[When I’m not playing games or writing about games, I’m often thinking about games – thinking about what would make a cool idea for a game, or how I wish a certain game was different, or what I’m hoping for in a sequel. So, to share some of these ideas, I’m starting a new occasional column called Here’s an Idea. Basically, it’s game design fan fiction.]
Nintendo’s line of collectible, game-connected figures has so far been a huge success for the company. In the six months they’ve been out, Nintendo has shipped 10.5 million units and is scrambling to get more product on store shelves. This is, in one sense, perfectly understandable: similar products, like Skylanders and Disney Infinity, are hugely successful, and Nintendo has a stable of popular characters like Mario, Link, Donkey Kong, and… Wii Fit Trainer. Why wouldn’t they be popular? But in another sense, the success of Amiibo is a little weird, because unlike, say, Skylanders, they don’t really do anything.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. They do some stuff. But what they do is a vague and inconsistent. The most robust Amiibo support is found in Super Smash Bros., where Amiibo become NPC companions/opponents that you can level up and customize. This is the closest Amiibo come to having Skylanders-type functionality, where you bring your character into the game, upgrade and/or customize it, and save the stats to the figure rather than the console hard drive, allowing you to bring your character to a friend’s house. But in Super Smash Bros., you don’t get to play as the character, just alongside it or against it.
Meanwhile, Amiibo support in other games is pretty limited. In Mario Party 10, a new “Amiibo Party” mode lets you tap your Amiibo to the gamepad a bunch of times to do things that could easily be done with a button press, and then save the powerups you earn to your figure. In all other Amiibo-compatible games, functionality is limited to read-only effects, in most cases involving Amiibo unlocking things like extra costumes or consumable in-game items. Of course, the fact that one Amiibo can be used in multiple games – though limited to one read/write game per figure – is a nice bonus, regardless of how limited the features are for those additional games. But what is lacking is a really great killer app where Amiibo feel really essential to the gameplay. So far, they kind of feel shoehorned in.
Amiibo functionality is also confusing. Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party 10 both have their own lines of Amiibo that work with those games. As for compatibility with other games, though, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. Unless you’ve memorized Nintendo’s compatibility chart, you’re never going to know if the figures you’re buying will work with the game(s) you have, or vice versa, let alone what they’ll do. Compared to Skylanders and Disney Infinity, where compatibility info is listed on the packaging, Amiibo ranks pretty low on the consumer-friendliness scale.
Games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity and, presumably, the upcoming Lego Dimensions each consist of a line of games and a line of toys that are fully integrated so that they are each essential to each other. Your Skylanders toys don’t really do anything without a Skylanders game, and your Skylanders game is useless without at least one of the toys. Amiibo functionality, on the other hand, feels a bit tacked on. Super Smash Bros. works perfectly fine without any of the figures. What Nintendo needs is a game (or games) with deep Amiibo integration that makes owning the figures essential to the gameplay and offers a gameplay experience that feels truly special.
The most obvious type of game to do this with would be an action-platformer. Basically, Skylanders with Nintendo characters in it. This is the obvious move, but, obviousness aside, I see no reason not to go with it. Nintendo makes great platformers and great action games. A game that falls somewhere on this spectrum would play to Nintendo’s strengths and to the strengths of a lot of Amiibo characters. And besides, any toys-to-life game is invariably going to be compared to Skylanders anyway, so why not tackle it head-on?
Aside from the fact that some of these characters don’t traditionally do things like jump or swim in their own games, you wouldn’t have to do much tweaking to individual characters to make their various skillsets all useful in the same universe. Running, jumping, shooting, and sword-swinging would cover what most of these characters already do. (And swallowing, in Kirby’s case.) And, as basically all the Amiibo released to date are already Smash Bros. characters, a lot of the heavy lifting has been done to design a repertoire of melee and projectile attacks for each character.
