App-Impaired Toys?

You know what
would be awesome? Let’s combined the best qualities of casual digital games
with the best qualities of physical toys and games!

Toys and apps: Many toy and game manufacturers have
tried to combine these two play ingredients with varying degrees of
unimpressive results. There are a few success stories: Activision has seen a
tremendous consumer response to Skylanders, and Hasbro’s popular Furby is
arguably “app-enhanced.” But as Richard Gottlieb’s article and GAMEZEBO’s study
posted last week indicated, most app-enhanced toys rank on a sliding scale from
disappointing sales to complete disaster. Do the average consumer and user
(usually mom and child) see added value in “app-enhanced” products? Do these
products deliver beyond expectations? App-enhanced toys wage an uphill battle
in the marketplace due to perhaps impossible or unfair customer and user
expectations. The value proposition of an app-enhanced toy is the very best
qualities of a casual video game and a physical toy, combined.

From a customer at retail perspective, toymakers
face a significant challenge in conveying the quality and added value of
app-enhanced products. Zak Orner, User Experience Specialist at Manifest
Digital, has spent the last few months knee-deep in app-meets-toy strategy. Zak
applies his years of UX training and interest in consumer habits to the
emerging toy category. “You get one chance to impress a user before he or she makes a snap
judgment,” Zak cautions. “If one part of the [product] doesn't meet their
expectations the entire product will be judged.”

The play value of a Nerf blaster can be easily
articulated at retail via action-packed photography of blaster use. Packaging
can pictorially demonstrate simple functionality for a physical product, but
depicting highly interactive digital experience is more difficult. Mom must
make her purchasing decision based on a relatively limited understanding of the
actual play experience. Further, product demonstration at retail requires the
possession of a mobile device, wifi connection to download the app, and an
unpackaged product. Some manufacturers have begun offering the app as a free
download, enabling potential customers to try out gameplay prior to purchase.
Of course, the user is left to imagine the differences between the free app and
the hopefully more robust version that comes with the input of a product code
post purchase. It’s debatable that these “previews” effectively convert
customers. If the app is free, why would the product purchase be necessary?
Also, if the preview user wants to make a purchase, he or she can likely find a
similar, but more extensive and exciting game in the app store without ever
leaving their home.

Pricing becomes a key obstacle due to customer
expectations. Following use of the preview app, when given the choice to make a
purchase, the customer will always make the choice more in keeping with his or
her expectations and values.  In
the customer’s eyes, apps are free or priced at $.99 and provide substantiated
value. Even if only subconsciously, the customer understands that casual app
games are disposable, temporary diversions. The preview app may even devalue
the product to the customer. Mom is happy to make an investment by purchasing a
physical product, so long as the price tag matches the perceived value of the
product. Features, enhancements, automations, and peripherals are perceived as
added value for the consumer. An app, as an essential component (perhaps
replacing functionality) in a product, is a rather dubious added value. Aren’t
those free or $.99? If the customer does not believe a product meets
expectations, purchase is highly unlikely and entirely based on “why not?”

Another challenge of app-enhanced play is matching
play pattern to app play experience, the perspective of the end user.
Combinative play patterns generate the assumption of sum value greater than the
parts. According to Orner, “’Enhanced play’ is the key
part of the challenge.” When a child begins playing with Mattel’s Batman AppTivity set, he
expects the best qualities of Angry Birds and Draw Something, like social
sharing, detailed graphics and numerous game levels.  He also believes he will get top-quality action figure and
vehicle play, like collectability, action features, and open-ended adventure
play. But these experiences are inherently oppositional. App gameplay tends to
be guided and structured, while action figures are used open-endedly for
imaginative storytelling. These are not reconcilable play patterns (at least,
not easily reconcilable). The comparison becomes even simpler regarding
Hasbro’s Lazer Tag app-enhanced products. Users expect the best of first-person
shooter gaming with the tactile fun of Nerf, which would be nearly impossible
to provide for a retail price around $19.99-39.99 (most first-person shooter
games for console start at $50). There is a better-than-average chance a child
will be disappointed by an app-enhanced toy because manufacturers have not clearly
defined what the user should expect. If the user is disappointed, mom is
unlikely to continue to make purchases in that category.

