Singularity Has Arrived--For Toys, At Least

The most popular game you've never heard of merges the physical and virtual worlds to the tune of a billion dollars in revenue.

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A movement is underway, flying completely under the radar of most American millennials and their baby boomer parents. But under the roofs sheltering many of our nation's younger children and, mercilessly, their parents, the movement--Skylanders--tightens its grip.

If the name sounds unfamiliar to you, you aren't alone. And it will likely come as a surprise that a billion dollar business with hundreds of millions of sales worldwide could so stealthily creep into the American consciousness without catching your attention.

But that's Skylanders' magic. To call it a video game doesn't do it justice, though nor is it simply a toy franchise. Instead, through subtle execution of complex electronics, Skylanders becomes a classic case of the sum being greater than its parts.

"Instead of making technology this sort of awkward alien presentation," said Paul Reiche III, Skylanders' mastermind and CEO of Toys for Bob, the game's maker. "It's just naturally empowering what's naturally going on children's imaginations."

Here's how it works. You buy the game, which comes with three physical toys and a cylindrical portal that connects to the console. When you place a toy on the portal, a small memory chip fires within it to bring the character to life on screen. To switch characters in the game, you simply switch the toy on the portal. And if you want to play at a friend's house, just bring along the toy, which has all your unique gameplay saved within it.

"We call them interaction figures," Reiche said.

Skylanders has found a cultural foothold where other toy-meets-video-game experiments haven't in part because of a dedication to unifying the technology with the game's narrative.

"The magic ... is making sure that people don't recognize all that electronics and that software," Reiche said. "So when you talk to kids about Skylanders, they don't tell you about the electronics. They tell you they take this character and they put him in the game."

"In order for us to focus on that," he added, "we just naturally receded the presentation of the technology lower and lower until it vanished." 

But to Reiche, the innovation most key to Skylanders' success--the "magic," as he refers to the game's electronic workings--is nothing more than a new way for people to emotionally connect with stories in the same way they always have.

"Whether it's just some person telling it on the street corner in Baghdad or here with complex electronics," Reiche said, "we're trying to do the same thing. We're trying to transport you in your imagination to a new, exciting place."
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