I don't play Skylanders. I don't have kids who play the game or collect the toys. But after seeing the next game in the series, Skylanders Trap Team, running on a tablet, I think I'm looking at the future.
That's not hyperbole. Activision is touting the game as the first title to launch simultaneously across both tablet and mobile, but this is a case where the tablet version doesn't noticeably differ from the version running on more powerful hardware. The mobile version of Trap Team will launch in stores with the same mix of figures and items, with the same backwards compatibility of all 175 existing Skylanders toys, and it's at the same price as the version on Wii, Xbox, and PlayStation. But the Bluetooth-enabled version of the game's Portal comes with a wireless (and also Bluetooth) controller that slots into the figurine reader's base, and there's a notch in the Portal for slotting in tablets to make them stand on their own.
Otherwise, it's the same game across all platforms, including mobile. Speaking with the game's developers and representatives from Activision as I tried out the game, I was told, "Pixel-for-pixel, what you're seeing here is the 360 content, assets, and visuals. It's the exact same content. There are no shortcuts. These are the same cinematics, the voiceover, the gameplay."
"This is day-and-date with the console launch, which isn't as easy as saying, 'Let's port over that game from seven years ago,' " I'm told when I compare the experience to BioShock on iOS, a game that had to make large concessions to run on a wide-range on both phones and tablets. "Normally, when you develop for tablet, you set a lowest common denominator trap, where you say, 'This is my list of devices, this is the baseline, and I need to get it to run on every device.' And you're really running on the operating system. ... What we've done is we're working with the device manufacturers and we're hand-optimizing this. It's a lot more work to be able to do that, but it means that we're making fewer concessions, if any. What you're seeing here, running on an iPad Mini Retina, is the same as what you get on 360."
And playing on the newest version of Apple's tablet, that statement is absolutely true. Of course, Skylanders isn't the most system intensive game out right now, but the lighting and shadow effects, the characters' and worlds' textures, and the sound quality make this feel like it like I'm playing on a console. But that's not to say that it will look exactly the same on all tablets. Activision says, "We support all the way back to iPad 3rd gen, but not any lower than that. Anything below that, we'd be making too many compromises. Now the iPad 3rd gen, content- and feature-wise are identical, but the graphics are dialed back. So the 3rd gen iPads are more like a Wii visually. Whereas the iPad Air and Mini Retina is spot-on for 360."
But whether it's the same quality as its console counterparts or not, people aren't used to paying such a premium for mobile content. The starter kit is $75, whether you buy it for Xbox, PlayStation or your Amazon tablet. But even there Activision seems ready to address potential problems. There are no download codes for you (or kids) to deal with inputting -- an introductory version of the game will be available as a free download on the various app stores. When you sync the game with the starter kit's Bluetooth portal, the game will automatically unlock the full experience. While that leads to a rather obvious loophole of letting players access the full game without paying for anything, when the game isn't directly tethered to the Portal, you only have access to two characters. Of course, the real draw for kids isn't just the game, it's collecting. Activision gets around any hesitation you might feel about spending $75 on an app by making you pay $75 for some hardware. The app is just the gateway.
I don't have any more interest in playing Skylanders than I did before this reveal, but the precedent it sets is both exciting and strange. One of the Skylanders developers I talked with said, "When you stand on a ledge of innovation, you get to a place where you have to change people's thinking, and we're going to have to. We tend to treat all platforms equally, but because this is new, because this is something no one has done before, we're talking about it. And we think people will be incredibly excited about the opportunity."
This doesn't mean that the console Skylanders games are going away, or even that all regular games will shift to mobile devices, but it opens up possibilities that are both strange and a little exciting. Mobile gaming doesn't have to be its own niche genre of quick-hit time-wasters. Games like FTL and Baldur's Gate have already shown that there's an audience among adults for gaming experiences that didn't used to fall under the "mobile" umbrella. "We have a massive console business, and it's going to continue that way. But this is another option. This isn't a five-person mobile studio that's going to throw something up on the app store. It's substantial, and leading that charge is not something they're going to shy away from."
Change is coming. I don't think it's going to make gaming better or worse, and in some ways Trap Team is perfect for this type of release. But games follow wherever the audience goes. It seems like people push back on mobile experiences because they tend to feel lesser and incorporate unsavory monetization practices. But when console experiences come to tablets, and there are no extra microtransactions, is there anything to hate?