What Nintendo could learn from Skylanders

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve recently – and belatedly — discovered the surprisingly great Skylanders, and have now morphed from embarrassed newcomer to up-front defender of the game (despite its ruthless, money-sucking business model). Truth be told, Skylanders is a brilliant and beautifully-crafted adventure, both on Wii and 3DS.

Having finished the 3DS version, I was several chapters into the Wii game, marveling at how polished and well-paced the thing is, when a frustrating thought cropped up:

Why didn’t Nintendo do this first? And — for crying out loud — why didn’t they use this concept for Pokemon?

Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but all the right pieces were there. Nintendo’s a company that loves rolling out quirky peripherals. They came up with the Balance Board, the Gameboy Camera and AR cards. With Pokemon, they’ve got one of the greatest franchises of all time STILL waiting for a full-blown first-class console adventure (and they’d already introduced the Pokewalker for Heartgold and Soulsilver). It pains me to think of Nintendo wasting time on the goofy “Vitality Sensor” while the Skylander’s creators were designing their magic portal and – I imagine – chuckling something along the lines of, “Holy crap, people are going to go nuts over this!”

Imagine if Nintendo had gotten there first. Imagine a bowl-shaped portal designed to look like the lower half of a Pokeball. On the tv screen, you control Ash as he wanders through a beautiful, fully-rendered forest. He’s attacked. You grab one of your plastic chip-equipped Pokemon, slap it onto the portal, and the fight begins. After the battle – just as happens in Skylanders – your Pokemon figure would remember all its gained experience and power-ups, so that you could use this leveled-up figure in anybody’s version of the game.

Imagine the software sales! Imagine the plastic figure sales! Imagine Nintendo raking in all that money!

Now, of course, it’s too late for Nintendo to try that approach. Activision did Skylanders right, and it’s succeeded so well that the Spyro spinoff now completely owns the toys-come-to-life-in-a-game genre – an untapped corner of the gaming world that nobody except Skylanders’ creators knew existed.

The moral? Maybe Nintendo needs to spend a lot more time nurturing and fully exploiting their awesome I.P.s and less time on Vitality Sensors and Nintendo Direct. They’ve been releasing outstanding games lately, with more on horizon; maybe they’ve already learned a few things.

At least Nintendo’s getting a piece of the pie; the Wii version of Skylanders is a first-rate rendition of the whimsical console hack n’ slash epic, while the 3DS received a unique, top-notch 3D platformer. The fact that all Skylanders figures can carry their data back and forth between all three major consoles and the 3DS is a pretty awesome situation; I can’t think of anything quite like it in the brief history of video games. I imagine Skylanders will – in the long run – help sell quite a few 3DS units to fans eager to take their toys into further adventures (and pick up the Dark Spryo figure) while waiting for this fall’s Skylanders Giants.

And – who knows – anything’s possible. I can imagine a near future where Nintendo and Activision could strike a deal to use Skylanders tech in a Wii U/3DS Pokemon epic. Yeah, when Krookodiles fly. It’ s a nice dream.

In the meantime, great cross-platform titles are good for everyone, and Skylanders is one of the best family games ever released. If you see the starter set (software, portal and 3 figures) for either 3DS or Wii marked down to the price of a normal game, I whole-heartedly recommend picking it up. You’re in for a great time. And, remember, you really can finish the adventure using only the three pack-in figures…you just can’t see the entire game world that way. Yeah, it’s a ruthless money-making scheme. If the game wasn’t so much fun, I might have been ticked off about that.


  1. I did not read the full article, but Nintendo has tried this idea with pokemon before, just not with a video game console.
    I forget what it was called but it was this Pokemon stadium type thing. You bought toy Pokemon that would clip into the stadium and they would battle using lights and stuff. It was really cool, I had it as a kid. If I ever find it in my basement I would totally make a video about it.

    But yeah Nintendo did try something similar

  2. To put it ever so bluntly. Nintendo would never adopt a model, since in essence, its just a tricky/tacky way to veil DLC. Nintendo is also very vocal on their aspects of such models and business practices. I’ll even post the quotes for you.

    “We’re unwilling to sell a piece of a game upfront and, if you will, force the consumer to buy more later. That’s what they don’t want to do, and I completely agree. I think the consumer wants to get, for their money, a complete experience, and then we have opportunities to provide more on top of that.” – Reggie

    “In terms of that priority, we cannot, and should not, ask our consumer to embrace the situation where they are required to make excessive payments. Doing such things might be good for short-term profit, but it will not serve our mid-term and long-term business developments.” – Iwata

    There is also the fact that you’re completely ignoring the bigger picture here. Which is Pokemon’s overall game design and mechanics. This would ultimately destroy Pokemon as we know it. From what I understand, Skylanders, you buy figurines which have codes which you can then use to play in the various games. That’s great for their game, since its not an RPG, or anything with a remotely compelling story.

    We all know that Pokemon is about the journey, and uses the theme of evolving to represent the character growing over the course of his/her adventure. Capturing Pokemon is another quintessential part of the series. This would either destroy capturing them, or destroy the need to make different versions. Since it would limit exclusives to figure packs.

