Skylanders tech is the second coming of on-disc DLC
The action figure features of new Spyro and Rayman games are charging people for content they've already purchased without offering anything new in return.
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Last week, a video of Rayman Legends leaked onto the Internet, showing off how the sequel to Rayman Origins would use the Wii U's tablet controller for some platform-exclusive content. The big new feature for the game on Nintendo's new system is near-field communications (NFC) support, which basically translates to "that thing in Skylanders that lets players put their toys in the game," or as I like to call it, "a completely unnecessary novelty that will only be exploited to terrible ends and should turn gamers' stomachs."
The last chunk of the Rayman Legends trailer (which Ubisoft is calling "a purely internal demonstrative video") is dedicated to showing off the Wii U controller's NFC capabilities in action. When a couple playing Rayman Legends find themselves in trouble, one of them pulls out a toy heart and places it on the Wii U tablet screen. At that point, real hearts begin to fall in the gameworld, providing a health boost to the beleaguered players. In another example, a boy places one of Ubisoft's Rabbids on the controller, and the level is suddenly overrun with the obnoxious chattering creatures. Finally, the boy reaches for a figure of Ezio from the Assassin's Creed series, and the trailer ends.
I get why people might be excited about this. It's an interesting application of new technology. It's something that makes you say, "I've never seen that before," and, "I would have loved that when I was a kid!" It's another baby step toward the real world directly interacting with the virtual worlds of our entertainment. So I get the perception of this as a cool thing. What I don't get is why there's not more anger over how this commoditizes the game experience without offering more in return to the gamer.
Functionally, there's very little difference between Skylanders-like NFC functionality and on-disc downloadable content, an issue that evokes voluminous vitriol from gamers. In both cases, users are spending money above and beyond the purchase price of the game in order to get access to something that is already included on the original disc. The only difference is that gamers are being made to buy an actual physical product. That means each figure is subject to scarcity, so you can't even rely on being able to purchase the content you want without having to go online and drop a small fortune on eBay.
Having had many collections in my lifetime (games, DVDs, comics, journalism-themed action figures), I can understand the appeal of hunting for these tangible things and gathering them together. But gamers can already do this. There's no shortage of action figures for gaming franchises, and chances are they already exist for your favorite series.
"NFC is another innovation introduced to games not because it makes the experience better, but because it is easy for publishers to monetize."
And it's not like NFC in its current state is really opening much in the way of gameplay possibilities. The game basically just knows if the toy is present or not, so each toy acts as little more than an unlock key and tiny memory card to track things like character progress. It isn't as if the toys' placement and poses are being detected with such accuracy that they could be used to add strategic depth to a game (although it's fun to imagine a tactics-focused Warhammer based around the rules of the actual tabletop game). Like downloadable content and microtransactions, NFC is another innovation introduced to games not because it makes the experience better, but because it is easy for publishers to monetize.
There are some positive uses to NFC technology for gamers, but they would seem to fall more into the realm of convenience. The Wii U's NFC tech might help Nintendo finally clear some of the online interface hurdles it has faced. Any gamer with an NFC-compatible smartphone could store credit card information on it and then simply tap the phone to the Wii U's controller in order to make purchases at the system's online storefront. Alternatively, NFC could greatly simplify the process of binding new controllers and accessories to the Wii U (touch them to the controller and they'll bind automatically). However, these uses don't actually make the game experience itself any better.
Ultimately, schemes like those of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, the Wii U version of Rayman Legends, and the seemingly inevitable Pokemon NFC game are bad for games, and bad for gamers. NFC toys will only push developers further down the path of designing games not to maximize the quality of the user experience, but to maximize profit. Whatever messages developers might attempt to convey with these games, they will be tough to hear over the underlying motto, "He who dies with the most toys, wins."