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Nintendo and Anki Try to Humanize New Interactive Toys

Toys that feel more personable and even learn from your behavior.

Few would have guessed five years ago that the videogame industry would be championing the merits of toys, the kind you can throw. And yet here we are.

The success of Activision’s Skylanders series, which in 2011 created a new industry vertical dubbed “toys to life,” has led big software makers into a race for space in the living room. In addition to videogames, they now make toys that interact with those games; place the high-tech toy in the right spot and voila — you get a power-up, or a new character, or a new level to explore in your videogame.

Now competition in toys to life is heating up, and competitors are finding ways to make hunks of plastic feel like much more. Anki Drive is injecting personality into its customizable robot cars, while Nintendo is turning its recognizable characters into companions that can learn from the way you play.

Disney Infinity Marvel Super Heroes The first company to successfully challenge Skylanders was Disney, which scored a big win with last year’s Disney Infinity. The transformation of its decades of animated and live-action characters into toys that talk to videogames lifted its interactive division, once a consistent money loser, firmly into the black, with a full year of profitability now on the books.

Both Disney and Activision already offer the ability to not only connect a toy to their games, but also load unique data from that toy. In other words, you can take the Iron Man toy made for this year’s Disney Infinity sequel, teach it new abilities in the game, bring that toy with its unique qualities to a friend’s console, and pick up where you left off. Your version of Iron Man will have different abilities than your friend’s version of the same character.

The thinking here is that this makes players more attached to their characters — by combining the videogame convention of leveling up with a physical, transportable object, it theoretically becomes more important in a kid’s mind than either a digital-only character or a physical-only toy. The more “real” or personalized a toy can be, companies say, the more kids will want to collect them all.

Anki Drive wants kids to collect all seven of its $50 robot cars, which can be raced around a track using a smartphone, but in the past those cars haven’t had the personality of Activision’s cartoony rogues’ gallery in Skylanders or Disney’s massive library of characters. Anki said today it would try to repaint its high-tech Hot Wheels as vehicles driven by “commander” characters, each of whom has a different style.

“The behavior of each car will look different with a commander attached,” said Joby Otero, a Skylanders veteran recently hired to be chief creative officer at Anki. “You’ll see different maneuvers playing out and know it’s connected to that character.”

Like the console-based toys, the Anki cars can be leveled up over time using credits earned from winning races, and each of the 10 unlockable commanders has a different preference of car. The company has one thing that others in toys to life don’t: Toys that actually move in the real world, based on “real robot science,” as Otero called it.

Nintendo, on the other hand, is about to find out just how far its own back catalog of intellectual property can carry it. On Friday, it launches Amiibo, an interactive toy line based on characters like Mario and Pikachu, in tandem with its new tentpole fighting game Super Smash Bros.

Even more so than the others, Nintendo is positioning the Amiibo toys as companions more than accessories. In a recent demo, senior product marketing manager Bill Trinen showed Re/code how a new toy of the company’s flagship character, Mario, could be scanned into the fighting game using the Wii U’s main controller, the GamePad; once he did that, Mario showed up on the screen — but as a computer-controlled character, rather than one he could control.

He started a game with this computer character, which was denoted as “level 1,” and it was inept at first. But as the fight wore on, its fighting got better and its level increased.

The twist is that this leveling up was entirely based on how Trinen was fighting. Artificial intelligence in a Super Smash Bros. Amiibo character tells it to watch and learn from whomever it fights against. This could be another computer character, but by challenging his own toy to a fight, Trinen was effectively acting as its teacher, encouraging it to pick up his habits.

In Super Smash Bros., the Amiibo character copies player habits like jumping frequently or overusing certain moves. Trinen said he had previously taught an Amiibo to “taunt” — a show-off move that does no damage — every time it knocked off another character.

He added that Nintendo has even considered a competitive tournament based around this idea: Players bring their uniquely trained Amiibos to one physical location and compete to see whose pupil can beat the others, without human intervention.

As holiday shopping gets under way, we won’t have to wait too long to see how this new competition changes toys to life. Last year, the NPD Group reported that U.S. retail sales of gaming accessories (which include things like headsets and controllers as well as toys) saw a huge spike in November and December, to nearly $1 billion in sales in those two months versus $2.1 billion in the whole rest of the year:

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