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Spyro soars again in acclaimed hybrid ‘Skylanders’

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Spyro, the toy

Three years ago, when Activision was trying to figure out what to do next with the long-running Spyro the Dragon series, it really didn't have ambitious plans.

While the character was tremendously popular in the PlayStation 2 days (when Ratchet & Clank/Resistance developer Insomniac Games was running the franchise), a string of mediocre sequels had long since dulled its earnings potential. But a radical idea from Toys For Bob, a developer most gamers had never heard of, quickly convinced the company to bet big on the little fire-breather.

"We were looking for a new way to reinvigorate [the series] and they came to the table with this idea of bringing physical toys to the game that got everyone's imaginations firing," says Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing. "It took what was a smallish, moderately ambitious project and turned it into a larger one."

The result — Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure — is a unique blending of the toy and video game worlds. Action figures are sold with a peripheral (dubbed the "Portal of Power") which plugs into the Wii, Xbox 360 or PS3. When a player puts the action figures on the portal, they're instantly imported into the game.

That alone is a pretty cool thing to witness, but Skylanders' real hook is that the action figures are portable, letting you take them to a friend's house and play the character in their version of the game, retaining all of the achievements and level-ups you've already amassed — even if it's on a different console.

While the game is obviously geared towards kids, a funny thing happened when Skylanders was released: Core game reviewers took a shine to it. Game Informer called it "an engrossing experience," while Wired declared it "an awesome family game [that]... should hold anyone's attention."

"Core gamers aren't a big part of our plans from a marketing standpoint," says Hirshberg. "If that happens, it will be due to a viral issue. I think where we'll get a nice crossover is from core gamers who have children. We constantly reference Pixar and The Simpsons and things that have a dual layer — something that appeals to kids and to adults as well. I think we were able to elevate this game out of 'kid land'."

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Spyro, in the game

While the game is getting good marks, there have been some vocal concerns about price. The starter set, which includes the video game, the portal and three characters, runs $70,  with additional sets of characters costing $7 each or $20 for a three-pack. It is, in essence, a game of collectables designed to get kids to beg their parents to buy more.

Financially, that's a brilliant move, but critics note that by the time all of the figurines are available (Activision plans to release additional characters from the game for the next several months), obsessive fans may have spent well over $200.

Hirshberg defends the pricing, noting that Skylanders isn't limited just to consoles, but also includes an online world, upcoming iOS and Android apps and physical toys.

"I think we've been very, very careful with our value proposition," he says. "Obviously, if we sell a lot of toys to any individual family, then they've made a significant investment, but they've gotten significant value, also."

Skylanders is something of a rare bird. While the video game and toy industries have always had a fairly symbiotic relationship for years, they haven't really worked together directly.

There been hundreds of action figures based on game characters -- Nintendo has licensed Mario and crew out to every imaginable corner of the toy world -- but Skylanders represents the first actual marriage of the products.

Since it comes from Activision, it's easy to think of it primarily as a video game, but Hirshberg says just as many kids are enjoying playing with the action figures outside of the game.

"One of the things I was interested to see was if virtual play outweighed the physical play," he says. "What I've seen is that kids really do connect to these as toys - and use them as springboards for the imagination."

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