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Skylanders: Swap Force kicks off video game toy war

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Even before the first Skylanders game hit shelves in 2011, the team at Activision was bracing for competition.

The concept -- marry action figures with video games -- was largely untested, and while the company bean counters were cautiously optimistic about the prospects for such a hybrid, there were no guarantees. But the developers had already started a countdown.

"We knew we had about three years before someone put out a competing product," says Lou Studdert, production coordinator at Activision.

It turned out to be two. Earlier this year, Disney Interactive rolled out Disney Infinity, a game that might play differently than Skylanders, but uses the same basic components. And so far, it has been a notable success, with the starter pack selling roughly 300,000 copies in its first two weeks.

Skylanders, however, has generated more than $1.5 billion for Activision, life to date -- and the franchise is seemingly growing stronger each year.

On Oct. 13, the latest version of the game, Skylanders: Swap Force, hits shelves, officially kicking off the holiday battle of the toy/video game hybrids.

The game introduces few new tricks this time around. Most notable is the ability to interchange the tops and bottoms of the Skylanders figurines, greatly increasing the potential number of characters in the game.

While there will be 16 new Swap Force characters sold at stores, the mix-and-match components of those toys will present 256 potential combinations. That adds a strategic element to the game, as combining the right powers can make certain levels less challenging.

In addition to the Swap Force characters, Activision is also introducing 16 new single-piece Skylander characters and is offering 16 reposed characters from earlier games. Those reposed characters may keep the golden goose laying eggs -- collecting figurines is as much a game as playing through the virtual world -- but any Skylanders figurine from a previous game can be used in Swap Force, which should be welcomed news to parents who have already invested heavily in Skylanders toys.

While the gameplay in Swap Force is not unlike what we've seen in the past two Skylanders games (you'll take on chompies, trolls, and bosses), the ability to mix up characters is a great addition. The physical figurines are held together by a pair of powerful magnets, making it unlikely kids will misplace a top or bottom. And there's a real difference between characters as you interchange parts.

"Blast Zone," for example, is a robot that stomps around on legs, firing cannonballs at foes. "Rattle Shake" is a snake-like character who shoots venom while bouncing around on his spring-like tail. Blend the two and you could become "Blast Shake," hopping into high, hidden areas to unlock secrets, but with stronger offensive capabilities.

Gameplay is certainly key, but more interesting to industry observers is how Swap Force will fare against Infinity. Though Disney’s game doesn’t have the track record of Activision's franchise, it does boast the power of the Disney stable of characters. Will parents be swayed to buy into Infinity on the strength of "The Incredibles" and "Cars," or will they opt to stick with their Skylanders investment?

Analysts say they're not the least bit worried about Skylanders' sales.

"The franchise may face some competition from Disney Infinity ... but Skylanders’ large following and large number of characters provide a base from which to grow as its installed base grows and new characters are introduced," says Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities. "We have conservatively modeled Skylanders revenues flat year-over-year, but believe that there could be as much as $250 million upside to our model in 2013."

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