Hands-on With Disney Playmation: Can it Really Reinvent Imagination?
It's not often that I set my alarm on a Sunday, but when there is an opportunity to check out some new toys before they arrive on the market, I have been known to be motivated enough to drag myself out of bed. I've been eager to see Disney Playmation in action ever since it was announced, and even though I'm not the target demographic, I happened to know a would-be Avenger that was more than willing to try out the new toys, too. What kid doesn't want the opportunity to be Iron Man for a day?
There hasn't been much news about Playmation since its big reveal in June, but the Disney Store just started hosting public preview events earlier this month. Disney Playmation came about in response to a Disney-funded study that revealed parents wished their kids spent more time being active, but didn't want them to have to give up newfangled technological advances. Created by some of Disney's best and brightest Imagineers and developers to nail the intersection of that big Venn diagram, and with a little help from Hasbro, Playmation was born.
Thirty minutes after arriving at "Avengers Labs," I had a much clearer idea of what Playmation was and what to expect. Even though I now have a better notion of how Disney Playmation works, I have concerns about whether or not it can accomplish the lofty goals set for it.
After being greeted by the Avengers Labs technicians, the kids participating in the demo were taken to a small theater area where JARVIS introduced them to the problem at hand. Ultron had returned, and with him an army of evil doers bent on dominating the globe and ridding the world of the Avengers once and for all. Since the Avengers can't handle such a massive assault on their own, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner have developed new technology that allows kids to join the fight. Ethical concerns aside, the premise is simple enough to understand, and gives kids a reason to have the powers of Iron Man while fighting alongside him against Ultron.
After this introductory segment, the technicians grab special briefcases with the Iron Man repulsor tech gauntlets inside. Each child was personally fitted for action by a tech, and was then run through a trial of sorts to give an idea of what the repulsor could do. The accessory has three primary modes of fire, each activated with a different action from the user. There's a standard laser attack, activated by a trigger in the palm area; a classic Iron Man repulsor attack, activated by holding your palm up as Iron Man does to fire it; and there's a missile attack, which is fired by holding down the large button on top of the arm for a few seconds.
Our little Avenger was right on the cusp of the proposed age bracket for Playmation (6-11 years old). As such, the repulsor was a bit big for her arm. They do also fit adults, where they look a bit more proportionate, but as these kids are still growing, what should only go about halfway up the forearm takes up the majority of it instead. The accessory isn't light either, and there's a decent amount of bulk to it.
Though this version is just a prototype of the final release, which is coming in just a few months, it's likely very close to what the production run of these pieces will look and feel like. On one hand, that size indicates some durability for the piece. On the other, it's going to be tiresome to use for extended periods. Even after just running through the tutorial, the heft of the repulsor was already getting to our young recruit. On the plus side, after about a week of using it, she'll likely have a promising career as an elementary school arm wrestler ahead of her.
It should also be noted that while all the kids participating got to use repulsors of their own during this session, the starter kit only comes with one. There's no way at the moment to purchase a second without the rest of the starter kit if you have more than one child at the right age. While there is a planned Hulk version hinted at on Disney Playmation's website, it's not available for pre-order through any retailer, and the technicians had no details about plans to release a stand-alone repulsor.
In addition to the Iron Man accessory, each starter kit comes with two power activators, which are the interactive bases where figures can be placed. However, these power activators can also be used in a similar way as the repulsor. Carrying around an interactive plate isn't quite the same as wearing Iron Man's armor, but it's supposed to work in a pinch. While that may be true in theory, I don't envy any parent that has to deal with explaining why Child A gets the glove and Child B has to carry around the triangular base.
Speaking of those bases, after learning the ins and outs of the Iron Man technology, the kids were pitted against Iron Skull (a version of Red Skull that's stolen Iron Man armor). As one of Ultron's agents (also including MODOK and Ultron Bot), Iron Skull is one of the first foes kids will have to defeat out of the box. There's a little link up on the base, which recognizes the character that's been placed and creates the battle scenario. The Iron Man wearable has a speaker which projects JARVIS' advice and details about the mission, while also blaring sound effects based on the encounter at hand. The peripheral will also dole out about two dozen different missions from the start, though more will be made available with additional figures and the free tie-in app.
There are different colored lights on the base that serve as indicators for how kids should respond. Purple means attack, green means defend, and red means you're actually hitting him with your offensive capabilities. There are lasers and lights on the front of the repulsor that interact with the base, and vice versa.
