Wednesday, March 23, 2016


Thoughts on NFC Toys

My feelings toward NFC toys have evolved since the first time I wrote about them.  I've played around with Smash Brothers amiibo and Animal Crossing amiibo and even Lego Dimensions.  There is a growing box of toys accumulating next to my video game setup, and I'm finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a cynical outlook toward the idea. What's happened?  Why am I okay with this now?  Am I just being a rube and buying into an exploitative business practice?  I've been running the question around and around in my head, trying to find a rationale, and then the other day the answer finally came to me.

I like playing with toys.

In the past, proponents of NFC toys have argued that these toys are just another kind of game peripheral, like a lightgun or a guitar controller.  This has always rung hollow to me because, in my mind, a peripheral is something that adds an input to a game that isn't possible with the standard controller.  An NFC figure, I have always argued, is just a fancy memory card.  You scan it to give the game some data, then you scan it again to save your data.  It doesn't do anything that you couldn't already do with the base system.

You know what else doesn't do anything that you couldn't do with the base system?  All those stupid Wii controller shells that I've collected in the past ten years.

I love my Wii Zapper and the fishing controller I got with Fishing Resort and my Babysitting Mama doll and even, to an extent, my Wii Wheel, even though they don't really do anything except sit there and look nice (for certain values of "nice").  They're not mechanically necessary to any game -- in fact, the Zapper limits your controller's native functionality.  They're just things to play with.  They're just... toys.

Look at the way kids play with toys.  They grab a toy, they move it around, they give it a voice, they smash them together in epic duels between good and evil, they throw them around with huge exploding noises -- toys are a conduit to imagination.  They're used to tell stories, to live out fantasies, and even to help a child make sense of a world that they're still learning about.  As good as video games may get, the freeform play that comes from solid toys -- physical objects that a child can move and direct as they see fit -- is still a valuable tool.

Adults stop playing with toys for a variety of reasons.  Partly there's just the stigma attached to them; past a certain age, you're expected to put away childish things.  But even an adult who feels no shame camping in the parking lot of a Toys R Us for the release of a new Star Wars figure tends to collect toys more for their symbolic value, as decorations rather than things to sit down and play with.

Where children will play with toys as a way to practice their understanding of the adult world that they're growing into, adults tend to reach a point where they feel they understand the world well enough to get by and they don't need the kind of practice in it that comes with play.  They lose that capacity to pick up a toy and bring it to life in their imagination -- to give it thoughts and feelings and motivations and send it on adventures.  We're at a point where we've stopped trying to figure out what the rules of life are and we're ready to start following them.

So adults start to gravitate toward the kind of play that has formal rules.  It's not enough to imagine that you're a wizard fighting your way through a field of orcs on an epic quest -- we need the kind of formal world model that comes from tabletop games and video games.  We want our play to be grounded in a kind of formal "reality".

And NFC toys sort of bridge that gap.  They are toys.  They are physical objects that persist in the real world.  We can touch them.  We can form attachments to them.  But where we might feel silly spilling them out on the living room floor and playing with them, the video game brings them to life for us and provides us with the sort of formal world that an adult might feel more comfortable with.

When I tap my Mario into Super Smash Brothers, it gives me the same feeling that I used to get picking out an action figure to play with.  He comes to life on the screen, and I can team up with him to beat up Bowser, or I can become Bowser and try to beat him up.  Smash Brothers is a great game to go with this concept because it's already such a sandbox experience -- you grab whatever characters you want, set up whatever kind of scenario you can imagine, and you play it out, just like kids playing action figures.

Then there's Animal Crossing amiibo Festival.  I admit, this is a game that I tend to play by myself, playing as all four amiibo characters.  But I still find it kind of satisfying.  I tend to imagine the personality of each character as I play -- their satisfaction when they get rich in the stalk market, their frustration when they hit a random negative space.  It's a quieter, more domestic game, more akin to playing with a doll house.

And then there's Lego Dimensions.  While I initially wrote off the expansion packs as being superfluous fluff, just keys on a keychain that you tap in to acquire loot, I'm really starting to see the value of picking up your favorite characters for their own sake.  I'm replaying the game, and I'm discovering how satisfying it is to have my own little Lego League of Heroes on standby for whatever situation might arise.  It's a swarm of ghosts!  This looks like a job for Peter Venkman!  The open Adventure Worlds give you a lot to do, and a lot of opportunities to play as your favorite character instead of having to constantly swap back to Gandalf, Batman, and Wildstyle.  Lego Dimensions has also taken the classy route of making their game expandable indefinitely; the current plan is to keep the game in development for years to come, giving players updates that they can access by buying new figures.  And c'mon -- they're Legos.  You get tiny little sets that you can assemble, disassemble, and reassemble to your heart's content.  And that's just lovely.

And if you really want to get technical, there are at least a couple advantages that an NFC figure has over a digital DLC scheme.  The durable physical nature is a big one.  When I transferred my Wii memory to my new Wii U, all of my The Beatles Rock Band DLC became unusable.  The game recognized my account information, so I could have downloaded it again... if the servers were still up.  Presumably, this sort of thing won't be a problem with NFC figures -- as long as I have them, my games should recognize them whenever I tap them in.  Moreover, they're portable.  This is more a boon for kids, who still have a reason to visit friends to play video games -- instead of tying a piece of DLC to your account, you can just take your Superman over to a friend's house and tap him in.  NFC figures are even console agnostic (except for amiibo of course); if I ever have the need to move over to the PS4 version of Lego Dimensions, I can bring my whole collection over with me.

So are NFC figures perfect?  No.  All of my fears about them remain.  I still feel that they have a huge potential to be exploitative, gating off content behind paywalls.  And there's a little worry at the back of my brain that twenty years from now I'm going to be buried under a pile of useless plastic and buyer's remorse.  But I'm softening.  I no longer think that the idea needs to prove itself to me.

Ultimately, it comes down to each individual case.  Are the toys good?  Is the game good?  Do they provide real value when you put them together?  Increasingly, I'm starting to feel like they can.

I might even give a second thought to Disney Infinity.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?