It’s the ultimate showdown in the toy world: Apps vs Toys. And it’s still too early to call a winner.
I recently came across an article at Global Toy News that was discussing the iPad’s impact on non-digital toy sales. They pose the question of whether or not the iPad’s inexpensive app economy will “warp” the prices, and thus sales, of toys on the shelf. When it comes to spending less on toys and entertainment, a one dollar app certainly seems like a wiser purchase compared to a $10 action figure…and I have to agree…but there’s a lot to this dilemma.
Retail toys are too expensive
First off, let me clarify that when I say “retail toy” I mean non-digital toys that you would buy in the toy store. And with that, it takes but only one stroll down the toy aisle at your local Target or Walmart to see that retail toys are just too expensive. As I’ve talked about here before, even a simple action figure is upwards of $10. Would you rather buy a $10 figure that your kid will most likely beat up and exhaust relatively quickly? Or would you rather drop less than $5 on an app that might entertain them for the foreseeable future (not to mention it won’t get ruined)? Now, I’m a firm believer that even toys that suffer through childhood come out better in the end. I have a box of toys from my childhood that I’m always happy to go through and relive the memories…I do not believe you’ll achieve that through “disposable” apps.
So while I do think the era of inexpensive digital entertainment is taking its toll on the retail toy industry, it’s also beating up the retail video game market as well…in short, the economy of cheap apps isn’t taking any prisoners. Many retail video games still get released for $60 but as more gamers find quality games for $10 and less both in apps and in the recent boom of indie game, I’ve been seeing less and less acceptance of the “full price” games that we’ve been buying for decades. Of course, people still buy $60 games, just like they buy $10 action figures. The big players are still making bank on these over-priced items, but they’re just biding their time.
Price no longer defines quality
What I’ve found almost more fascinating is that as a group we as consumers have seemingly overcome the “cheap means crap” mentality. This doesn’t mean there still isn’t a bunch of cheap crap out there, there is, but with the rise of apps and games like Angry Birds it now seems like we’re starting to expect that even $1 games will provide hours – nay, months – of entertainment. Even though cases like Angry Birds are the exception not the rule, it alone broke the mold and started the trend. So now at what point do we think that anything more than $1 is too much? Frankly, I think we’re already there.
I’ve seen this change in myself. I’ve always been a big supporter and buyer of indie games, whether it be through Xbox, Steam or things like the Humble Bundle. I’m all about not paying a lot for games. It’s possible my standards aren’t that high…all I’m looking for is a game that keeps me entertained and challenged and I don’t need to pay $60 to make that happen. In fact, it seems like the more I pay for a game/toy the less interesting it turns out to be. But now when I’m shopping in the app store on online for games, I see a game that’s even just $5 and think to myself, “geez, that’s expensive.” And this is even more so for games that I can’t demo first. One great thing about Xbox and even Steam is the ability to demo many of the games before you drop your cash.
So how do retail toys fight this digital invasion? In many ways they can’t. Lowering prices will certainly help but I think it really comes down to the people buying the toys…the parents. It’s no secret that an iPad or DVD will keep a kid quiet and occupied. Heck, I see that with my 7-month old baby…they’re just mesmerized. And while I don’t think digital entertainment is the devil and is okay for young children to enjoy, there needs to be a balance between touchscreen technology and non-digital interactions. Both are important in growing and understanding how the world works these days…you can’t ignore technology but you can’t ignore something like a comic book or Hot Wheels car either. I’m making it very much a point to have my child experience “real” toys more often than her digital play time. Of course, some toy makers are seeing a happy compromise and making physical toys that make use of the tablet technology.
Bridging the gap
I recently saw a commercial by Crayola touting a new coloring book toy that uses the iPad, the ColorStudio HD. You basically get a “crayon” stylus along with an app for your tablet and then you use the stylus on your touchscreen. The stylus is big and chunky like a crayon and I’m sure the coloring book app is, well, a coloring book but with a few extras thrown in to keep kids smiling, like sounds and animation. I haven’t used this app combo so I’m not sure how well it plays nor do I know how much it would appeal to a kid anymore than a real coloring book. Technology will almost always sexier than anything you find created in the real world but technology has more limits than say a real coloring book.
It’s an interesting time in toys and games, and I suspect we’ll see this evolve even more over the next five years as more and more tablets come into the hands of kids. The generation of my child will be the first to grow up with tablets so it will be second nature to them. How will all this affect her play over the next six years until she starts school? It’s hard to say but it’ll be fun to watch, even if it means a battle making sure she’s not “plugged in” all the time.