A Research Project on Hybrid Experiences

Digital Games and Merchandising

Minecraft Foam Sword 1Digital games have historically been surrounded with a variety of physical material, such as the game box and game store marketing material. Due to digital distribution, this materialism has shifted into collectible figurines, collector’s edition boxes and game weapon replicas.

Along with the popularization of digital distribution, many anticipated the death of the physical game disk and game retail stores. Games, however, are one of the strongest areas of entertainment brand merchandising – accordingly, many game stores have seen fit to counter diminishing game sales with various kinds of physical products that cannot be downloaded. Tellingly, Angry Birds products can be found everywhere and in all product categories. Brands popular with younger children offer for example physical, often real-size objects from games, such as the Minecraft pick-axe. It is now also a viable business plan to produce expensive axes and “chainswords” in life-size replicas from brands such as Warhammer 40K.

Further, a lot of the collector’s edition game copies come with collectible figurines, large special shaped game boxes, cloth maps, caps, art books, and so on. A Splinter Cell game even came with actual working nightvision goggles. Larger game launches aim to draw attention with a collection of “swag”: key chains, posters, and wunderbaums. Elsewhere, many Kickstarter campaigns for games offer reward tiers that promise physical objects, such as T-shirts and even retro style physical game boxes.

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ROB the Robot 2R.O.B. (Robotic Operating Buddy) was an accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Receiving commands via the TV screen flashing signals through its eyes, R.O.B. supported only two games which involved R.O.B. moving around plastic discs.

Released in 1985, R.O.B. had a short product lifespan with support for only two games, Gyromite and Stack-Up (the “Robot Series”). R.O.B. was released in the US with the intention of portraying the NES as something novel – a “robot game system” – in order to differentiate it from the failed “video game systems” of the 1983 video game crash. It was available in a Deluxe Set, a configuration for the console that included, among other things, R.O.B. and Gyromite.

R.O.B. receives commands via optical flashes (there are six different types) in the screen. Just like the NES Zapper, R.O.B. only functions correctly when coupled with a CRT type television. A puzzle-platformer, Gyromite involves player collecting dynamite before the time runs out, with several red and blue pillars blocking his way. Player commands R.O.B. to place gyros on red and blue buttons (pushing the A or B button on the second NES controller), thus moving the pillar of the corresponding color. Stack-Up was sold with its own plastic blocks, and includes a series of mini games for R.O.B.

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Monster High

Monster High 1Monster High is a doll line aimed at girls. It focuses on a group of girls who are presented as cute, age-appropriate versions of classic movie monsters. The Mattel created toy line has gained a significant boost in popularity due to a webisode series. 

Monster High is a fashion doll franchise released by Mattel in the July, 2010. The characters are inspired by monster movies, sci-fi horror, and thriller fiction. The Monster High franchise also includes other consumer products such as stationery, bags, key chains, and various other toys. There are also Monster High TV specials, a web series, a direct to DVD movie, game software, and a Monster High young adult novel series, created by Lisi Harrison.

There are two Monster High themed video games (Nintendo DS, Wii). On the Monster High website users can access games, character bios, and several other activities. Monster High webisodes (short, episodic, online episodes which typically last around two minutes), viewable on the site, regularly attract at least 500,000 views and often more than 1 million. With an audience like that, Mattel also has fertile ground for promoting the latest Monster High toy releases. In Mattel’s most recent Q3 financial results (2011), girls’ brands were up 57 per cent, ‘primarily driven by Monster High’.

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LEGO computer games

Lego computer games 1Lego computer games are a series of digital games featuring characters and worlds modeled after corresponding Lego toys. The games utilize this modular logic of the world in its structure and humor. Since 2005, all major Lego games have been developed by TT Games.

Lego has been releasing software based on the Lego bricks since 1997, starting with Lego Island. Since 2005, the development of Lego games has been licensed exclusively to TT Games. These newer games, starting with Lego Star Wars: The Video Game (2005), are a series of adventure games, mainly aimed at younger players, featuring digital counterparts of the familiar Lego toy figures, locations, vehicles, and worlds. Notably, games employ the constructional form of the toys to great effect in their writing, design, and lighthearted humor. A car crashing in to a wall for example will break down to Lego pieces and can be constructed again.

Majority of the games are based on existing third party licenses such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Indiana Jones. Excluding Lego City Undercover, which was developed by TT Fusion, all the games have been developed by Travellel’s Tales, one of TT Games’ three internal divisions.  LCU is the first game to be published by Nintendo, rather than an independent publisher such as WB Games or LucasArts, and the first game in the series to feature defined characters (Chase McCain) developed primarily for a Lego computer game (though, for example, Ninjago games are based on Lego’s internal toy IP).

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Bin Weevils

ImageBin Weevils is an online virtual world where kids are free to move around, socialize, and build their “Bin Nests”. Bin Weevils, the cutesy insect characters, exist also as a line of toys each containing a code that can be used online to unlock “nest items”.

Bin Weevils got started as a series of Nickelodeon animation shorts revolving around Bin Weevils, cute ant-like insects. The shorts have been the basis of an online game that centers on the main characters, Tink and Clott.

Joining Bin Weevils online game is free. Some areas of the site and game features, however, are restricted to paying members, or “Bin Tycoons”, only. Players can create their own pet Bin Weevil, walk around and explore a 3D world, chat and play online games with friends, do activities, solve secret missions and decorate their homes and garden (which other players can then be invited to visit). The more online games and puzzles players complete, the more virtual money (called Mulch) they earn. Mulch is used to buy items, furniture, gadgets and gizmos for player’s “Bin Nest”.

