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Opinion: Why Toys 'R' Us Wants Parents To Buy Into Skylanders

Gamasutra's Frank Cifaldi examines Toys "R" Us' Hot Toy List to find out why Activision's Skylanders was the only video game on the list, and revisits past lists featuring game products like the Dreamcast and Wii.
[Gamasutra news editor Frank Cifaldi looks to the latest "Hot Toy List" from Toys "R" Us to examine why Activision's Skylanders was the only video game on the list, and revisits past lists that featured game products like the Dreamcast and Wii.] A public relations company representing Activision emailed Gamasutra recently to let us know that the upcoming Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was the one and only video game to make the cut on retailer Toys "R" Us' coveted Hot Toy List for 2011. The game is a Spyro the Dragon reboot that sees players buying separate action figures to digitally scan into the online game (sorry, "inter-action figures," as Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirshberg likes to call them), so physical retail is kept in the revenue loop, despite Skylanders being an online game. The Hot Toy List, which is heavily advertised by Toys "R" Us, is meant to be something of a cheat sheet for parents. As the company claims, it has spent most of the year "identifying the most exciting new items from around the world that are sure to WOW kids on Christmas morning." The inclusion of Skylanders should come as no surprise to anyone following the industry, considering that Activision and Toys "R" Us are, in fact, jointly marketing the game and its inter-action figures globally. Skylanders is not quite a Toys "R" Us exclusive product (like the dancing robots and remote-controlled flying fish that also, somehow, made the cut), but the company has a vested interest in its success beyond any other games on its shelves this holiday. Sneaky? Maybe. Incestuous? Yeah, a little, but the toy industry is used to it. Besides, I've got nothing against the game. It's being developed by Toys for Bob, and they made Star Control! I haven't had a chance to play it yet -- the curse of the freelance video game journalist is a sad inability to find time to actually play anything at E3 -- but impressions seem favorable, it has a script written by the Toy Story guys, and it somehow has cross-platform play across all three home consoles, the 3DS, the PC, the web, and smartphones, which is pretty damned impressive. The fact that it is the only game to make the list got me curious about the past, so I started digging. Ask Toys "R" Us directly like I did and they'll tell you that they've only been creating these lists since 2006 (or specifically, 2006 is the first year that such a list was developed "leveraging global resources," whatever that actually means). I wasn't satisfied with that, so I did my own independent research, and managed to get all the way back to 1999 before hitting a dead end. As it turns out, having only one game make the cut -- if that -- is completely normal. In fact, the most games to ever be included is two, and that only happened twice in 12 years! Seeing as how nostalgia is on the Gamasutra Hot Topic List for 2011, and since I had dug up all these old press releases anyway, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the video games Toys "R" us chose to promote every year since the list's inception. Note that we're not including educational game systems like those from VTech and LeapFrog: not only would both companies dominate the list, but Activision's PR rep conveniently ignored them both when sending us his note, so we're going to do the same. Apologies to the hard-working developers making software for either company! 1999 (as "Hotter Than Hot" list) 1999 was the year of Pokemon in the toy industry, but not because of any video games -- Pokemon Silver and Gold wouldn't come out here until the following year. No, instead it was the massively popular card game that gave the toy industry a boost that year. Only one video game item made the cut that year: Sega's Dreamcast system. "It's the fastest, most powerful video game system ever created," the company said. "Experience living worlds of incredible depth, play against online opponents and much more! Ages 6-up." 2000 (as "Hot Picks") With Poke-mania still in effect, it was Nintendo's Pokemon Gold and Silver for the Game Boy Color that got Toys "R" Us buzzing, calling the game "the newest chapter in Pokemon fun!" and inviting players to "catch all the fantastic characters and their exciting, new adventures!" Even bigger, though, was Sony's PlayStation 2 system, which the company included on its list despite supply problems so severe that the company was forced to put out a press release in October announcing that it would only be able to fulfill its preorders for the rest of the year, and would have no extra consoles to sell. 2001 (as "Hot Toy Picks") This year the company went bundle crazy, choosing to highlight all three then-new consoles: the Xbox, Gamecube and PlayStation 2 -- as well as Nintendo's Game Boy Advance in its listing. Margins are really low for retailers on consoles, so the company pushed bundles, marking up the prices by including games and cheap, high-margin accessories. It's a common practice even today, but in 2001 it was a big push for the company, and brought the price of a $299.99 PlayStation 2 as high as $499.99. An informative press release told journalists that with the Xbox, which premiered that November, "The pretty game software is enhanced by the Xbox's built-in hardware." 2002 (as "Hot Picks") Two games were highlighted this year, from longtime partners Electronic Arts and Nintendo. With NBA Live 2003 for the PS2, the company promised that with "advanced facial animations and graphics, players will be walkin' the walk and talkin' the talk." Also pushed that year was Super Mario Sunshine for Nintendo's Gamecube. 2003 Allowing you to "truly be the star of the game" was Sony's EyeToy accessory for the PlayStation 2, a webcam accessory that spawned way more games than I remember. Also hot that year was Nintendo's Game Boy Advance SP, which addressed the frustrations many had with the original model by including a front-lit screen. 2004 (as "Joy List") The only game software recommended that year was Microsoft's Halo 2 for the original Xbox, which made the cut despite its Mature rating that technically made it unsuitable for every target market on the list. Though they're not games, Majesco's new line of 12 Game Boy Advance Videos -- which let kids watch 45 minutes of their favorite cartoons on the go -- were spotlighted by the company. Those of us who still buy the occasional GBA game have trained our eyes to filter the stacks and stacks of these out as we look for goodies. Also featured was Jakks Pacific's extremely popular Ms. Pac-Man plug-and-play system, an all-in-one joystick that plugged directly into the television and also featured Galaga, Pole Position, Xevious and Mappy. Interestingly, Nintendo's brand new DS portable was not included that year. 2005 Two games and two portable consoles were the highlights in 2005. Nintendo's Nintendogs and its GBA Micro console were both highlighted. The latter is interesting, as it means that all three iterations of the Game Boy Advance were recommended by the company, whereas both the original Nintendo DS and the DS Lite did not make the cut. EA's Need for Speed: Most Wanted was also recommended, as was Sony's new PSP system 2006 Nintendo's Wii system was the only video game item recommended that year, despite Sony's PlayStation 3 coming out around the same time. Perhaps it was the high price tag that kept the company from spotlighting it. 2007 Establishing a relationship that would come to pay off in 2011, it was Activision's Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock that got Toys "R" Us excited in 2007. As with Skylanders, it was the only game to make the list that year. 2008 I'm not sure what kids were clamoring for Wii Fit in 2008, but they should consider saving up now for their therapy bills. Body image issues don't easily go away. Possibly more exciting was LucasArts' Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. 2009 Nintendo was highlighted in 2009, with both Wii Sports Resort and its DSi console making the cut. 2010 With the Wii's motion controls all the rage, Toys "R" Us spent last year pushing motion controls for its HD competitors, namely Kinect for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation Move for the PS3.

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