Fake Nintendo amiibo figures make $1bn industry nervous

amiibo imageThey sell out within minutes of going on sale.  On eBay and Craig's List, some versions sell for 2, 3, 10 and sometimes 100 times their standard retail price. A special version is available on eBay for $13,000.  Two weeks ago in the UK, a truck carrying the items was hijacked, and disappeared.

A new iPhone version?  A blockbuster anti-cholesterol drug? 

Nope. They are game-maker Nintendo's amiibo-enabled toy figurines, released last November.   The company sold 5.7 million figures in in its first two months last year, despite a one-to-a-customer restriction at many retail outlets.  The figurines sell for $12.99 if you can pluck one off a store shelf, otherwise the sky, apparently, is the limit.

The figurines, characters with names like Mario, Lynn, Samus Aran, Peach, Villager and others already beloved by young and old gamers and collectors is Nintendo’s entry into a burgeoning market known as "Toys to Life." The idea is that physical toy figures can be made, with a neat bit of electronic magic, to appear and act within video games. The first mover in this market, Activision with its Skylanders figures, has generated $3bn in sales since 2011. Disney's Infinity line has also been a striking success.

Given all this popularity combined with shortages, it should not be a surprise that counterfeit figures have already turned up in brick and mortar markets, Brazil to start, and online, according to infoamiibo, and numerous other gaming sites.   And these are first reports – almost certainly the tip of an iceberg.

Here is the catch with the counterfeits, and it is a nasty trick: real amiibo-enabled figures look like any combat or role-playing game character.  But by touching the figure to a gamepad, the figure connects wirelessly to and appears and acts in any video game with which it is compatible.  The wireless connection is made using a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip, like those used for wireless payments on android phones.

One young gamer told this reporter: "Just imagine that you can reach into a video game, grab a character right off the screen, and make it real. That's how you feel about an amiibo or Skylanders toy."

The figures can also store data from the games, so a player can train a character on the screen, sync it with the figurine, and take its knowledge and level of play along to the next game.

The counterfeit figures by contrast have no NFC chip.  They are simply dumb copies, which cannot be used with the games. Some of the fakes are rather well-designed, but all can be detected visually. Jason Ganos, on gamer site Nintendo Inquirer, gives a detailed low-down on telling the fake from the real. 

There have been no reports of health or safety issues in these early sightings of amiibo counterfeits.  Counterfeit toys are widely known to cut dangerous corners, such as use of paint with high levels of lead and the softening chemical group of phthalates, as well as cheap parts that can choke infants.  Lead and phthalates above a threshold level are illegal in the US.

In the US, from 2010 to 2013, 23.8 million children's products were seized at the nation's borders by the US Customs and Border Protection agency.

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