Here's a bit of good news/bad news for those addicted to Activision's Skylanders franchise: Trap Team, the next iteration of the popular game-meets-toy, arrives in October. The bad news for your wallet is there will be 50 new toys to collect.
Activision says it has sold more than 175 million of the figurines, which are about $10 each, making it one of the biggest toy lines in the world. That has helped make the game the fastest ever to hit $2-billion in sales, according to the company.
Developers showed off the latest twist with a demo of Skylanders Trap Team in New York on Wednesday. In technical terms, Trap Team introduces another bit of whiz-bangery to the already nifty Skylanders formula, where toy models zap into the game via an USB-connected "Power Portal."
Inside the fantasy world of the Skylands, the Trap Team are prison guards who watch over incarcerated bad guys. But, when the evil wizard Kaos breaks the villains out of jail, it's up to the heroes to find them and bring them back. The villains, once defeated, are effectively sucked out of the game and into a glowing crystal that plugs into the newly redesigned portal, which then plays audio from the trapped character.
In our demo it worked flawlessly. "Where am I? It's dark in here, and it smells kind of like mustard!" exclaimed a villain named Chompy Mage after being pulled off the TV screen and into a crystal.
But that's only the half of it. Once imprisoned, the bad guys have no choice but to go good. Players can then zap them back into the game and use their various abilities, and tag team swap them with regular Skylanders.
The idea of trapping villains in crystal goes back a few years and was actually a secondary capability that was being considered.
"Once the team came back with sound travelling from the speakers on the TV screen to the speaker in the portal, everyone just said, 'Wow.' That was a moment," Activision chief executive Eric Hirschberg said in an interview.
There will be 40 villains to capture (at least you don't have to buy figurines for them). Fortunately for parents' wallets, every Skylander from the previous three games will be compatible with Trap Team, although a new Power Portal will be necessary to use the crystals and audio functions.
In introducing Trap Team, scheduled for release on all current game consoles on Oct. 8, Mr. Hirschberg said it's not enough to slightly improve games with each new release. The company needs to innovate each time. "We make kids say 'wow' for a living. Mere incrementalism isn't enough."
With the company settling into an annual release cycle with the franchise, it's also bringing rotating development studios on board to work on the games, the same way it does with its flagship Call of Duty series. Trap Team is being helmed by California-based franchise creator Toys For Bob, while last year's Swap Force was done by New York-based Vicarious Visions.
"You need to find two developers that are capable of both pushing each other and working together. That's a structural difference in how Activision works in a couple of franchises that brings a lot of advantages," Hirshberg said. "You're bringing in different points of view who have different creative instincts, yet they're working on the same franchise."
Activision does have a steady stream of other ideas in the pipeline, he added, with future Skylanders games promising "innovations that are equal to what you've seen today."
The franchise isn't alone anymore, however, with competition biting at its heels. In 2013, the Mickey Mouse folks came calling with Disney Infinity, a game that similarly brings toys in via an RFID chip-reading portal. Disney's offering, backed by established brands such as Toy Story and Pirates of the Caribbean, has also sold well, doubtlessly taking a bite out of a pie that previously belonged solely to Activision.
Disney is also expected to unveil its future plans for Infinity soon, meaning that the competition is only going to ratchet up later this year.
"With the level of success that Skylanders has had commercially, it was only a matter of time before we had competitors come into the category," Hirschberg said. "Skylanders was actually the anomaly for a while, that we had the category to ourselves for a while because we created it."
Besides competition, over-saturation is also a risk. Activision knows this well, with its own Guitar Hero franchise effectively killed a few years ago through rapid releases, both by the company and competitors.
The company has learned from that experience, Hirschberg said.
"I think we've found the right cadence. There seems to be a good appetite for the annual releases so far."