Beyond the simple premise of an action-platformer starring a laundry list of Nintendo characters, what would my ideal Amiibo game look like? Bearing in mind that this is a pie-in-the-sky ideal, and is necessarily unrealistic, here’s what I’d like to see in an Amiibo game:
- Every Amiibo works in it. As Nintendo keeps releasing wave after wave of Amiibo, this becomes a harder and harder requirement to meet. But I think it could be a huge boon for the game. Nintendo could counter the complicated Amiibo compatibility scheme by releasing an Amiibo platformer and saying, “All the Amiibo you already own work with this game, and all the Amiibo we release in the future will work with this game.” Obviously, if Nintendo’s still churning out Amiibo five or ten years from now, they’ll eventually have to cut off support for Amiibo Quest 1 or whatever it’s called, so the realistic version of this would be to support all existing Amiibo, and all upcoming Amiibo for the next so many years.
- Separate games for Wii U and 3DS. Now that the new 3DS model has built-in Amiibo support, putting an Amiibo game on that platform is a no-brainer. But rather than just porting the game over from Wii U, it would be a good idea to design a totally different game that plays to the handheld’s strength. I’m imagining a 3D platformer for the Wii U and a 2D platformer for the 3DS. The experiences would be similar enough that they’d feel like two games from the same universe, but distinct enough that they’d both be worth playing. As an added bonus, there could be certain unlockables that are only found in one game or another, so playing one helps you upgrade your character for use in the other.
- A free- or cheap-to-start model. This is where the whole pie-in-the-sky nature of my Amiibo Quest fantasy really rears its head. My vision for this game is that you download a small portion of the game for free, and play it with the one free playable character: your Mii, replete with a basic, underwhelming move set and no ability to upgrade. Just enough to give you a taste of the mostly off-limits world. Then, every time you buy a new Amiibo, you can register it to the game – or, even better, your new cross-platform Nintendo account – and doing so will unlock more of the game. As long as you can get a decent chunk of game to play without having to buy all 7,000 Amiibo, this could be a rewarding model for consumers, letting gameplay and Amiibo sales drive each other. Whenever Nintendo releases a new wave of figures, they can also release a new batch of levels for the game.
There are two reasons to do this. For one, the toys-to-life genre is getting crowded; a free-to-play model, or something similar, would help Nintendo distinguish themselves, and might lure in gamers (or gamers’ parents) who are starting to feel $75 starter set fatigue. That thing your Wii U gamepad does where it randomly turns on for a few seconds to show you an ad for a new game? I don’t know how effective that is, but with the words “Amiibo” and “Free” flashing across the screen, I’m sure it would appeal to someone. Another reason to release content this way is that it lines up with Nintendo’s Amiibo release schedule. When a new Skylanders game comes out, it’s launched alongside dozens of new figures, and a few dozen more are released over the next few months. Nintendo, by contrast, has released 35 figures since November, with another 22 planned (so far) for the next six months or so, released in waves of just a dozen or half-dozen at a time. Why release (and develop) a complete, $60 retail game full of levels that can only be accessed by a figure we can’t buy for another six months? If the figures are dribbling out, so can the game content.
Obviously, the margins on Amiibo may simply be too small for free-to-play to be workable, so a better model might be to give out a few levels for free and then use a season pass model to release the rest, keeping the price relatively low to account for the fact that people will be buying a bunch of figures, especially considering…
- Metroidvania game design. A toys-to-life game needs high replay value. If the game can’t be beaten with only a modest investment of five or ten figures, it’s going to be off-putting to a lot of consumers, but if the game doesn’t make you eager to play it again with a new batch of characters, then it’s not a good fit for the toys-to-life model. Metroidvania, if done right, adds tons of replay value. Fill the world with goodies accessible only to certain characters; build levels with branching paths or even multiple exits that each lead to a different next level. Design like this will keep people coming back and, even better from Nintendo’s perspective, keep them running to the store to buy more Amiibo figures.
- Light RPG elements. Part of the appeal of toys-to-life games is that the figures save their stats. Keeping track of XP and gold coins is all well and good, but what really makes you feel invested in your character is a progression system that involves choices. Kids play these games, so there’s no need for a Bethesda-style skill tree, but even a few choices for how to spend your XP would really make that Mario or Kirby feel like yours. And, frankly, with nostalgia being such a big part of Nintendo’s business model, the audience for any Amiibo game is going to skew a little older than for other toys-to-life games. Give us something a little deeper than remembering that Samus is level 47. The skill tree could have a default path to make things easier for younger gamers.
