At the recent massive games convention, gamescom, we got the chance to have a sit down with Paul Reiche, the President of Toys for Bob, and the team responsible for the upcoming Skylanders game, Skylanders Trap Team studio. Having lifted the lid on a fully featured, all singing all dancing tablet version of the game only the day before, and with the fourth game in their billion dollar franchise out later this year, there was a lot to talk about. Not in the least because we're massive Skylanders fans, and have developed something of a problem when it comes to collecting the figures...
Before we were taken away to be checked into the Skylanders rehab clinic, we fired off a few questions to Paul, about the game, the characters, and the technical side of making the new Skylanders.
It's the same price as the other console versions, but what's cool is that you get this controller [flips over portal to reveal a controller slotted into the base] at no extra cost. It's a fully featured, really nice controller (he's not kidding - it's actually really comfortable to hold). Actually, fire up the game so you can see what it's like [loads up the game].
Will the tablet version still be able to do two player, or is it strictly a single player game?
You can play co-op if you have two controllers. You can also, in single player, play using the screen - it's got nice on-screen controls, so if you want to take it on the go you can do that. They're bluetooth, low energy, wireless devices, both controller and portal, and so easy to use. If you press that button there, and I press this button here, that's all the pairing you have to do. There's really nothing more.
And it may seem like a small touch, but [slips the tablet into a built-in slot on the portal, holding it up as a screen, cue much oohing and ahhing from your Everybody Plays team]. And this is the full game - it contains everything that our version does.
And that's great! The only problem I have is, I saw the list of supported tablets, but I don't think mine's on there. I've got a Galaxy Note 10.1, but not the 2014 edition, so...
I know we have that list, and I'm afraid I don't know them very well - I'm personally more of a console person (Vicarious Visions are handling the tablet version), but I do know that the list will change over time. They're hand optimising for the different chipsets of different tablets at the moment, moving through as many as they can.
Either way, this is kind of venturing into uncharted waters here. A full price, physical game on a tablet.
We [just[ think of it as Skylanders. When we set out to do it, our whole goal was [to include everything we] we have to have the real game experience on a tablet. From our perspective, this is what we think Skylanders is - it requires a controller - and just really, no compromises. And fortunately, we now have the combination of hardware, skills, software and enough studios to tackle something that large.
Moving on to Trap Team generally, can we talk about the new Eon's Elite range of figures - are they backwards compatible with the earlier games, or...
I think the simple answer is yes. So, if that character existed at that point - if you go back to Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, Chop Chop will work, and all of the characters that were there will work. They won't have their new powers and their new stats, and they won't have their special magic moment, but they'll be playable normally. We're sort of careful with that, for example, if you take Tidal Wave Gill Grunt from Swap Force, or Anchors Away, you can take him back to the first game and he'll play as regular Gill Grunt.
Yeah, we did that with Springtime Trigger Happy.
Oh yeah? Did that work?
Of course, while he's pink in Swap Force, in the original he's just normal Trigger Happy...
But still! That's cool that you can do that, because that's what you want to be able to do! Despite the fact the box says it'll only work with Swap Force...
We tried hard. The guy who invented the portal hardware - Robert Leyland - he is very careful to always try to make things as compatible as possible. So he pushes the designers to make sure that the powers that they're adding don't preclude being able to use the character in the past. Forwards compatibility and backwards compatibility is really confusing now, because we go in both directions. I'm not sure anyone's ever done this before! So anyway, we try to always think about what would be best for the consumer. And for the fans.
Well yeah, you want it to be able to work with as many things as possible; to know you've got a toy that works.
Yeah, that's the thing. Our belief is that, if I'm at home playing with the toys, away from the game, I get to do whatever I want with them. You know - this guy could sit on this guys head, and so on. You don't say 'No! Sorry! This toy cannot play with this toy.' Or this toy can only sit here, but not here and over there, and this one can't play in that level.
Like certain other products?
Like certain other products! We've never done that. We've always believed you can be whoever you want to be at any time. So that's what we're trying to keep pushing for, always.
One of the things I wanted to ask about was the new trap figures. I was expecting these (traptanium weapons) to glow when they're on the portal. I mean, it's a really nice effect, so...
Oh, thank you! Well, you know... they glow in the game when you're fighting villains. The lightcore itself was a fun technology. Each year we sort of decide what features we're bringing in - we don't want to just make a sort of kitchen sink approach of sticking everything in. I think you're right; I love those lights. So, let us know and who knows that'll happen next year! Actually, the whole light core [idea], when we created it, not many people talked about the use of broadcast power and, just from a technical standpoint, the idea that...
