Friday, February 8, 2013

Toys, mobile and persistent experiences

Just yesterday I gave a talk at the NYC Kidscreen Conference for the Kids Entertainment and Play Industries. In my talk I spoke about Meta-story and how it is the evolution of the storytellers craft for a world full of many different forms and formats of narrative and play.

I also spoke to how the modern kids who we are creating for are:
"immersion natives" 
(An insight and phrase I exposed publicly at the conference and a subject of a post coming shortly). Hold that phrase in your head and let's momentarily leap over to a key observation about where play and gaming, digital and analog, are being mixed together, not so terribly well as of yet.

The entire world of toys and gaming is very busy trying to work out what the right combination of physical goods and electronic experience/gaming is to really deliver the next big thing for play. I'm sure by now, most of you are aware of the stunning success of Skylanders (from Activision).

This is a toy and game concept that has rapidly grown to a billion dollars in sales in a very short period of time. Clearly something here has worked and worked well. Equally of interest, the vast majority of connected toy, toy and pad, phone or platform concepts that have been fielded by some of the biggest companies in the play and game industries have failed and failed big. I've posted an article from the Wall Street Journal online at the end of this post and a link to the original article entitled "Toys and Apps are yet to play nice together!" This article lays out the facts and failures.

So what is it that Skylanders got right that most everyone else missed and why am I talking about this in a blog about Meta-story?

Allright, let's go racing back to that phrase "immersion natives" and make the connection here. Kids today are immersion natives because that's what they are seeking and shaping from the many different screens and fantasy/narrative formats now available to them. The entertainment and play industry tends to drive their behaviors with deep concern over distribution platforms, fragmenting viewership, constant release of disruptive technology and on and on. They tend to look at the audience, the kids as being in the same boat and the truth is exactly the opposite.

Human beings are not born Jack Rabbits! 

We don't move into childhood seeking to jump around rapidly from idea to idea, thing to thing, second by second. Our brains are in the business of growing a human being so it's busy organizing, finding patterns, making connections, defining who we are or might be and hanging on to those things to build our minds and psyches on them. Our brains, from the moment we are born, are organizing machines.

That means that kids are seeking the most "immersive" experiences to wrap themselves in because those experiences most closely match the business their brain is engaged in. How do you make something that works well for humans? Make it work like a human!!

Let's refine that understanding: Action figures have always been a form of experiential narrative.  Kids can put their hands on the figure and insert themselves into the fantasy to directly "experience" and try it on for themselves. It is a personal narrative that draws from the public narrative that inspired them. For years, it was the most compelling way for a child to do that. Along comes digital play and suddenly, immersion gets taken to a whole new level! Action figures start to decline (and continue to do so today) because they don't deliver the level of immersion in experiential narrative play that the electronics now do. Action figures won't ever go away completely but kids are smart and know when something else can do something better and now some of their dollars go to gaming to fulfill their need for immersion.

Let's introduce the second concept at play here:
This is exactly what Skylanders got right. persistence of narrative. When you place the figure onto the gaming platform, that figure enters the game. When you finish, everything that has happened to you goes with you via the figure to your friends, your bedroom, wherever you go. Start the game again and it's all there with that figure! The narrative and the experience are persistent!! This is a powerful thing to a young mind busy looking for immersion, constancy, inspiration, self-discovery, on and on!! It wraps it all in a figurine that can still deliver some of the experiential narrative exploration so both halves of the equation aren't fighting each other for your attention or splitting your play pattern in two.

Compare this to so many of the other turns up at bat. Toys as joy stick, toys as input device, pad as spinner in a physical game, toy as game reward...
Where's the persistence of experience? Where's the immersion? For the same reason that e-books full of mini-games actually hold the child/reader's attention less and result in less reading comprehension, discontinuous experiences shatter your internal narrative (and the one the product is trying to deliver) and make the experience less immersive rather than more.

I believe Skylanders is just the very teeny tiny tip of the iceberg of possibilities for increasingly immersive and persistent narratives and play. To be successful at this, I also believe the entertainment and play industries need to do some serious redefinition of what business they are in to focus on these insights and deliver what the audience wants. Are they in the toy business or in the business of delivering the experiential component of the narratives we grow our brains with? The answer leads to very different results.

I always like to keep in mind that we can effect culture but we don't get to change how the audience uses it, they change us.  