Bin Weevils toy line includes minifigures, collectables, nest playsets, regular and talking plush toys, a trading card game and books, to name some. Most of these come with codes for redeeming content in the online game.

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Downloadable content

Downloadable content 1The introduction of online connectivity and a hard drive has allowed patching, updating, and publishing of additional content after a game is released. Downloadable content (DLC) comes in various types and forms including new game modes, objects, levels, challenges, in-game outfits, and new storylines.

DLC is used to guide players to networked service relationships and to uphold these services, while prolonging players’ time with the game through offering more content. Small in size, DLC is quickly developed and can be used to bridge the gaps between bigger franchise installments and to better answer the needs of the fragmented niche markets.

It is notable how DLC ties physical and digital game cultures together. As games can be used again after consumption, it is in the interests of the gaming companies to artificially limit this second-hand access to them. DLC provides a solution to this, as DLC is bound to the first buyer and cannot be sold forward. To get the “full experience”, second-hand users, too, must pay. With DLC players can be enticed to buy new game copies, coaxed into service relationships, and leveraged towards other franchises. A central method is to utilize DLC’s fragmented form and use DLC packs for rewarding players when they conform to the marketing plan.

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LEGO High Speed Chase set

ImageLEGO City Police ‘High Speed Chase’ is a construction set in Lego’s City series that allows the buyer to unlock exclusive content in the Wii U console game, Lego City Undercover. The set also contains an exclusive minifigure of the game’s protagonist, Chase McCain.

Lego City Undercover for Wii U is an open-world sandbox game developed by TT Fusion and TT Games and is set in the Lego City theme. Unlike the previous Lego computer games, it is not based on an existing third party license but instead on original characters developed by Lego. Similar to Toys for Bob and Skylanders Giants, Lego is using the physical play set to sell exclusive content for the digital game. Anyone who purchases the ‘High Speed Chase’ set will find a unique code in the package – on the police car’s license plate – that will unlock unique vehicles and missions in the game. Unsurprisingly, the police car and sports car included in the Lego toy set are part of the unlockable content. The set also includes an exclusive Chase McCain minifigure – collector’s item in itself – modeled after the protagonist in Lego City Undercover. Those who pre-order the game receive also an exclusive Lego minifigure of the game’s antagonist, Rex Fury.

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The marriage of retail and app economy

ImageFor some time now the big problem for many traditional retail chains has been consumer exodus to immaterial goods and services. The app revolution, ushered forward by the likes of Apple and Google, has driven traditional retailers to seek answers from the hybrid economy.

The app revolution has widely captured the imagination of younger consumers eager to spend their play time on the countless free or nearly free gaming apps and app toys. “Until now, traditional retailers or brick-and-mortars have been unable to tap into this huge growing market. They’ve been left out of the app party”, Mike Gonzales, creative director and digital brand manager for WowWee, says. Now however, hybrid products that both feature an enticing app and need a physical component to in order to work provide retailers “an opportunity to take a bite out of the ‘app’ pie”, as Gonzales puts it. WowWee’s AppGear products are sold at retail with price points of roughly 9,99€ up to 19.99€, with the apps to run them offered as a free download. The emergence of hybrid products, then, can be seen representing a compromising marriage of the traditional retail business and the newer app economy.

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Moshi Monsters

ImageMoshi Monsters is an online world of pet monsters where users customize and nurture a virtual pet monster, move around Monstro City, take daily puzzle challenges, play games, personalize their room, and communicate with other users.

Developed by Mind Candy in 2008, Moshi Monsters is primarily aimed at children aged 6–12 and has 65 million registered users worldwide. The basic version of the game is free, while a paid membership with members-only features is also available. Players choose from one of six virtual pet monsters to customize and play with, and then interact with other users in game and on the official message forums. Due to the age of the target audience, the forums are not real-time chat rooms, but rather monitored message posting facilities.

In 2008, “Moshlings”, even smaller monsters that act as pets for the original Monsters, were released. There are various methods of obtaining Moshlings, including purchasing special “seeds” from an in-game shop to attract them. Following its online success, Moshi Monsters has expanded commercially with physical products, including toys, the top selling kids’ magazine (in the UK), a Nintendo DS video game, a music album, books, membership cards, trading cards, and molding clay, to name some examples.

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Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

skylandersSkylanders (2011) is a fusion of a digital game and a toy line. Skylander toys, equipped with RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips, are placed on a “Portal of Power” peripheral which instantly activates a matching virtual character in the game.

Published by Activision and developed by Toys for Bob, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure features 32 fantasy characters ranging from skeletons to tree men. A starter pack for Skylanders includes the game (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, 3DS), three starter toy characters, and a special “portal of power”. As a key feature, the toy characters are equipped with RFID (radio-frequency identification) chips and placing them on the portal of power instantly activates a matching virtual character in the game. The feeling of actually transporting the character in the game is strengthened by the toys’ ability to save the player progress within itself.

Ignoring specific platforms, players can continue their game campaign on any of the supported consoles. Each character belongs to a class (one of 8) and has varying levels of specific attributes, giving each toy/character unique characteristics within game play. To conquer all the game locations, player needs most of the characters. New characters can be bought separately or in three-a-pack combos.