A few days ago I came across some new products by Wowee and Appgear. I found them in a catalog for a gadget store, and the reason why they were in such a catalog is that they use physical objects to trigger digital events in games for kids. This isn’t new, with big companies like Disney already having similar hardware/software combos on the market. What struck me with these specific products, however, and particularly the Foam Fighters series, was how completely and utterly pointless the hardware part of it is.
Foam Fighters is a set of foam fighter planes that have special patterns you can scan on the wing, as well as a suction cup mount to allow the planes to be mounted on the back side of iOS devices. You scan the plane and put it on your device, and then a combination of a view of the plane and digital effects makes it appear as though you’re flying the foam plane.
The problem I have with this product is that it seems so utterly pointless. Other augmented reality toys actually benefit from the melding of software and hardware, like how the Disney Cars toys make the experience of driving around in a car game more like playing with toy cars. Other products use the environment around them to augment the game experience, and then you have board games where the pieces give it more of an old school feel. With the Foam Fighters, however, there is no point. You don’t grab the plane and wave it around to control anything; you simply attach it to the device so that it appears on screen. Having a digital substitute for the plane would make absolutely no difference to the experience; however, it would make a difference for Wowwee: If this was a software game only, you couldn’t charge $10 for it, it wouldn’t appear in catalogs where they have basically no competition (compared to thousands of dogfight apps in iTunes), and friends and family wouldn’t be able to have it wrapped in a toy store and give it as a gift.
With software now being more or less a fully digital deal, the wish to get back to the old days where it was easier to get rid of the competition by having a better distribution network seems to be getting stronger. These days, a bright person can make a game that’s better than Foam Fighters in his or her bedroom, distribute it online, and get rich. This has to be frightening for companies that aren’t used to those channels, and who get a minor panic attack when confronted with the idea of making money selling something at $1. The result is apparently things like the Foam Fighters, which manage to put apps that no one would pay for otherwise into a toy store setting where they sell for $10.
What surprises me most is that Apple allows this. It doesn’t allow digital content publishers to host a payment system outside of iTunes, but that’s pretty much exactly what these companies are doing with these physical app-enabled toys. Not only are $1 apps going for $10, but the 30% to Apple isn’t an issue, either. They are of course paying for manufacturing and distribution of the physical products, but when you’re ending up selling something at that many times what it should cost you do have quite a bit to go on.
Bottom line, I’m not really against mixing accessories and apps like this, but there has to be a purpose to the accessories aside from just turning an app into a physical product.