Market saturation. It’s a boring phrase to describe a fascinating effect in economics, one where a good or service has become so ubiquitous and widely available that the amount of supply far exceeds the level of demand in any given market. This overabundance of product (and subsequent overabundance of market competition) usually spells doom for any good or service, and we just saw this in action yesterday with Disney Interactive and their Disney Infinity line of figures and related games.
To be honest, we all should have seen this coming. I did from the moment Infinity was announced.
When something is successful, imitators follow. Naturally, there will always be people and companies that think they can do something better and more unique (while still retaining the original successfuly gimmick), and this is true for all success stories. The proliferation of any successful business model is easy to see in the number of competitors that spring up to ride the wave. One need only look at the meteoric rise and spread of frozen yogurt shops to see this principle in action (those things are everywhere, man). Skylanders took off in a big way, and I don’t know if people expected it to be the wild success story it wound up being. From that starting point, Disney Infinity, LEGO Dimensions and even Nintendo’s own amiibo sprung up to join the trend of selling little toy figures that can’t be played with on their own.
Due to this, competition was fierce, product was marked up and expensive as hell, certain characters could only be found through certain avenues (such as multi-character packs, etc.), and the stage was set for the early demise of the genre. The games themselves don’t serve any purpose but to be a play space for that character you spent weeks — and money — searching for, so when you already have the character you want, you lose interest. Then, the game will require updates to make room for all these new figures and franchises, which is major development work that won’t necessarily generate more profit for the company making it.
It’s no surprise that Disney was the first to bow out, because they have amassed so much under their umbrella that making something for every little facet of their media empire would have incurred significant cost — and considering how it just ended, this was probably the reasoning behind the studio’s closure. They don’t have just Disney movies and properties to contend with, they catered to Marvel and Star Wars in the same package, which means making more plastic toys that you can only play with if you use a lot of imagination (or have the game they’re built for). That’s on top of the necessity of developing digital assets for every single figure, and their related world, to boot. None of that is cheap.
Add in the fact that all of these games and figures utilize Near-Field Communication — a form of Bluetooth data transfer that is easily manipulated — and you have hobbyists reverse-engineering these products to use their phones as a way to spoof figures illegitimately, edit save file data, etc. The technology was its own Achilles’ Heel, and this negated the need to buy figures at all, thus eliminating the need to buy more character sets to keep development of the game moving forward. Really, this may have all been avoided if companies didn’t jump all over the idea, but competition is fierce, especially when Mommy and Daddy are buying toys for little ones. That same drive to take over this nascent market is the same drive that will eventually flatline it, and this is only the first company to fall.
Time will tell if market saturation claims other franchises in the same way…but considering the fate of Infinity, I feel confident in saying that the end is nigh for all these products, save for amiibo. They have added utility where the other figures do not, and without that, they’d likely be headed for the same plane of obscurity.