Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Skylanders: Swap Force

Three years after its initial iteration, Skylanders shows no sign of slowing down, cannabilizing entire store aisles with cartoon bits of plastic and innovation. The first real adaptation of NFC technology in video games has been a wild success, nailing a vulnerable target market (children) with consumer capitalist dream toys: little devices that a video game requires in order to function. A game that takes all of the best elements of grindy lootfests aimed at older players and combines them with a compulsive and coherent marketing structure doesn’t merely suggest purchasing as many toys as you can but demands that you acquire them or face a drop in euphoric hormones.  
There are 80 Skylanders characters now, 10 each categorized across eight basic elements. Swap Force, the latest iteration, adds in an additional eight movement types spread across its unique mix/match figures while Giants, the previous iteration, had 8 larger than normal figures required for play. In optimal configuration, players only need about eight figures (one of each element, or in the case of Swap Force, one of each element and one of each movement type. These two requirements do coincide, a small mercy) in order to unlock every area in each game and collect all the secrets. This optimization is obscured, however, by both the game’s target market (5-12 year old boys) and features in the game itself. Throughout the game world you’ll find “soul gems” that unlock new powers and feature a promotional video for skylanders you don’t have. They’re toy commercials dolled up as super-secret rewards. On top of that there’s an extensive collection screen that encourages you to seek out and complete the full collection of little dudes with little fluff details and links to the in-game advertisements.  Even the mechanics of the game encourage you to collect more. Beyond the gates that bar entry to all but specific kinds of skylanders, the number of available lives you have for a certain level is hard limited by the number of skylanders you have. The more skylanders, the more lives you have to play with.
It’s brilliant, from top to bottom, and the game would be so easy to condemn if not for the fact that it’s well made and well designed. Attacks have an appropriate amount of friction, enemies are smartly varied, the level design is engaging. All told this game plays as a thoughtful Diablo variant for children.
But that’s just a physical description of the game. If you’re wondering if it’s worth picking up, wonder no more. A bunch of outlets have given Swap Force (the most recent iteration) perfect scores. The game is indubitably fun. What’s more interesting is the questions that the game itself and its runaway success bring up. Why do we sell these things to children? What is it about kids that make marketing a consumerist wet dream to them so much more lucrative than selling to adults? A cynic might suggest that adults are too jaded for this kind of thing to work on them, that kids with their inherently more trusting nature are more likely to buy bald marketing pushes such as these. I don’t think that’s a sufficient answer, as I’ve watched plenty of adults buy and collect plenty of stupid things in my life. I think it has more to do with what we consider childish in America. Collecting things just for the sake of collecting things has simply never been in the stable of sane activities for mature adults to do. Instead we describe adult collecting as a somewhat strange and shameful hobby, to be kept secret and gently mocked when it sees the light of day. At the extreme we consider it a form of hoarding and we put these folks on trial on television, a warning to the rest of us to become anxious about our personal lives. This attitude is slowly and somewhat changing, though. We’re learning to understand and appreciate the collection impulse through things like mobile games, which feature more and more “get this thing to complete your virtual collection” hooks. Maybe in the future there’ll be a more adult oriented form of skylanders, with sexy women and hooded, goateed bald dudes. Or ideally games will have gotten over that impulse too and truly become something transcendent and imaginative. A game with an NFC pass-along mechanic, say, where you send one object from person to person to accrue social power, each person leaving a small stamp on the figure in game terms. A game that works in conjunction with a 3d printer to, rather than put a physical object in the game, uses the game to produce a physical object. Lots of interesting places for this tech to go.
One thing would be missing in a more adult oriented version of skylanders: sheer whimsy. The game is silly as all get out, from the ultra-serious announcement of silly enemy characters (“Grumblebum Blunderbuss”) to the goofy hat options to the characters quipping lines throughout play. It’s cutesy and mostly charming, at least until the cutscenes. The plot of Swap Force is utterly ridiculous and ridiculous in the worst “talking down to children” sort of way, featuring “evilizer” devices powered by solidified evil and cartoony, unbelievable villains. The only saving grace is Patrick Warburton doing his Kronk voice as a self-important airship pilot. The game is aggressively kid oriented, even to the point of rendering its powerups as a variety of foods that kids would find appealing, hot dogs, hamburgers, even a Kid Cuisine tv dinner. Marketing for the game is tailored to the inevitable adult purchasing the $75(!) starter set, extolling it’s value and virtues as unequivocally providing a fun experience to children that provides some sort of nebulous real-world benefit.
It’s gross, really. Reading marketers selling kid stuff always gives me the heebie jeebies. These children aren’t old enough to work or drive or technically sign the 63 page EULA(!) that innocuously appears under a button push on the title screen (the EULA of course states that by playing the game and not returning it to the store immediately, you agree to these terms. Contract lawyers are the devil) yet here we are, marketers playing on unexamined personal wants to inspire them to pester their parents into buy the stuff. I’m never sympathetic to the argument that parents should just be the dividing line between advertisers and their children because these advertisers are well aware that they’re creating conflict within a family, palpable interpersonal drama that can be resolved (if only for the moment) by purchasing a thing. It’s bald emotional manipulation and It’s gross. It’s such a dishonest way to make money.