Octo-magnet? Magnetopus? You decide. This Swap Force character (in the game) shows just one of the 256 possible combinations with the new figures. Trust me… your kids know what I’m on about here.
If you’ve got kids of video game-playing age (or if you are a video game-playing adult), I’m sure that the fact that there is a new Skylanders set will not be a surprise to you. In fact, you may already be witnessing a Tribble-like infestation of the new “Swap Force” figures, which allow you to exchange the top halves and bottom halves of figures for special in-game effects, at your own home.
With the holiday season approaching, the action figure-powered video game is set to be one of the hot gifts this year and, by all critical accounts, the new set of figures and game are quite good. For my part, I’m holding out until my 2- and 3-year-olds are old enough to really dig in before I buy any for them. So that we can … ahem … all play together.
But if you’re not aware, you might be wondering what Skylanders are and what the fuss is all about. With more than $1.5 billion in sales worldwide across all major video gaming platforms, it’s obviously a pretty big fuss for developer Toys for Bob, publishing through Activision. This company took an all-but-forgotten video game franchise (Spyro the Dragon), came up with the unique concept of selling figures that interact with and actually appear in an on-screen video game, and made serious bank. Never underestimate the profit potential of selling kids tiny monster figurines is the moral of this story.
A typical Skylanders display that you might see at your local retailmagorium. The graphic designers used so much green for a reason.
Kids go nuts for these things and, frankly, I can understand why. It’s a cool concept with a built-in collectability element and a wide range of figures (there’s 16 new characters in the new Swap Force set alone). With three major title releases, it’s practically a money-printing machine. The game is a fairly simple, kid-friendly action roleplaying game with platforming elements and the idea is that different figures give the player different abilities when activated by an included “Portal of Power” that communicates with the gaming device via NFC (Near Field Communication). So a character with a fire element might have fireballs or other burn-y powers, an ice character will freeze things and basically chill out (sorry).
To not-with-it parents, Skylanders are likely to be just another irritating mélange of incomprehensible lingo and general expensiveness. The full set of Swap Force—including all 16 characters and the new game—costs more than current-generation gaming consoles, weighing in at more than $250 altogether. And there’s always going to be more to purchase—not just on shelves at your local department store, but also on eBay or other aftermarket sites, because there are a host of characters that are exclusive to events, retailers and other promotions. Some of these can get quite expensive due to their rarity and limited production runs.
From a collector’s standpoint, I’m of two minds about the Skylanders phenomenon. On one hand, it’s a highly successful, mass-marketed product and there is plenty to go around. There’s also the fact that the core product is a video game that will have little to no resale value within three years—particularly with next-generation consoles set to debut in less than a month as of this writing. I don’t think it will be too long before we see Skylanders figures by the bagful at thrift stores and yard sales, selling for pennies on the dollar—even if mom and dad bought a hard-to-find figure for three times its retail on eBay when Junior was hot for it.
Three examples of extremely rare—and valuable—Skylanders toys. Spryo (left) was an E3 exclusive back in 2011, given out to industry attendees of the largest electronic entertainment tradeshow in the world. These days, he sells for over $750. Prism Break (center) was given to Activision employees as a promotion, and is worth around $500, even though 8,000 were distributed. Pearl Hex (right) was exclusive to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 2012 and is now worth $400.
But the other side of the Portal of Power is that there are limited and very rare figures in the mix and the franchise—provided it can avoid a Beanie Baby-class meltdown—could extend its longevity for years to come, especially if future games maintain some kind of backward compatibility to thwart the inevitable obsolescence of early releases. The rarest figures are already getting into triple digits but it remains to be seen if the bubble is going to burst.
There’s also that peculiar phenomenon that happens when some folks hit middle age. They’ve got a good job, expendable income and suddenly they want to go back and either rebuy their childhood favorites or buy the toys they never got to have. That could mean extended value down the line, but again that’s a very shaky proposition.
So, even though Skylanders appear to be developing a collector’s market, I think it’s best for right now to just appreciate the game and the cool figures for what they are. Viewing them as any kind of investment at this stage is premature. Check back with me in 20 years and maybe then we’ll have a better picture. I’ll be happy to hear your “we sold these for pennies at a yard sale” stories at that time.
Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.
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