Strict COPPA compliance disarms manufacturers from
providing in-game social communication that is commonplace for video game
consoles and online virtual worlds. Users are generally knowledgeable about the
functions and features of their Smartphone – gyroscope, global positioning,
vibration, photo/video capture, FaceTime, audio/video streaming, instant
messager, the list goes on. Users expect these functionalities to be deployed
for use as part of an app-enhanced product. COPPA regulations prohibit any
functionality that facilitates the sending and receiving of a child’s personal
information without permissions from parents or guardians. Parents are familiar
with the approvals and permission process involved in video games, but not
necessarily for traditional toys. Can manufacturers infer that parents will
understand and condone permissions on an app-enhanced toy? If not, it may prove
impossible for an app-enhanced toy to measure up to expectations in this

Another perhaps insurmountable challenge is that of
cost structure. Effectively a smartphone accessory, app-enhanced toys infer
product ownership on the part of the customer, which limits audience and limits
production runs (Despite the billions of smartphones already in users’ hands).
In the eyes of the app-savvy customer, app-enhanced toys are casual experiences
and cannot necessarily command the same price tag as video game software or a
high-end electronic toy.  At an
average retail price range of $19.99-29.99, manufacturers must account for both
digital development and traditional manufacturing costs. Considering the rising
labor costs plaguing the industry and the still exceptional costs of
maintaining a quality app in evolving mobile technology environments,
manufacturers can’t be blamed for cutting corners (well, sure they can).  

A few app-enhanced products have succeeded with
customers by clearly defining expectations for the customer and providing
deeper value. A Skylanders product provides all the value of a video game
accessory, game disk, or character patch but is also a highly collectable
physical avatar (Skylanders is more like a “game-enhancing toy”). Users are
familiar with avatars and customers understand collectability. The user
registers the value of the product. A somewhat knowledgeable customer stumbling
upon Skylanders products will have little trouble comprehending the expansive
play value of purchasing a character figurine or a game accessory or both.
Further, virtually every seller of Skylanders products has a demo unit located
closeby. If the customer is confused, help is nearby.

A very different product, Furby retains an app-less
play capacity that is compounded once the Smartphone and software are used
alongside the toy. The Furby user doesn’t require a Smartphone in order to make
the product function. The customer is accustomed to high-end electronic toy
purchases, perhaps even from one of Furby’s earlier iterations. Customers and
users can clearly define the product value and align their expectations. Furby
users may even be surprised by the value of their purchase, which is never a
bad thing. The commonalities between Skylanders and Furby are that the customer
can easily discern value and the user’s expectations are met. These products
don’t leave expectation setting totally up to the audience.

Disney’s upcoming Skylanders riff, Disney Infinity,
will provide new insights into this difficult category. LeapFrog, Hasbro, Lego,
Mattel, and numerous other manufacturers have tentatively planted flags. As the
category loses its mystique, manufactures must be more thoughtful in their
approach to ideating and marketing these products. Zak provides simple advice:
your product to a kid. Do you have to explain anything? If so, you've failed.
But keep in mind failure is the best way to learn. Refine and make the user
tell you how to build the product.”

his roles as Strategy Director of Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital,
Co-Founder at toy invention studio Otherdoor Entertainment, and ChiTAG
committee member, Brian Torney is an innovator in the play industries, kids
entertainment, and product/brand initiatives. Refusing to grow up, Brian has
been contributing to the play industries since the age of 15, when he worked at
a Chicagoland Toys R Us store. Brian spearheads ground-breaking creative and
interactive projects for industry-leading entertainment and toy companies
including Cartoon Network, Fox, Nickelodeon, Step2, The Marketing Store,
McDonald’s, THQ and Hasbro. He specializes in cross-platform brand
storytelling. Brian also practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control…
These are not the droids you’re looking for.


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