Whether people like it or not, toys have invaded the video game space and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Skylanders, amiibo, Disney Infinity and now Lego Dimensions are all huge business for those involved, selling DLC in the form of plastic figures that bring new characters, vehicles and levels to video games. As someone who loves collecting toys as well as video games, I’ve embraced this newly dubbed “toys-to-life” genre in the form of close to two dozen Disney Infinity figures and a growing collection of Lego mini-figs and vehicles. Not everyone likes this new plastic revolution that Activision helped to launch in 2011 with the very first Skylanders however, and moving forward one company should prepare themselves for a severe backlash if they don’t rethink their toys-to-life strategy. The company I’m speaking about of course is Nintendo.
I don’t think that Nintendo will cease production on amiibo figures in the near future and really, why should they? While Nintendo struggles with declining hardware sales in both their console and handheld market due to stiff competition from more powerful devices and the mass acceptance of smartphones, they’re bottom line is being cushioned by the mad fever fans have over buying plastic figures of their favourite Nintendo characters. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve purchased two amiibo figures: a MegaMan for myself and a Little Mac for a friend, and in both circumstances I had to get up very early and wait outside a store after hearing a tip that they would be coming in. In both cases also I saw people ahead and behind me in lines spend hundreds of dollars on amiibo’s to get them while they can. The person I was purchasing the Little Mac for was unable to get one at release due to the high demand for the figure in late 2014, only to see the price double and triple in value on sites like eBay and Amazon.
I could go on about how much I dislike Nintendo’s lack of foresight in their amiibo production compared to other figures like Disney Infinity or Lego Dimensions, as I can normally walk into any retailer: EB Games, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, etc.weeks, or even months after a figures launch and still them in relatively healthy stock. The issue I do want to address is Nintendo’s poor implementation of amiibo functionality. In an interview on the Polygon website, Skylanders creator and developer Toys for Bob stated that in the early stages of development, they approached Nintendo to make the franchise exclusive to Nintendo devices, but declined. After the run away success of Skylanders in 2011, followed by the first competitor Disney Infinity in 2013, Nintendo scrambled to recover from the mistake they made in passing on such a lucrative IP and they rushed their amiibo line of toys to market in 2014. While admittedly they are some nice looking figures, they’re functionality, at least initially, was sorely lacking compared to what else was on the market. That being said, I’d take that limited functionality that amiibo’s started out with as opposed to where they appear to be going.
Starting out amiibo’s only provided cosmetic changes to games like costumes in Mario Kart; Added a superfluous item like in Hyrule Warrios or created an AI punching bag for Super Smash Bros.. These functions were things that people would maybe try out once or twice, maybe even not at all, but they’re limited addition to a game meant that those who couldn’t get their hands on a particular figure, or couldn’t be bothered with them at all, weren’t missing out. Those times it seems, are coming to an end in at least three cases in 2016.
The first up is the Shovel Knight amiibo that will unlock co-op functionality in the Wii U version of that game only. Not only does this deny fans who didn’t buy a Wii U and love the game, which I’m sure is a pretty big number right now, it also means that people who don’t either want the figure or can’t find one might miss out on something they’ve would’ve purchased through their download service of choice if it was just simply DLC. Next up is the MegaMan Legacy Collection that launches in February. The game itself is available digitally on the PS4 and Xbox One, however the only way to play the game on the 3DS is via the upcoming retail release. Those who own the hard to find MegaMan amiibo will be able to unlock challenge maps, or they can pre-order the edition that comes with a gold MegaMan amiibo that I’m sure is already equally hard to find despite not being out yet.
The most controversial case of amiibo functionality is one that’s fairly new, in that it was only confirmed this week. Nintendo is putting out an HD update of 2006’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess that comes with a Wolf Link amiibo. Scanning this figure unlocks a never before seen area and other Zelda themed amiibo’s will unlock abilities like health and ammo replenishment as well as harder to kill enemies. What is the sticking point for the amiibo functionality in Twilight Princess is that Nintendo isn’t offering players a choice in how they buy the game, at least at retail. As of right now, the only way to buy a physical copy of the game is through an edition that comes with the game and amiibo. This is great for hardcore amiibo collectors who get everything in one package, but there’s also a segment of fans who just want the game with the new additions without the added hassle of having a toy they don’t want. There’s also those who choose to buy their games digitally who will not be able to try the new amiibo exclusive area at all.
Which brings me to the point of this whole article: through amiibo, Nintendo is eliminating choice. You want co-op Shovel Knight? Buy an amiibo. MegaMan Legacy Collection challenge maps? Better get on eBay. Want a disc copy of Twilight Princess without the added hassle of an amiibo? Tough luck. This is an alarming trend that shows just how little thought was put into amiibo implementation in their games. In the short term they’ve certainly sold a lot of toys and lined the pockets of a few scalpers I’m sure, but they’ve failed to create a meaningful community in a way that games like Disney Infinity, Skylanders and now Lego Dimensions have. What they’ve also done is forced people in these few cases to become amiibo collectors when they had no intention of doing so in the first place. Games like Infinity or Dimensions cost a LOT of money from the pricey starter packs to the additional figures, vehicles, play sets and level packs, but at the end of the day, it’s something you choose to buy into. Nintendo was eager to capitalize on this growing trend in games and tried to figure out the rest after the fact to some not so great results. Lego Dimensions is playing catch-up with its competitors being the last to market, but TT Games and WB Games have lined up a pile of great franchises and have planned out their new game for the next three years.
Nintendo is trying to play catch up somewhat by integrating amiibo’s in a manner similar to their competitors through the release of Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival for the Wii U. Unlike other Wii U and 3DS games that have added amiibo perks which are not mandatory, Amiibo Festival is the first game that actually requires players to have amiibo’s in order to play it. Though the game wasn’t that well received (presently it sits at a Metacritic score of 44), it’s a small step in the right direction. The next large step I’d wager will come with the release of Nintendo’s next console, presently referred only to as the “NX”.
Now that Nintendo knows how popular their companion toys are, they can now design an experience around them on whatever their new hardware turns out to be. Should they not, it would be very short sighted on the part of the video game giant. As Disney has proven with Infinity, people will flock to an experience if it features beloved characters, and Nintendo has some those in spades. Even in their darkest hours, Nintendo can always count on their devoted fans to scoop up their hardware just to play the latest releases put out by them, even if those releases are very few and far between. One of Nintendo’s strongest selling franchises, Super Smash Bros., is an example of how much people love playing a game that brings many franchises that normally wouldn’t speak to each other together, even the most recent entry in the Mario Kart series has opened itself up to this by featuring Link from the Legend of Zelda as a racer, as well as vehicles and tracks from another racing series, F-Zero.
With the amount of empty shelves and high prices on secondary selling markets, Nintendo really has no reason to correct their course their present amiibo plans, but to continue with this marginal, and lately forceful, implementation is not a way to grow amiibo in a meaningful way. Nintendo’s track record as of late has shown that despite launching a well received new IP in the form of Splatoon this year, they’re very much banking on their marquis franchises. What better way to create a new franchise, sell toys and mine their back log than with a new series in the vein of any of their toys-to-life competitors? This way Nintendo can satisfy amiibo collectors without alienating another segment of their fans who couldn’t be bothered with having plastic toys on their shelves. Amiibo has been a great success for Nintendo, but if they keep on the current track of how they’re implementing them in their games, the potential backlash could create a lot of angry customers and stores filled with unsold toys.