Toys to life, connected toys, smart toys - success has many fathers!
Hopefully, it’s old news to anyone who works with children that digital games make up a huge (and attractive) market today. The digital devices follow the children anywhere and ever since Activision Blizzard launched Skylanders in 2011, the genre Toys to life has gained more awareness and technological potential. But technological possibilities and an increased awareness don’t change the fact that many toy manufacturers are struggling to develop engaging play experiences that combine the best of physical and digital play.
Rising expectations to the genre
Technology is moving fast, and the expectations to the genre are high. Having been seen as outliers up until recently, Toys to life, Smart Toys and the idea of syncing your phone or tablet to a physical product will soon become as common as putting in AA-batteries. And with the prediction of an annual sale of Smart Toys to grow from 4 to 15 billion dollars by 2022*, it is no exaggeration to say that the expectations to the new genre are high.
As you are reading this, the entire toy industry is buzzing with talk about Toys to life. Toys to life is a game genre that combines video game features with actual physical figurines or action figures that interact with the game itself.
It sounds cool doesn’t it? But, it takes more than technology to make Toys to life come to life (pun intended). Designing Toys to life and digital play experiences for children, today's digital natives, is a tricky business. The technological possibilities are many, but the experiences with designing Toys to life are few.
The challenges of digitising the play experience
At Funday Factory, we have been working with the genre Toys to Life for several years and find that the major challenge is to create a play experience that uses and beneficially exploits the technological possibilities without losing the freedom of play.
The beauty of play is that it is unrestricted. Your physical toy can be and do what you set your mind to. In contrast, digital games are extremely system driven, both in terms of narrative and possible actions, but also in terms of creation and motivation - something which makes merging the two a challenge.
“The beauty of traditional play experiences stems from three main components; it is accessible, intuitive and has an extreme degree of freedom.”Anders Rauff-Nielsen
Accessible because the nearest play experience is always as close to you as the nearest paperclip, stick or friend.
Intuitive because play experiences are built with the greatest game engine and most intuitive interface ever - namely reality.
and finally (and most importantly), its extreme degree of freedom - freedom to engage, tell stories, create, explore, self-motivate and interpret. At heart, traditional physical play is user driven.
However when seeking to merge digital components with traditional, physical play our experiences are:
Firstly, that the digital components are often best used as components that facilitate and open up for play possibilities, rather than dictate them - often resulting in a more explorative experience than traditional digital games.
Secondly, our tests have shown that it is extremely important to be cautious when using classic digital game components, iconography and the like - especially in regards to progression and motivation. The reason is simply that such features have a huge impact on how the kids relate to the product and which other products they compare it to. If a digital toy relies heavily on gamification elements and iconography, it risks being compared to games that offer a pace of action or reward cycles - which a physical toy often cannot deliver. Therefore, it is essential to the play experience that the digital component added to the physical product enables the user to see the product in the right light.
Three tips to remember when designing Toys to life
Based on our own experiences, we have put together three essential tips to keep in mind when designing Toys to life experiences. Naturally, there is no simple recipe on “how to”, but we still find that there are some overall considerations and definitions you need to pay attention to.
1) Always put (the freedom to) play at the center of the experience
No matter if the play experience is purely physical, purely digital or a combination of both, the primary characteristic of play is that it is free. There might be some basic guidelines to set the scene, but otherwise the child’s imagination rules the direction of the play experience. If you take away the child’s ability to choose the direction, you risk taking away the child’s motivation to engage and come back to replay the experience.
2) Set the scene and honour the expectations
Icons and symbols are great at explaining information for children without the use of words. In the case of digital play experiences, symbols such as stars, coins and hearts are common and connote a specific expectation for the user. A heart will represent the amount of lives the user have, while coins and stars will represent wealth, collectable items and levels. Because these symbols are often used in games that involve some kind of competition, they will easily turn the child’s mind towards a specific scenery and set of expectations that might not be valuable to the play experience. If the child’s expectations are not met, we risk disappointing the child and maybe lose a consumer of the product. Therefore, the designer of the Toys to life experience must take the time needed to develop a design that involves play, interaction and the right type of icons.
3) Use the technology needed - nothing more nothing less
Just because something can be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done :-) Technology is to be used and implemented to strengthen and expand the play experience - not used just because it’s possible. At Funday, we believe this is done best by prototyping, testing and doing lots of iterations before finding the right balance of digital ingredients.
At Funday Factory, we too have great expectations to the genre Toys to life. When done right, Toys to life can offer play experiences that - like traditional physical play - nourishes the children's abilities to explore, motivate, engage and create, but with digital components that expands and facilitates and takes the play experiences to a whole new level. And being developers of play experiences, we look forward to creating engaging fusions of physical and digital play - and seeing the potential of Toys to life unfold.