The nature of play is evolving in overdrive. For years, kids have been migrating away from the historical toy categories that made the industry an economic juggernaut. With the rise of mobile, interactive screenplay has pulled a lot of users away from analog toys. With their low cost, high production values, deep interactivity, and (of course) mobility, they are, literally, the killer app for play. Compressing all that play value into one experience has made it difficult for the toy industry — and analog toys — to keep up.
But the reality is more complex. The major shift isn’t economic; what has changed is user expectations. Continued exposure to the digital world has rewired our brains to ask and require more of our products. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
We don’t have to look far for examples of how quickly things have changed. Watch a young child swipe any common TV or laptop screen. After a few quick attempts, you’ll see a mixture of frustration, confusion, and contempt. The interaction exposes that widening divide between the deep, dynamic play of the digital world and the mostly static world of consumer products.
Toys, like many traditional products, are being disrupted. But mobile apps aren’t killing the toy business; they’re forcing it to evolve. What is working well in the toy business are both classic and next-gen products that offer many of the same values that are effective in mobile — self-expression, social engagement, intellectual complexity, challenge, mastery, and a wide degree of freedom. Both digital and physical toys are learning that experience is more important than entertainment.
Playable, creative platforms are thriving in what is still a tough economy. The sales of Crayola, Lego, Imaginext, Play-Doh and Magic: The Gathering are booming because they leave room for the child’s desires without limiting them to a single, close-ended reality. These platforms function more like tools than traditional products: Like any great tool, their value is derived from what you can make with them.
Another seismic shift in the toy economy is in diversity. We’ve seen a boom in indie and boutique toys over the last five years, giving purchasers more choice and resetting the predictable pricing and product features built upon international-scaled business practices. The impact is very similar to what happened in the comic book industry in the ’80s, when independent creators brought a lot of variety and innovation into an industry that was stalled and mostly dominated by superheroes since the ’60s.
Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have made it possible to cultivate and sell directly to niche tastes. We’ve seen a huge increase in modular action figures, construction toys, and an amazing spectrum of miniature and board games, almost none of which would have been possible prior. Every successful launch redefines norms and forces industry leaders to focus on a new path forward.
What’s most exciting to see is the coming impact of maker-driven development tools and technology. The variety of items you can create with just a small arsenal of equipment — such as a 3D printer, Shapeoko, and TinyDuino — is nearly limitless. For the first time in history, prototyping isn’t a huge barrier to entry.
The emergence of these tools and consumer’s growing thirst for new approaches is creating a virtuous cycle of escalating innovation. We’re all part of a growing ecosystem, designers and makers using new tool sets to create next-gen tools for budding designers, who will create even better tools. The network effect of the web blurs the lines between professional and amateur, building new communities and driving markets to become richer and more diverse. Users will buy fewer premade products and instead spend money and time creating their own awesome playthings. Consumers will become producers and toolmakers. And that is a future of toys we can support.