Skylanders Interview: Activision's Michael Sportouch On Why Skylanders Is More Than A License To Print Money

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Skylanders, Activision's colourful adventure game/action figure hybrid isn't just about monsters - it is one.

In the UK it's already a top three franchise - just behind Call of Duty and FIFA. And if momentum means anything, it could be about to get even bigger.

Earlier this year, Activision announced the franchise has generated more than $500m in retail sales in the US. Its toys now outsell Star Wars and WWE lines, and Skylanders Giants, the latest game in the young series, made more at the box office than Disney's 'Wreck-It-Ralph' movie. Now Disney is getting in on the act, announcing its own 'Infinity' platform of which Activision said it was "flattered", if not enamoured.

So why is it so successful?

For one thing, it's pretty unique. (At least it has been until now.) Skylanders revolves around a cast of hugely varied and loveable monsters. But they aren't just digital creations. These characters are physical objects, which interact with traditional video games via a peripheral which 'transports' them into the game world.

These action figures - sold separately in a huge variety of accessory packs - open up new parts of Skylanders games, and also act as standalone characters who can 'level up' and gain experience - and be used on any system, whether Xbox, PS3 or Wii, with all of their saved experience intact.

Michael Sportouch, Activision Publishing's European vice president and general manager, doesn't have to look at the balance sheet to see how popular Sklylanders is.

He has a son.

"Usually with other kids video games he plays them for a couple of weeks or a month then he stops playing," Sportouch said in a phone interview with HuffPost UK.

"I've been very positively surprised how, with Skylanders, he completed the game with a limited number of characters, then asked me to bring new ones home. Then replayed the whole game with the new characters, took them to a friend's house, and they played together - and so on."

So with his access to Skylanders goodies, is Sportouch Jr the most popular kid in school?

"Well, I am trying to resist, both for my kids and for their friends, and to explain that they can't have all the toys," Sportouch said.

"Toys have a value, I explain, and it's not like a candy store and they can't have everything. I'm also trying to stop my son from being too generous with his friends and promising Christmas gifts and birthday gifts, but it's difficult I have to say!"

We chatted with Sportouch about Skylanders, its success in the UK and his plans to bring physical objects back to other types of video games.

Skylanders: Closer Look
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What makes you so sure this isn't just another playground fad?

"Toys have always existed on their own, video games have always existed on their own, for the last 30 years. This is the first time we've been able to bring these two together and deliver what we call the 'magic moment', where you put the toy on the portal and you bring it to life. And once you have done that you need a great adventure, and a great story.

"We have a very strong publishing vision and plans for years to come. When we launched Skylanders last year a lot of experts said the kids market on traditional consoles was going away, that it was moving to tablets, but if anything we've proven that when you deliver breakthrough innovation combined with triple-A quality for the toys and video games, there is lots of life in the kids' console market."

How do you avoid the impression that - with the massive range of toys and add-ons - you're just using this as a 'cash cow'?

"We have always, with key franchises, kept our millions of fans engaged for many years by continuing to deliver breakthrough innovation in both game quality and the toys. Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was a great success last year, it was one of the biggest new IPs in 2011.

"This year we came back with a bigger adventure, a better game, and we'd listened a lot to the feedback from our fans around the world, and delivered the Giants characters ... and as long as we continue to innovate I think we'll keep the engagement from fans."

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How key has been the fact that Skylanders toys are platform agnostic, and can work on both Xbox and PlayStation systems?

We think it's one important selling point of the franchise, but not the main one. We fundamentally believe what the kids love is the universe, and the magic moment when the characters come alive… Attention to detail is very important, and one of the details is the fact you can level up your character and take it to your friends who have a different console, and it certainly contributes to the success.

What are your ambitions for Skylanders in the next year, and even further ahead?

Our mission with Skylanders is to make this franchise one of the biggest entertainment franchises overall, not only for kids or toys or video games. Yes we have plans and ideas to continue to improve the game experience as well as the toys, and to deliver innovation.

"In the next couple of weeks we will be announcing new innovations which we feel will be a breakthrough, but obviously I can't reveal that as of today. And of course there are more and more partners for the franchise - there are 100+ licensees through our very strong licensing program.

Is the technology behind Skylanders going to appear in other games or franchises?

"We firmly believe we have invented a new play pattern, and it will remain in the next 20 years the company who have invented this. It certainly could apply to other franchises and to other universes, and we have lots of ideas and I'm sure other people in the industry will have lots of ideas.

"But then the question is to deliver the great qualitative experience. It's not just about bringing toys to life - if the game is not a great game and boring, then after a couple of minutes, 'so what?'. … But it's not that easy, it requires huge investment in terms of character design, toy design, the video game, and so it's not going to be easy to deliver the same kind of qualitative experience with other universes.

"But surely there will be new creative ideas coming from us and other companies following the success of Skylanders."

This Q&A was lightly edited from a longer phone interview conducted with the Huffington Post UK.