Toys in the Digital Age

With the constant exposure to different devices and ways of communicating with audiences, it only makes sense that transmedia storytelling would be the goal of every content producer these days. But digital media can only go so far in the vacuum of technology, as it waits for the next big thing to revolutionize the use of a screen. Fortunately, we live in a time where two big ideas can finally intersect, linking our current state of technology back to our childhood years of toy trends. If 10-year old you ever wanted interactive Beanie Babies, 2015 is a magical time to be alive.

Enter NFC (near field communication) toys and figures. Activision first tapped into the market back in 2011 with their Skylanders series. You may have heard of it. If you haven’t, any child in the immediate 5 mile radius will tell you all about it. The success of Skylanders paved the way for Disney to jump on the bandwagon, with its own line of toys under the name Disney Infinity. And most recently, Nintendo came along to take a piece of that money pie with its Amiibos.

So, what are NFC toys and why should anyone over the age of 10 care? It’s simple. These toys allow users to unlock content and actually play with those characters within the associated software. For example, by purchasing a Skylander toy, players can place the toy on a “Portal of Power” and then – boom – that character is now playable within the game. The functionality is similar across Disney and Nintendo, with the major difference being the kind of interaction that each toy grants. But the idea is the same: buy the game, buy the toy, use the toy to play the game.

There are a dozen reasons why this is a genius idea and why you’re mad you didn’t think of it. The most interesting example of these toys, however, is Nintendo’s Amiibos. While essentially being the least interactive of the three big company toy series, it’s actually the most popular, outselling Skylanders and matching Disney Infinity as of this past holiday season. This may be partly because of a slip-up on Nintendo’s part, as it was accidentally revealed that their toys would be limited runs, and once certain figures were gone, they would not be reprinted.

Do you remember going to every drug store in your neighborhood to find that one Beanie Baby you really wanted? Replace Beanie Babies with Nintendo Amiibos. Now, put them only in five selected retailers, add the prowess of modern internet, and throw in die-hard fans of some of gaming’s most memorable characters competing with scalpers, and you can see why Nintendo has been making a killing with these plastic toys. Nintendo Amiibos exploded into collectors’ items overnight after the limited run announcement. Toys are going for $90 on eBay and there are websites to track the available stock of the figurines in each of the retailers. It’s a mess – at least for everyone but Nintendo, who has sold 5.7 million of the things since November.

The aftermath of Nintendo Amiibos could be an article in itself, but we’ll spare you the details. Transmedia content is currently in an interesting period, where large companies have finally, successfully, meshed two huge slices of entertainment into one cohesive experience. By combining digital media that encompasses video, games, and apps with a physical reminder of how much you love that content, the line between digital and reality becomes a little blurrier, for better or for worse. There are already smaller companies trying to break into the scene, though at the cost of development and manufacturing, it may be left up to bigger studios to keep this momentum going and push this to be more than just selling toys. There could be so many applications for toys communicating with devices, especially in the realm of kids educational content, where the hands-on play would feed perfectly into teaching and learning.

We can only hope that this trend doesn’t just continue to be a money grab and is put to use for the greater good. If we’ve learned anything from Beanie Babies, no one needs to end up with four industrial-sized plastic bins of Amiibos 10 years from now.