I have no idea how it works - you put it on the portal and, to begin with I thought it might just be lighting up from below, from the portal, through a hole in the Skylanders, but its not like that. It blows my mind! I'd love to take one to pieces on the website, and see how it works
Robert Leyland is our hardware tinkerer, and he would love to talk with people about how that works. Because one of the reasons he does what he does is to get young people interested in electronics, and engineering in general. I think he would love to talk about the techniques we use.
Either way, Tesla is involved - believe it or not.
The other question we had was, how many enemies can you fit into the traps?
Well, each trap holds one guy. But, if you've defeated a character, and he's not in a trap, there's a place in a hub - called the Villain Vault - and you can take a trap... say you don't have a fire trap at all, and you defeat a fire villain, he'll appear in the vault, and then later, if you get a fire trap or your friend has one, they can bring it over and download him into there.
Right, so it's not that you'll defeat it, but you won't be able to catch it and it'll go free?
That's correct. We talked about that earlier on, and it sort of logically made sense, but it wasn't fun. And we wanted people to experiment with the different villains, so we had to make sure that you never felt that you could lose something by experimenting.
Yeah. So you can swap them in and out of the traps? We were worried you might end up overwriting the one already on there...
Yeah, no. Don't worry - it'll be fine.
We saw earlier that you've got another new customisation thing this year.
Yes, we have. I think we call them trinkets, and they're decorations - crazy things like bubble blowers and little glowing stars, and you can place them on different parts of different characters. And its just another way to add a customisation to a character. We spend a lot of time picking the right hats - stats are fine, but for me it has to look right - and the bubble blower is very popular I think. You see that on a lot of people's characters at work. So yeah - its another thing to collect, find and purchase - with in game money, of course.
And then we've got the Minis as well, finally available for sale in shops.
Oh yeah! AND they're full Skylanders. And because we haven't brought out a new Spyro or Bash this year, this is just a fun way, if you really like Spyro, to be able to play as him again. But these are just sooooo cute, and in game they speak with high pitched voices and exaggerated animations.
Do you have a price for these at all?
Yeah, it's two for... each one is less expensive than normal Skylanders... $14.99 for two.
Are there any Swap Force-specific areas in Trap Team?
No, we don't have swap areas. We dedicated all of our new areas to the specific villains and trap masters. They're fully playable though - you can still swap them together.
There are villain-specific areas and trap master-specific areas on this game then?
Erm... There are... I don't know how much I can say about that, but yes - there are. We want to make sure that the game directly supports this year's innovations. But I don't know how much we've said about those details, so I've got to be kind of careful.
OK, don't worry! One question we had was about the enemies - in Trap Team, you can catch them inside the trap things, but some of the enemies we'd quite like to have as a figure as well. Are there any plans for that?
Oh, totally. You're speaking to the choir on this one. We actually have 3D printers, and on our off hours we are always making our own crazy toys. We didn't know exactly how compelling some of them were going to be. There's Painyatta, the kind of giant pinata candy monster.
Some of them are really nice designs, and you think they'd work really well as a figure that you can buy in the shops!
Well, yeah - keep telling us that! We've had that feedback quite a bit. Anything's possible - I'd love to see some of those characters. Dreadnaught, Painyatta - there's a lot of really good ones. Some of the characters look awesome, but some of them it's just their personalities. I mean, you wouldn't think a character made of broccoli would be a great personality, but in-game, he's really full of himself and talks about himself in the third person a lot. The writer, Alex Ness, has been writing the Toys for Bob Skylanders games - he had more opportunities to write crazy lines than ever.
As well as the enemies, have you ever considered making figures of the recurring characters, such as Flynn? Would it even work, as in terms of lore, they're technically not Skylanders?
We've talked on and on about that, because it would be really fun to have them. We haven't announced anything here, but yeah - the one I really want is Hugo. He's not really a very powerful character, but he's really cute. But Tessa would be very cool, particularly with Whiskers - it's a great feature there. So I mean, if there's one thing about Skylanders, it's that we have a lot of fun characters. And it's nice to have so many that we can't make toys of them all in any particular year, but yeah. I also like T-Bone, the skeleton guy, I love him. I don't know if we've used him recently. I know he's in the first game, I think he may have appeared as a challenger in Giants, but he makes a new appearance this year. So yes, I love all our characters. But there's like a physical limit to how much we can put out in a year. This year we have like around 50 Skylanders as toys, about 40+ as villains.
Is this why you've gone the trap route, rather than releasing individual enemy figures?