    This would also, cause an unbalancing issue, since you could end up with Pokemon at different levels or abilities that would make the game a cakewalk. A game that is too easy gets boring very fast. Which would make it unbelievably hard for it to work with an RPG.

    A drastic change that would probably hurt the series more than help it evolve into what you see as a great new experience for the franchise. As well as hurt Nintendo’s credibility as a company.

    As a fan of Nintendo’s games and consoles, I don’t ask much of them, but I’d leave them to their own devices to design and innovate. Not ask them to adopt practices or models from another company. That’s not what Nintendo does.

    I would also like to make the parallel to the Vitality Sensor and the Skylander’s Peripheral. The Skylander’s peripheral allows you to import these creatures via their figures, that gives you One measure to change the fundamentals of the games playability. Vitality Sensor, while it is used to measure ones heartbeat, could drastically change the way a game is played based on the data collected by the game. Which you could write a very detailed article about on itself alone.

    Also, any game that requires me to purchase figures to play gets a thumbs down in my book, and I’m sad to see that Spyro ended up that way.

    Thinly veiled article by the way, step your game up Richard.

  3. The Wii U tablet will have NFC tech, so anything is possible. I’ll buy Skylanders by the end of the year, once I’ve made a dent on my backlog.

  4. @ Will Thompson: See, this is why we love our readers. Thank you for such a well-argued response: you make good points. I still think Nintendo could, would and should try something like this with Pokemon in the future, even if they don’t follow the same business model as Skylanders. C’mon, admit it, it would be cool. I do like Nintendo’s current stand on DLC. I hope they stick to this philosophy, but I think optional purchases to expand a game that was complete to begin with would not hurt their image. Most obvious possibility: I would gladly pay for extra Mario Kart 7 tracks.

    I’m not for one second going to deny that I think Skylanders is a money vacuum. The thing that saves it — and the reason it’s winning fans — is that the game is awesome and doesn’t (technically) require additional purchases to finish. Don’t pre-judge it without playing it: the story, the voice acting, the music (Hans Zimmer!), the animation, the pacing, the level designs, etc. are all top-notch. This is actually one of the Wii’s best-looking games. It’s pretty easy most of the time (being a family game, after all), but the whole environment is simply a fun place to be. The plastic figures retain all the experience, items, levels and power-ups they gain during gameplay so they can be transported with that history to anyone’s console. This technology, whatever the financial model, could be used to great effect in Pokemon. Balance issues would have to be addressed, and I’d love to see them tackle the problem. Beyond that, I’d simply love to see a Pokemon RPG with Skylander’s production values. I think we all would.

    Now, back to the subject of money-vacuums: Nintendo certainly isn’t above their own form of cash-milking, and Pokemon is the number one champion of a good game stretched as thinly as possible for maximum profit as anyone can think of. Beyond the point that no one can “catch ’em all” with one cartridge, the simple fact is Nintendo gets players to basically buy the same game with minor tweaks over and over and over again.

    And we all know why they get away with it: because Pokemon is an awesome game — one of the sharpest, most charming and finely-tuned RPGS ever created — that fans love to revisit time and again. Oddly, the familiarity and repetition has become one of its selling points. Believe me, there was nothing “thinly veiled” about my post: I’m a geek and I geek out about games that I’m currently enthralled by. Watch me geek out about Pokemon Black/White 2: I’ll probably be in line on launch day to buy the thing.

  5. @Sal your Pal : Imagine if Nintendo had linked up that toy set to the Stadium video games!

    @ EdEN: By the end of the year, the game should hopefully be selling at a much more reasonable price point.

  6. I actually completely agree that this has more than just potential for the main series of games, but I actually think it would THRIVE in a different series of the game: the Pokémon Scramble line.

    Not only would the base game be nearly unaffected by the balance issues and concerns, it could (and most definitely would) add greatly to what you could include in the game. Usable items (berries and such) to hold able items for in combat (quick claws and etc) to additional stages to play through; heck, they could even open the game up to allow Pokémon with more than two moves. The Scramble line is ok, but quickly loses its gameplay appeal LONG before you beat the game: this could remedy that.

    And while pokémon is the obvious route for Nintendo to go there are other options:
    -A Kirby game where changing the figure out can give you an additional backup power-up that you don’t have to absorb, for example.
    -Metroid that has VERY special/limited weapons (so would be cheaper to buy) that once the ammo is depleted you simply have your plastic trophy (which would also be a great item to partner with McDonald’s or Burger King with).
    -Screw regular paid-for Mario Kart DLC. Give me mini karts that come preconfigured with new loadouts of karts, gliders, and tires that can be used like regular matchbox cars (or ANOTHER partnership option there). Give me a full line of mini course figurines (to include new tracks, of course) that tracks all the drivers that have raced on it, their ghost data, and their star rankings that I can also put on a shelf!!
    -I’m going to summarize this option with an immortalized quote: “It’s dangeours to go alone. Take this.” ‘Nuff said.

