The first time I ever saw a press release about Skylanders, I chuckled to myself. “Nice try, Activision,” I said. “You’re going to bury those in between the desert pits currently home to Atari‘s E.T. cartridges and THQ‘s uDraw tablet.” It wasn’t until I had the chance to talk to someone from Activision completely by accident at Call of Duty XP last year that I started to change my mind.
From Labor Day through the game’s launch, my excitement started to mount quickly. I fell in love first with the technical prowess exhibited by Toys for Bob in making the figures compatible across platforms and even with the Nintendo 3DS. When I started really examining the figures though, it all started to click.
Skylanders aren’t throwaway sculpts hastily thrown together to make a buck (though they have raked in the cash). Rather, each of the 32 different characters we’ve come to know in the past year has its own personality and flare. There are no simple palette swaps (discounting the Legendary versions of some characters) and each manages to evoke a distinct attitude and emotion with only the most minimal of voice acting.
Take a good look at the static figures on their elemental bases and you’ll be gazing at the culmination of an iterative process. The molten visage of Eruptor, for instance, went through many evolutions before the design team settled on the original figure and the Series 2 version above. But even before the first prototype is generated on the studio’s in-house 3D printer, things begin on paper.
Everything begins with a sketch, and most of those flow from the hands of I-Wei Huang, Lead Character designer. Each of these humble origins goes through some change, some drastic. Huang showed us an early prototype of the tech giant, Bouncer. The hard lines and Gatling gun arm looked very cool, but not terribly kid friendly. They needed to get rid of the gun (or at least tone it down).
As Huang and other members of the team were talking, it became clear that one gesture they were making would be a perfect fit. Gone was the arm-mounted minigun, and in its place…
Thanks to the 3D printer only feed from his desk, Huang is able to bring his creations from the paper and into the hands of others on the development team. This allows focus to be equally distributed between the obviously important forward-facing features and the back of the character, which is what players are most often looking at.
It’s that iterative and collaborative philosophy that fuels the entire process.
“Toys for Bob is an art-driven studio,” Animation Director Paul Yan told us.
Each of the Skylanders starts with a design idea, which gameplay is sculpted around. The personality that comes through on paper leads to animation, powers and upgrades and fit within the overall architecture of the game. Yan proudly drew our attention to what is known as the “wall of power.”
Each of the images featured in this collage represents just one of the character animations that was designed and implemented in the upcoming sequel. This is made even more complicated by the difference in scale between the 32 original characters and 8 new regular Skylanders and the 8 giants that are equally massive in physical form and in-game.
“We had a very short production cycle. Under a year,” Yan shared. “The germ of the idea though, started two years prior.”
The team was experimenting with different ideas during the development of Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure.
“We were playing with scale on a character that didn’t make the cut, pumping him to 300% size. The level design broke, but there was a great emotional feel. It feels good to be Godzilla.”
Adding the eight giants and additional eight new original-sized characters presented more than just level design challenges. Each of the now-48 members of the Skylanders family had to feel different from the others. In order to accomplish this, each is assigned to a different animator in a strict 1:1 ratio. From there, the team participated in a daily ritual, showing off their best work on the various creatures that inhabit the Skylands.
“Impressing our peers is the best gauge of success,” Yan told us.
That constant encouragement and constructive criticism yields results. The game does look quite good, retaining the same approachable feel, varied environments and engaging non-player characters. Without the complementing audio though, the package isn’t complete. We had the chance to speak with Audio Director Dan Neil about how his team is making the sequel even more pleasing to the ears.
One of the things that sets this series apart is that the base music you’ll hear throughout is fully orchestrated. From there, Lorne Balme’s score is passed through filters and mutated to emulate a variety of genres. We were even treated to a fantastic dubstep remix that will appear in the game. As a further example of the studio’s synergistic approach, you’ll find animations during boss battles linked to the sound design.
This provides not only a fantastic multisensory effect, but for the children playing the game, it will help impart the type of pattern-learning that comes with traditional boss battles. Of course, Neil knows that the best material targeted at children has something for the adults in the room. Familiar actors like George Takei and Kevin Sorbo might not mean anything to my four year old, but they make the experience that much more enjoyable for me. This time out, even the older characters are going to have a voice to match the emotive animations. My favorite character, Drobot, happens to sound like Soundwave from Transformers. This is a good thing.
Hearing nods to a particular helicopter-themed show from the 80s intentionally peppered in put a giant smile on my face. Sound design is always important, but I’d argue that getting it right in a game your kids will be playing over and over for months is a big part of keeping parents sane (and buying more toys). Oh, and when you do play it, make sure to take each of your Skylanders over to the jukebox on Flynn’s ship (yes, Patrick Warburton is back). Trust me.