The wireless technology inside all the pieces allows multiple repulsors/power activators to be linked together in battle, either together or in opposition. Both kids were able to fight off the Iron Skull in tandem, weakening him bit by bit with attacks... when they landed. It was hard for kids to hold up the repulsor while keeping their wrists bent downward so as not to cover the lights. The battle would have been over much sooner had more attempted attacks not been deflected by the kids getting in their own way.
Though defending against attacks can mean either hiding behind a couch or tree or Inside Out display stand, a retail environment wasn't the optimal condition for the kids to run around and truly interact with the mission. If kids are stuck inside tight quarters, the Iron Man tech does offer a shield by holding your arm upright and parallel to your body. It keeps the kids active no matter what, but the payoff is small. After battling Iron Skull for a few minutes, he was finally defeated and the figure was popped off the base to signal his demise. The kids had won, but there was no real elation on their faces having bested the foe. Whatever sense of accomplishment this moment was supposed to provide was instead met with immediate queries of "Now what?"
This was perhaps one of the biggest red flags for me. For everything Playmation is attempting to do from an immersion standpoint, it didn't look or feel like the kids playing were really "in the moment." Perhaps the environment played a role in the lack of immersion for the kids, but nobody was all that excited to have defeated the Iron Skull, and the kids were ready to discard the gear as soon as he fell. For the investment Playmation is asking you to make for your kid to be more active and engaged when playing (the starter kit is $119.99), that's not exactly the reaction you want out of players.
Disney and Hasbro have a bit banking on Playmation's success this year, as the 2016 and 2017 sets have already been announced (Star Wars and Frozen, respectively). If Avengers falters out of the gate because kids just aren't as interested in playing with these things as their parents hoped they would be, it puts the future of the brand into question. While toy lines go through changes or are even canceled all the time, there's been a significant investment of time and resources on Disney's part into Playmation. Failure isn't an option for a gamble this big.
Our little expert called Playmation "good," but was bothered by how heavy the Iron Man repulsor was, and didn't necessarily want to play again. When offered the opportunity to keep going, she eschewed her spot rather than continuing. There are a multitude of reasons why she probably didn't want to keep playing, be it the environment, the strange adults standing around watching, or awkwardness around other children she didn't know; the bottom line is she didn't have a desire to stick around. She wasn't hooked, and that lack of initial grab by Playmation has me concerned about its longterm viability.
What's more, even though Disney, Hasbro and other retailers aren't talking about exclusive figures or accessories, each of the different business you can pre-order Playmation Avengers from has a mildly different set of options that the other stores don't have. We've seen this tactic in action figures and video games before, but that families that want a complete set will have to do extra running around for an unproven product at retail is a bit much. This is doubly true when some of these exclusive figures come as part of a set with another power activator. If you want everything, you're going to end up with five power activators in total, and still only have one Iron Man wearable. The price of entry was already relatively high, but the price of completion for something so new is startling.
I have almost no doubt that when Disney Playmation Avengers arrives this fall it's going to be hard to get hold of at retail. This is doubly true of some of the additional pieces available at select retailers. However, based on the experience we had testing the product out this past weekend, I'm not sure that it will remain a hot ticket for very long. It's a shame, too, as the promotional materials that have been released so far paint a very different picture of what the experience is like for kids. I can actually see adults getting very into playing with Disney Playmation the way they do about things like laser tag, but that's not the target audience or point of the line.
Now, we did only see one aspect of Disney Playmation Avengers in action. There will also be a free app that interacts with the set and offers new missions to play. While we do know the pieces can all interact with each other, we also didn't see what it would be like for a group of kids to play around on their own rather than with the interactive base. Disney is anticipating kids will have Avengers parties where they all run around with their own Playmation on adventures together, but based on what we saw, I find that scenario highly unlikely. Even though there is a great idea at the core of this product, it just seemed to fall flat for the kids it's hoping to inspire.
If you want to see the Disney Playmation Avengers set for yourself, you can check out this list of participating stores to make an appointment. Demos are available on Saturday and Sunday, though space is limited to four participants per appointment. This is the first time I can recall such a program existing for a new toy property, and I think it's absolutely worth it for any parent who has the time and inclination to see what it's all about with their own eyes. There are still a few months to go until Playmation releases, but I'm not sure there's a solution to making the experience more engaging for kids. An environment more conducive to playing around may have helped, but given what I've seen so far, I'm not sure even that will make enough of a difference.
Update: Disney did reach out to inform me that both the Iron Man repulsor and Hulk hands will be available separately in time for the holidays, but there's no exact release date or pricing information at the moment.