    As you can see, the options are out there an near limitless. Hell, the inclusion of NFC into the Wii U tablet gives Nintendo the option to all that and more. Make the Wii U the integral/central NFC download hub for not only itslef, but the 3DS. Sales of one can’t help but push sales of the other then! Plus, by putting it into the base system, other companies can play around and do whatever they want with it. (I can already feel the quivering anticipation in Activision to tie additional Call of Duty content to a system like this: every game will come with a mini “avatar” that stores your kill counts, loadout, and etc. New weapons come out? Buy this new weapons rack!)

    And as for Nintendo’s attitude towards DLC: the times, they are a-changing. I don’t general follow who is first or second party in publishing, but isn’t Fire Emblem second-party? And doesn’t the new game coming out already have announced/planned DLC? It is only a matter of time (and not much of it, at that) before that happens to first-party titles as well.

    Lastly, to add that little bit of extra value or appeal, you give me a Mii AND a little “mushroom house” to display all my baubles for everyone to see and you will definitely win over some people who think you have no dedication or commitment to the online community.

    Just some food for thought.

  7. I would hate collecting figures to play my games, they just take up room. I don’t see a point in them. They should just be available characters to purchase or get for free from online shops.

  8. @ RisnDevil: Pokemon Scramble/Rumble would be a perfect match for this technology, and I also really like your ideas for applying it to Nintendo’s other franchises! We’ll see what the future holds. It would help Nintendo’s image if it were all supplemental — and completely optional — to the main game, but was so much fun that no one could resist buying at least a few figures. Skylanders wouldn’t have any negative press if the characters were all unlockable through grinding (the iPhone spinoff works that way) as well as having the figures available for transporting character data and simply providing a lot of extra fun.

    Oh — and the Mii idea? Awesome! If Nintendo offered custom-made Mii figurines for individuals to order…wow. Thanks to the AR technology, I know what the Miis would look like on my desk. I’d love to see that become a physical reality! 🙂

  9. The day I’m forced to spend money past the admission price to play Pokémon and experience all the game has to offer is the day I stop playing Pokémon.

  10. While I do think that this would bring more people into the Pokemon genre, I feel like it would force Nintendo to spend a lot of money on something that might flop. With Skylanders, yeah, there’re 30+ of them, but with Pokemon, there are almost 650 of those bad boys. Imagine how much plastic would be wasted, and how much it would cost for Nintendo to make this. Even if the tech is simple, I don’t feel like it’d be profitable to do.

  11. @ Gomerman: Yeah, 650 seems pretty unwieldly for the concept…it would have to be a whole new branch of Pokemon RPG with a smaller initial line-up of figures until things got rolling. It makes me think, though: What if you went into the game knowing up front that you’d never collect *everything*, but that your journey would be unique. Few on Earth would end up with the same lineup as yours.

    And, imagine this set up: The game comes with a Pokeball. It could contain any one of, say, 50 starter Pokemon figures, and you don’t know what you’re going to get until you start the game, create your avatar, and get to the point in the story where the character receives the first Pokemon. At that point, an electronic signal opens the physical Pokeball and you see, for the first time, your starter Pokemon and you’re stuck with it, good or bad. Imagine the Youtube videos of players’ reactions:

    “I got Charmander!!!! Awesome!!!!! What’d *you* get? Vanillish!?! HAHAHAHAHA! “No Refunds!” HAAHAHAHAHA!

  12. @Richard: First,mInLLOVE the secret, random starter Pokemon idea!! All this talk almost has me dreaming and salivating about what could be. One “voice of reality/concern” that I am curious your attitude/opinion/fix for: what happens your Pokémon evolves and no longer looks like your figure? It seems like there is going to be some kind of disconnect there. Everything else sound like it has awesome potential though!!

  13. @ RisnDevil: Oh, yeah, the evolving Pokemon…hmmm. Oops. Okay…uh…well, if we’re sticking with Skylanders technology, all the character info is stored in the figure’s base, so the only solution would be to have all the Pokemon’s forms interchangeable from that master base plate. They could be sealed in official packets and you rely on self-control to avoid opening them early…or they could be locked in little collector boxes that can only be opened without destroying the box when the game gives you the combination code at the appropriate moment in the game! Yeah, that does sound clumsy…

    The only other solution I can think of would be to feature a whole new line of non-evolving Pokemon. Not an ideal solution, either way. I’m kind of stumped on this one! 🙂

  14. I am curious my son received a pokemon figure labeled 2005. It has a very similiar bottom to the Skylanders figurines in that it seems to contain a computer chip. Trying to figure out what game this figurine was from.

  15. They should learn from skylanders, make some characters and use the new wii u game pad as a pokedex or something, so you can scan them in. And maybe you could also use it to train and evolve, lol. Sense there are well over 600 pokemon, they could sale them by 10, for $20-30 lol, what a dream…

  16. They are marketing geniuses. The game, portal, and starter skylanders altogether are cheaper than HALO 4. The individual figures are around $10 which is the perfect price for a gift! and it keeps the game exciting with new characters.
    BUT IMAGINE if pokemon did this.
    it seems legit.

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