Last year's release of Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was a surprise hit for Activision. The video game and toy combination was both innovative and fun to play, not to mention a bit addictive. Unlike Nintendo's Pokémon franchise, "collecting them all" in Skylanders meant tracking down the toys in real life in order to use them within the game. With the sequel, Skylanders: Giants, just around the corner, we decided to join other media and Activision reps on a trip to the northern California office of Toys for Bob, the developer behind the Skylanders games, to see the magic behind the plastic.
Toys for Bob is housed in an old hangar that was converted to an office. Once inside the building, everything is decked out retro tiki-island style. There are faux thatched roofs, leis, a surf board with a Skylanders poster attached and actual tiki statues to set the island feel. If you have a hankering for gum, there's a big '70s style spaceship filled with gumballs.
It's the kind of environment that caters to open-ended creativity, which even spilled over to the bathrooms. The converted hangar has urinals in all the bathrooms. Since the women had no use for the urinals, they turned them into glorified plant holders and plastered the walls with male pin-up photos — just like a teenage girl's bedroom. You can tell they have fun here.
After a quick look around, we were escorted to seats facing a projector screen where Paul Reiche, the Toys for Bob studio head, gave us an overview of the company's history and how it came to develop Skylanders. The presentation then shifted to Giants and the lore behind the new characters.
Ancient characters in the Skylanders universe, the Giants were conceived when Toys for Bob was developing the first game, but it decided not to use them in Spyro's Adventure. Instead, the Giants became the focus of the sequel. Compared to regular Skylanders, the Giants are bigger, stronger and don't need bombs to move things in the game. Since they are big, they also move slower within the game world.
The light core characters are new toys that literally light up when placed on the portal. No batteries are required. Light core characters have a special area effect in the game. These guys look really cool in action, though you'll have to buy them separately. The starter pack includes a giant and two new characters, but none of the three are light core.
Toys from the previous game can be used in Giants, and the new series 2 characters can be played in Spyro's Adventure. Series 1 characters can be upgraded up to level 15 in Giants. All upgrades and coins saved to series 1 characters are transferable to the new game. Series 2 characters have a special wow-pow power in Giants, though that is not available while playing Spyro's Adventures. The new Giants characters are not usable in Spyro's Adventure.
In a bid to appeal to experienced gamers, Giants now has difficulty modes. Easy, medium, and hard are available from the start. If you finish the game, you can unlock nightmare mode. The difficulty modes were added based on feedback from older players. It seems that Spyro's Adventure has quite a few adult fans.
After the overview, we split up into smaller groups. Our first stop was with I-Wei Huang, director of toys and characters. Huang might just have the coolest job at the company. He is responsible for creating characters and toys for the Skylanders universe. If you thought that characters were created for the game first and then made into toys, you'd be wrong. Huang creates the toys first, and then the characters transition into the game.
Huang starts the process by sketching a ton of characters. The team reviews the ones it likes, and those characters are then refined. Each new character goes through a bunch of versions including accessories, weapons, facial expressions and facial appendages. One example is the character of Bouncer. The team had a version of Bouncer, but it couldn't figure out how he would shoot his guns. While brainstorming, team members used their fingers to gesture fake guns all day. Suddenly, someone realized what they were doing, and Bouncer's fingers became guns.
After a character design is decided, Huang converts the sketches into 3-D images on the computer and uses a 3-D printer to create a physical version. The prototype models can be painted and held in your hand. He said that it is only at this point that they can tell whether or not the character would work as a toy. If it doesn't work, they nix it. Huang told us about one cool character that he came up with. He was big, black and had Gatling guns for arms. After they spit him out of the 3-D printer, the team realized that the character wasn't appropriate for the game since he wasn't kid friendly.
Once they have the basics of a character, they have to pick a pose for the toy. This may sound straightforward, but it's not. The pose needs to look cool, but it also has to fit in a standard package. This limits what the team can do with each character. After a toy has been finalized, the high-resolution 3-D model is converted into a lower-resolution version for the game.
The next stop was Dan Neil, the audio director. He told us about some of the challenges in bringing a fully voiced soundtrack to Giants as compared to Spyro's Adventure, where the characters all spoke in gibberish. According to Neil, it was a large undertaking as they not only had to create sounds and voices for more than 45 different characters, but they also had to worry about casting actors for different languages. This was something that they didn't have to worry about in the previous game. Blending sounds as players move from one room to another was a challenge, as Neil told us that each area has its own distinct background sound.
Voice actors cast for the English language version of Giants include George Takei ("Star Trek") as one of the robots, Kevin Sorbo ("Hercules") as one of the Giants, and Bobcat Goldthwait. Music was composed by Lorne Balfe of Remote Control Productions, a production company run by Hans Zimmer. Among other things, Giants includes a rapping robot and some dubstep sounds. Yes, there is dubstep in your Giants.
Last, but not least, was Paul Yan, the animation director. His desk was next to the Wall of Power, which is filled with hundreds of photos. Each photo was an animation of a different power for a character. For Giants, the team had one animator for each character and one developer per level. The animators would brainstorm together, throwing out random and outrageous powers for characters, regardless of whether or not they thought it would work in the game. If the team thought a power sounded cool, it would try to implement it. Yan told us that the team met at the end of each day, and everyone would show off their newest and greatest work. The creativity kept flowing because each member of the team would constantly try to one-up one another at these meetings.
At the end of his presentation, Yan showed us how they used the 3-D printer to do a stop-motion video. The team wanted an excuse to play with the new printer, so they decided to create a "bumper" animation video using this technique. The video can be seen on YouTube and also appears in the game. Yan showed us the video and all of the different 3-D character models they had to create to make it.
As we prepared to leave Toys for Bob at the end of the day, it left an impression of fun. Everything they do at the company is focused on having fun and being creative. Looking back, it's easy to see how that creativity translated into a sleeper hit with Spyro's Adventure. If the enthusiasm we saw from the team during our visit carries over into Skylanders: Giants, it should make a fine addition to the Skylanders universe.
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