- Franchise cross-pollination. With characters from so many iconic games occupying the same world, it makes sense that the level design will take cues from those characters’ various franchises. There will be Mario-ish levels and Zelda-ish levels and Metroid-ish levels and… Game and Watch-ish levels. But what would be cool would be to see these styles start to bleed into each other. If you’ve ever hiked up a mountain, you’ve probably seen the environment change around you, say, from deciduous to coniferous forest. It doesn’t happen all at once; for a while you’re surrounded by nothing but maple and beech trees, and then a few pines start popping up, and then it’s about a fifty-fifty split, and then it’s mostly pines and firs with a few scrubby maples here and there, and finally it’s a solidly coniferous forest. Imagine the same thing as you make your way from a Super Mario Bros.-themed level to a Legend of Zelda-themed level to a Mega Man-themed level, and so on. This could also be augmented over time. Imagine that this game already exists today. When Splatoon and its line of Amiibo launch in a few weeks, there would also be a batch of Splatoon-themed content released for our hypothetical Amiibo Quest game, and the game could be designed so that some of these design elements start popping up in random places throughout preexisting levels.
Cross-pollination could also be applied to character design. Character customization would probably include at least a little bit of costume tweaking. Each Amiibo could unlock a few universal character customization options. Maybe you can replace the “L” on Luigi’s hat with a triforce; maybe you could make Donkey Kong’s tie Kirby-pink; maybe Nintendo can buy Lucasfilm from Disney and you can give Meta Knight a lightsaber – hey, it’s my fantasy!
- A companion mobile app. I have no idea if it’s technologically possible to write an app that lets an NFC-capable phone read (or write to) an Amiibo figure. So I’m just going to assume that it is, because I think it would be cool. Nintendo could release an app that lets you play mini-games to earn even more XP and unlock even more abilities for your Amiibo. This would also steer people towards Nintendo’s mobile ecosystem. If I were in a boardroom pitching this idea to the Nintendo brass, just think of how many times I could use the word “synergy.” So many times!
- Both read/write and read-only functions. One thing that’s cool about Amiibo is that they have (limited) functionality in multiple games. Each figure can only store read/write data for one game, though. Maybe you want to bring your Little Mac into Amiibo Quest, but you don’t want to erase the Smash Bros. stats you’ve racked up and you don’t want to go buy a second Little Mac. No problem, if the game includes some read-only options. Maybe you can call on Little Mac, phone-a-friend style, to swoop in and take out some enemies. Maybe you can use him as a one-shot playable character. Maybe he joins your party as an NPC companion. Maybe you tap the figure to the gamepad to give Diddy Kong temporary use of Little Mac’s kickass boxing gloves. Any of the above could be cool, and would be a nice gesture to collectors who are already using their Amiibo figures (and, by extension, buying other first-party Nintendo games).
- Multiple Marios. This would be another nice gesture to people who already have big Amiibo collections. Nintendo has been leveraging the ever-loving bejesus out of its key IP for years, so if every major game release from here on out is matched with its own line of Amiibo, there will soon be twelve different Mario figures for sale – not to mention variants. To someone who has a huge Amiibo collection, the fact that Amiibo Quest works with every single Amiibo figure won’t mean a whole lot if they’re all Mario. So there should be a (slightly) different in-game version of Mario for each Amiibo version of Mario. The Smash version could have a whole bunch of fire-based attacks to match his figurine, for example, while the Mario Party Mario could have a more generalized move set. And the same goes for Link. And Peach. And so on. It would be nice to make collectors feel like they’re getting something worthwhile for owning every color of Yoshi plush.
So that’s my pitch. That’s a game I would be really excited to play, and for which I’d gladly buy a bunch more Amiibo. Right now I’m not doing much with my Amiibo; they’re mostly decorative, so I’ve only bought a handful of my favorite characters. I want more, but can’t really justify it until there’s a game that makes better use of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo announces some kind of Amiibo-centric game at E3 or shortly thereafter. It probably won’t look anything like what I’ve described here, but this is what I dream about every time I walk past the Amiibo display at the store.