For me, the most exciting aspect of this discussion is that stories, human mythology, are even more important in terms of what is the thread that binds this convulsively altering media landscape together. Kids will continue to reward stories and products that give them inspiration and immersion, persistence and personalization. Meta-story is how you build that broader narrative.

BTW, Skylanders are moving to mobile now as well. Persistent play anytime anywhere? Smart! I hope it plays well and immersively.

Last year, trying to show how the toy industry could remain relevant in the tablet age,Hasbro Inc. unveiled an iPad-enhanced version of its classic Game of Life. Instead of spinning a wheel in the center of the board game to take a turn, players spun a wheel on the iPad.

The idea bombed.

And it wasn't alone. More than 90% of the so-called app toys that were trotted out last year sold poorly, estimates Jim Silver, editor in chief of, a consumer and trade website. Among the other flops, Mattel Inc. outfitted Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars with special conductors to control games on a tablet.

The burning question was why have a hybrid, combining some aspect of a tablet with an actual physical toy or game, when a tablet alone will do?

"Kids looked at these plastic toys used to run digital games and said, 'Why bother when I can just use my thumbs?'" says Mr. Silver.

Toy makers plan to keep trying, though. Experts predict the growing digital divide will be the talk of this year's International Toy Fair in New York next week, as toy company executives unveil their latest plans to win back the attention traditional toys are losing to gadget makers such as Apple Inc.
Jakks DreamPlay, shown above, is a combination of a tablet app that interacts with related plastic toys to generate animated video content.

Mattel will show off a Barbie vanity and iPad app that allows girls to try out hairstyles.

At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Jakks Pacific Inc.,a Malibu, Calif., toy company known for its tech-powered Spy Net gadgets, displayed a line called DreamPlay. DreamPlay uses image-recognition software in a tablet app to link to related plastic toys—a toy piano or a drum set, for instance.

With DreamPlay, when a device's camera points at the drum set from Disney's "Little Mermaid," the crab Sebastian appears to sit at the drums on the tablet screen while banging out a rendition of "Under the Sea."

Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co., thinks it is a little too high-concept for kids.

"I don't think children play with toys and look at a screen at the same time," he said.

Stephen Berman, CEO of Jakks, said, "Those who have not seen the full Eco-system of this technology cannot fully grasp or appreciate how revolutionary the experience is," noting that Jakks has an exclusive licensing partnership with Walt Disney Co."Toys and technology have to change to the way kids play today."

A Mattel spokeswoman didn't dispute the estimate of the failure rate of last-years app toys. Hasbro didn't respond to requests to comment.

Overall toy sales including electronics have remained relatively steady at around $17 billion according to market researcher NPD Group. But traditional toys such as board games and baby dolls have lost market share in the U.S., where consumers are spending 30% less on them than they did in 1998 according to research firm Euromonitor International.

Meanwhile tablets and educational videogames from companies such as LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. have become some of the industry's biggest sellers, accounting for four of the top 10 toys sold last Christmas, NPD says.

Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets, argued that companies need to make more innovative toys instead of trying to tack technology on existing ones. He said too many toy makers played it safe last year, rehashing old franchises such as Furby dolls instead of launching new ones.

That trend is expected to continue next week at the toy fair, where one of the new products being launched are re-imagined toys based on Jim Henson's 1980s live-action puppet series, "Fraggle Rock."

"If Furby and Ninja Turtles is the best they can come up, the industry is in trouble," Mr. Johnson said.

To be sure, some classic toys continue to sell well, notably Lego. Lego sales have surged after the closely held Danish company licensed hot properties such as "The Hobbit" and developed a line for girls called Lego Friends. The company said U.S. sales rose 26% last year and predicted it was on track to hit $4 billion in annual global sales, which would put it within striking distance of supplanting Hasbro as the world's second-largest toy maker.

In contrast, on Thursday, Hasbro reported 2012 sales dropped 4.6% globally, to $4.09 billion, pushing net income down 13% to $336 million. Mattel last week said full-year net income rose 1% to $777 million on a 2% rise in sales.

Child development experts are still studying how mobile devices affect children's cognitive and social skills. But most are in agreement that tech-focused play shouldn't come at the expense of physical activity, face-to-face social interaction and creative play.

The amount of time children spend consuming entertainment media via myriad screens has increased by almost 1 ½ hours a day since 2005—to about 7 ½ hours a day, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report.
Write to Ann Zimmerman at and John Kell
A version of this article appeared February 8, 2013, on page B6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Toys and Apps Are Yet to Play Nice Together.