Videogame franchise in spotlight at E3

The launch of a new franchise is rare for the videogame industry, with publishers just as focused on sequels and reboots as Hollywood’s studios are.

But Activision Blizzard scored last year with its pricey gamble to go after the kids market with “Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure,” whose follow-up, “Skylanders: Giants,” bows this fall. Game is showcased at this week’s E3 videogame confab in Los Angeles alongside the next installment of Activision’s blockbuster “Call of Duty” franchise.

“Skylanders” was unusual for a publisher, considering Activision released versions of the game for console and mobile multiple platforms but also asked consumers to buy hardware and pick from 32 collectible animal figures required to play the game.

Sales surprised even Activision’s more optimistic execs, though, when 30 million of the figures sold last year, doubling expectations — which helped make it the only new property to crack the top 10 bestselling games in 2011, according to NPD. Sales were so robust that retailers ran out of the toys, quickly inflating prices on sites like eBay, with some figures selling for hundreds of dollars.

Interest isn’t waning. “Skylanders” earned over $100 million in the first quarter of 2012, more than what “Angry Birds” developer Rovio reported in all of 2011. It’s also the top-selling console game, if you include the toys, NPD said.

“We had big dreams of how the game would do, but it’s exceeded even our most optimistic expectations for sure,” Paul Reiche, CEO and creative director of the “Skylanders” franchise for toymaker Toys for Bob, told Variety. “It’s a phenomenon, and those don’t come around very often.”

To keep the franchise growing, Activision will introduce eight giants as new characters and relaunch 24 of the 32 bestselling figures from the first game with enhanced powers and different poses.

The giants will include built-in lights that illuminate their eyes and bodies when powered up by the portal they perch on during gameplay. Only this time, Activision wants to make sure it has enough toys to sell when “Giants” launches.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” said Reiche, but “we never intended kids not to be able to find and buy the toys.”

In coming up with the “Skylanders” concept, developed over the past three years, “there was no definitive playbook for this product,” Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision, told Variety. “What kept us taking the deep breaths and moving forward and investing in this idea is the magical moment of letting kids bring these characters to life.”

The creation of the toys was integral to the game’s launch. “You can’t play the game without these toys,” Hirshberg said. “It was absolutely essential that we launched the two side by side.”

But for kids to want to collect the toys and play the game, Activision knew it needed to come up with a compelling enough reason. As a result, it chose to make the player an integral part of the story while introducing a new mythology created by Hollywood scribes Alex Sokolow and Joel Cohen (“Toy Story,” “Cheaper by the Dozen,” “Garfield: The Movie”). Game’s music was composed by Hans Zimmer.

“Skylanders'” characters “have personalities, capabilities and quirks” that make them appeal to a broad audience, Hirshberg said. “The fact that different characters have different powers, you want to collect them and see what they do. It provides constant curiosity and taps into the collectors’ instinct we all have.”

But Activision needed a large number of characters to appeal to different types of gamers.

“Kids don’t like it when you make choices for them,” Reiche said. “No one likes to be told how to play with their toys. There are people who like monsters, kick-ass girl characters or silly characters. We tried to supply them all. Besides poor Boomer, all the characters have their champions.”

What’s helped “Skylanders” take off is its appeal among girls, whom publishers often ignore.

Some 20%-40% of “Skylanders” players are girls, significantly above the industry average, Reiche said. The trick, however, is not to design “something specific for girls to get their interest,” he said. “They’re enjoying the same experience as long as we don’t do something that excludes girls. Girls buy a lot of toys in this world and play a lot of games. Excluding them is crazy. It doesn’t require anything but avoiding being obnoxious.”

In developing “Giants,” Activision had to be careful not to turn its new characters into super Skylanders. “They’re good for some things and not good for others,” Hirshberg said. “Sometimes their size gets in the way. If all the Skylanders had invincible powers you’d lose interest in the regular Skylanders.”

New game revolves around the bigger, bolder characters — the original Skylanders — briefly introduced in the first game who return to fight off an ancient evil.

Given the Hollywood pedigree behind the franchise and its already polished animated look and growing cast of creatures, Activision is considering how to expand the property through other entertainment opportunities. “Of course, we’re exploring how to bring these characters to life in other media,” Hirshberg said, including an animated TV series or films. “It’s a natural. The videogame itself was the storytelling launch pad.”

But the current plan is to keep expanding the universe and introduce new characters and ways for players to interact with them. “Keeping it fresh is a huge priority,” Hirshberg said.

Activision envisions “Skylanders” as the next “Star Wars,” “Pokemon” or “Mario Bros.” “If you connect great stories with great products, the attention span can be very long,” Hirshberg said. “It’s up to us to innovate and keep giving kids new surprises to fire their enthusiasm.”

Reiche said: “People often underestimate the power of videogames. If you talk to kids today, the characters they meet and connect with in videogames are as powerful a part of their lives as the characters they meet in television shows and movies.”

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