure there will be. There should be. There should be a Hot Wheels toys-to-life game.”

But there will be a “Star Wars” toys-to-life game when it be­comes a part of the “Dis­ney In­fin­ity” world later this year. And much to the cha­grin of par­ents who have al­ready in­vested in th­ese tiny armies, the field is only go­ing to fur­ther ex­pand this fall when “Lego” en­ters the mar­ket with its “Lego Di­men­sions” ti­tle, a genre and li­cens­ing mash-up in pro­duc­tion by TT Games and Warner Bros. In­ter­ac­tive that will bring to­gether “Back to the Fu­ture,” “Bat­man,” “Lord of the Rings,” “The Wiz­ard of Oz” and more.

It’s a kid’s game, one soaked with nos­tal­gic brands, mak­ing it a rel­a­tively safe pur­chase for Mom and Dad. But it’s not just kid’s play.

If you’re an adult, the cor­rect ter­mi­nol­ogy is not toys but, rather, “col­lectibles,” at least ac­cord­ing to a cer­tain re­porter with plas­tic Nin­tendo and Dis­ney char­ac­ters sit­ting on his book­shelf. Nin­tendo, which calls its toys-to-life fig­ures “ami­i­bos,” has re­ported that it has sold more than 10.5 mil­lion fig­ures since their launch late last year, and I think they make ex­cel­lent desk ac­ces­sories.

I’m not the only adult charmed by this cat­e­gory.

Dis­ney In­ter­ac­tive ex­ec­u­tive John Vig­noc­chi says it was some­what of a rev­e­la­tion to learn that nearly half his au­di­ence con­sists of grown-ups. This fall the com­pany will re­lease “Dis­ney In­fin­ity 3.0,” and add-on pur­chases will al­low play­ers to ex­plore worlds in­spired by the orig­i­nal “Star Wars” tril­ogy as well as this De­cem­ber’s “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awak­ens.”

“We’re ap­peal­ing to young and old and male and fe­male,” Vig­noc­chi says. “Our lat­est data says that some­thing crazy like 52% of our au­di­ence is ages 1 to 17, and then the re­main­ing 48% is 18 and up.”

Ex­pect those num­bers to even out when “Star Wars” is added to the mix. But Vig­noc­chi has an­other the­ory for the cat­e­gory’s suc­cess. Sim­ply put, main­stream video games have looked rather sim­i­lar for the last 10 or 15 years. Aside from Nin­tendo, which gen­er­ally ig­nores in­dus­try trends, games have got­ten longer (some an op­pres­sive 80 hours or more), more vi­o­lent and of­ten star men.

“Maybe some of the ex­pe­ri­ences in video games right now are very repet­i­tive, very much the same,” Vig­noc­chi says. “‘In­fin­ity’ of­fers some­thing dif­fer­ent.”

The toys-to-life genre has not only reignited the fam­ily games sec­tor but also brought back a sense of light­hearted fun to block­buster gam­ing.

“The model from the getgo in our game was ‘Noth­ing is sa­cred,’ ” says Doug Heder, a pro­ducer at Warner Bros. In­ter­ac­tive work­ing on the “Lego Di­men­sions.” He ap­peared to be jok­ing, but “Lego Di­men­sions” also opens with Gan­dalf walk­ing the yel­low brick road.

All of th­ese games work dif­fer­ently. Nin­tendo’s ami­ibo fig­ures play with mul­ti­ple games, un­lock­ing ex­tra con­tent or mini-games when placed on the con­sole’s Game Pad. “Skylanders” plays out like a live-ac­tion Satur­day morn­ing car­toon show, with over-the-top char­ac­ters, corny but cool voiceovers and vil­lain­ous sheep.

“Dis­ney In­fin­ity” can get a lit­tle com­plex; it’s es­sen­tially two games in one.

The game is partly a build-your-own Dis­ney adventure tool, al­low­ing play­ers to craft king­doms, race tracks, battle are­nas and more. Then, say, Elsa from “Frozen,” Mickey Mouse and Spi­der-Man can all duke it out, pro­vided one has bought the $13.99 fig­ures. I, for one, find the cre­ation tools a bit over­whelm­ing and pre­fer to play the “In­fin­ity” mini-games, in­cluded with some fig­ures, or larger Dis­ney/Marvel ad­ven­tures, in­cluded with the so-called play sets.

“Lego Di­men­sions” looks to fit some­where in be­tween “Skylanders” and “Dis­ney In­fin­ity.” In its fa­vor will be a comedic tone in­spired by “The Lego Movie” and the abil­ity to see char­ac­ters from “Scooby-Doo” in­ter­min­gle with those from “Wiz­ard of Oz.” At a me­dia pre­view in ad­vance of E3, it was hard not to be smit­ten by Bat­man mis­tak­ing Scare­crow from “The Wiz­ard of Oz” as the DC Comics su­pervil­lain.

All have their draw­backs, namely a rel­a­tively high price tag. It’s not at all dif­fi­cult to be out $150 af­ter buy­ing a starter pack and a few add-on toys. “Skylanders,” for all its silli­ness, will sub­tly en­cour­age play­ers to buy more fig­ures by keep­ing cer­tain con­tent off-lim­its.

Still, what each com­pany is bring­ing to E3 looks to be an im­prove­ment on the past. “Skylanders,” which has sold 240 mil­lion toys since its in­tro­duc­tion, will launch “Skylanders Su­percharg­ers” in Septem­ber, a ti­tle that will add toy ve­hi­cles to the mix. Un­like the toys of yore, which are static fig­ures placed on stands, the ve­hi­cles will all have mov­ing parts, mean­ing kids can bet­ter play with them when the game is off. The ti­tle is listed at $74.99.

“This year’s game will have over $40 worth of toys. It is not an in­ex­pen­sive pur­chase, but it is a high-value pur­chase,” ar­gues Ac­tivi­sion exec Josh Taub.

“Lego Di­men­sions” comes with ac­tual Lego toys. In-game prompts will en­cour­age play­ers to con­struct fig­ures such as a Bat­mo­bile on the f ly. “Dis­ney In­fin­ity 3.0” has me ex­cited be­cause its mini-games look more ro­bust than ever, es­pe­cially a run-and-jump puz­zle game in­spired by “In­side Out.”

The ap­peal? Don’t ever dis­count the power of toys and car­toons.

“It looks like some­thing,” Vig­noc­chi says, “that a mom or dad gamer — or non-gamer — would say, ‘I’ll give this a try.’ ”

Dis­ney In­ter­ac­tive

BRACE YOUR­SELVES, “Star Wars” gam­ing fans: The in­ter­ga­lac­tic epic is on track to be­come part of the “Dis­ney In­fin­ity” toys-to-life world later this year.

TT Games

“LEGO DI­MEN­SIONS” will en­ter the toys-to-life mar­ket in fall with a mash-up of char­ac­ters.

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