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Why Skylanders is the Future of Gaming, and Why that Terrifies Me

For Christmas, Santa brought my son a video game called Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure.  The game, aimed at 8-12 year olds, is amusing to play and T2 and I have spent a fair amount of time blasting our way through the Skylander universe.  What’s fascinating about the game, however, is the mechanics behind it.  The way the game operates is, I believe, the future of gaming.  Let me tell you why…

The Portal

Skylanders is based on series of character tokens that enter and exit the world via a power portal. Game characters are sold as action figure tokens – the dragon in the image below.  To select a character in game, you simply drop a new token on the portal.  The switch is instant, negating the need to change classes or restart chapters.  Simply swap out your token and a different character appears on screen.

Skylanders Power Portal

The characters come in eight different series – air, earth, fire, water, life, undead, tech, and magic.  Each series has, at present, four different character tokens, for a total of 32 different playable characters.

As your characters progress in the game, their stats, powers, and equipment are stored locally on the token.  Take your favorite token to a friend’s house, drop it on his portal, and play with all the same characteristics you had on your own.

More importantly, however, you can drop your token onto his portal regardless of whether you have the same game system.  You play Xbox but your friend plays PlayStation?  Doesn’t matter.  You can play head to head or cooperatively with your tokens on the other platform.

Why this Game is Important

There are several factors at play that mark this game as a critical marker in video game evolution.  For some time now, the concept of downloadable content has been seen as the great future of gaming.  The console would simply be a storage platform for games and future releases and expansion packs would be delivered via the Internet.  That model is flipped on its head by Skylanders, but it is also complemented by it.

The downloadable content model simply continues two inherent flaws in the console model.  The restrictive nature of consoles is such that you can only play with friends on the same console. I can’t play Call of Duty with my nephew because he has a PS3 while I prefer Xbox.

If we play split screen on his system, none of my achievements carry over to my own console.  Making my character portable, as Skylanders has done, divorces my game play from the console.

In addition, Skylanders has created expansion packs as tokens as well.  For instance, the Pirate Seas expansion (below) includes a pirate ship token that unlocks additional playable content.  Like the character tokens, those expansion worlds exist separately from the console.

Skylanders Pirate Seas Expansion

If I take my token to a friends machine, we can play the expansion even if he hasn’t purchased it.  When I take it home, the expansion goes with me.

The folks at Activision have made great efforts toward solving the digital rights management issue by making your content token based.

The Big Problems With Gaming

The main flaws in the gaming experience today are the lack of console interoperability, the lack of character portability, and the means by which content creators can protect their product.  With Skylanders, Activision has addressed all three.

The ability to keep chatracters separate from the game, to unlock expansions with a token rather than the console, and to move both freely between platforms will be a model more game manufacturers adopt.

While making great strides in addressig these flaws, Activision has also created fairly attractive game collectibles.  As long as they maintain support for previous generations of character, as the develop additional Skylander games, these collectibles can become a lasting investment in the games you own.  I just wish my character from the the first Fable could have been carried forward into future Fable frachise games.

In addition, the tokens are relatively attractive figures in their own right, making your collection equally interesting as a long term collectible.

It’s not often that I am truly impressed by game innovation.  I find most experiments of this nature to be fairly uninspired.  In this case, however, I think Activision may have scored a big win.  I expect to see other games employing the same mechanics – likely in the very near future.

Why that Scares the Hell Out of Me

While I am very impressed with the game and the token system, I am also a bit nervous about it.

As I mentioned, there are 32 playable characters across the Skylanders universe, a handful of “special” character exclusives only available at some retailers, and two expansion packs.  Each character token costs about seven bucks.  Buy the game starter kit (with the portal, disk and three characters) and you’re out $60.  Many in-game items require accessing locked areas that can only be opened by characters from a particular series.  The minimum investment to have enough characters to open all areas is another 5 tokens or $35-40.  To collect all the characters, you would be north of $200.

That’s probably not a big deal when you consider the typical cycle of a game, the expansion packs, and other DLC.

A token scenario for a game like Call of Duty could look significantly less complex.  For instance, having a token that could carry a single custom loadout would allow you to port your best class to a friend’s console.  That could also allow you to carry the experience and weapons you gain back from that console to your own.  It would still allow Activision to sell additional classes as tokens, however.

If token based characters and content catch on, and I think they likely will, it could make gaming a more expensive proposition for the hardcore gamer or collector.

Written by Michael Turk