Well, we also wanted to offer a new way to play, like the fact that you can have two playable characters and tag team rapidly between them. And also, conceptually, you can collect toys or you can collect villains and you can build these combinations of Skylanders and villains. So we wanted to let people be - we can't expect everybody to get everything - we want to let people kind of find what's their natural preference.
It's one of those things I was wondering about. Is there going to be a risk of there being too much this year? As when it's a fairly small range of new toys people might try and collect them all if they think they can stretch to it, but with the Minis and Trap Masters and the 50 new figures you said about as well - and then all the traps to buy too - it ends up being so much, it may be too much choice?
Well, it's interesting. I mean, we're a collectable toy line. As action figures, we're the most successful around, about twice as many as the Star Wars toys this year. So we also look at what other great collectable toy lines have done, and they offer big ranges. So whether you're looking at Hot Wheels or other great character toy lines, they really offer a lot of choice, and we found that it's hard to, if you don't have a lot of choice, you're going to end up not offering enough to serve the fans. So that's the route we've take, and we'll sort of see how people respond to it. Like in Giants, we had a much smaller set - I think we had only 16 characters. We had eight new core and eight new Giants and a bunch of reposes. This year we've very much shrunk down the number of reposed characters - so really most of them are coming out in Mini form - and we've got a lot of new characters. And you know, we'll see how fans like that and sort of respond in the following years from that.
One of the things I thought would be nice is if they had new levels every now and then to give you an excuse to keep going back to the game, and maybe buying a new figure and delving back in/levelling them up again. It would be a nice incentive to buy new figures.
Its a great idea. In the past we've sometimes... So we release our toys in waves, and it's definitely clear that when there's news, like when a new wave comes out, we definitely see a peak of interest. The game is also very successful around holiday, so I think there's a natural rhythm that's similar to what you see with other collectable toy lines. But we've released in the past an adventure expansion packs, and those have driven, sort of engaged interest, and then special editions, like the Springtime Trigger Happy - he got a lot of interest.
That was the first Skylander Sarah bought, because he was pink. I mean, they say 'pink it and shrink it' doesn't work, but it does with her!
That's great! Everybody's different. We look at toys in these different sort of spectrums - monsters versus humanoid, and kind of funny versus serious and dangerous. We try to cover a large volume so that - we have some people who love cute, and they'll go after Trigger Happy, they'll go after these Minis. And then we have those who think if its not a Chop Chop, it's not someone really tough, and they're not interested.
That's kind of what I thought. I think the Minis are going to appeal a lot more to the female sort of side of things, because they're small, they're cute. You know, I mean, it's a cute little dragon, isn't it?
Well, and people like me! But also I think the younger end of our audience. We have quite a large age range.
I think for the Giants and things, they tend to appeal to the boys more, because they're big, bulky, massive and smash things - I mean, they're the ones I end up playing as, whereas Sarah tends to prefer the smaller, littler ones like Wrecking Ball, Trigger Happy and that rainbow-shooting dragon. What's the name of that one? Whirlwind.
Ah, Whirlwind. I like Whirlwind too. We do try to make strong female characters - a lot of us have daughters and we don't want to just have one particular way of working the female characters. So we have Forge who was a blacksmith and turned her bellows into a flamethrower, and she's rather confident. And we have Headrush, who is sort of this giant, singing Valkyrie.
Another thing I really like about the characters is, when you get them in the game, you see how they, as you say, 'come to life'. You might look at the figure and think 'Errr, I don't about that one', and then you get him in the game and it has a personality of its own. For me, Eyebrawl was one - I looked at it and thought it was a creepy looking thing, but then I found he could take his head off and fly it around the levels, and it's like - great. And all of a sudden I ended up playing as him a lot, so I can see why it's got such an appeal.
Thank you. We had a new designer this year, and he wanted to prove to us how great he was, and he built this one, and it has got so many powers it was almost like stop putting all these powers in him. But, I like this guy a lot [the rather bulky looking Lion, Wildfire]. He's definitely for if you like 'rawr' a lot; he's the high end of that.
High end 'rawr'.
High end RAAAWWWWRRR!
One last question - how does Skylanders compare to Disney Infinity, do you think? In terms of sales as well, do you know how the figure sales compare to Disney Infinity?
You know what, I'll be completely honest - I don't know what the sales figures are. We invented this. We focus on leading by innovation, and that's really the way that we will always win. So, you know, we've added a whole new collectable, a whole new way of interacting with the characters from Skylands. We've completely caught everyone by surprise by releasing a tablet version that is uncompromisingly the full game. They're going to do what they do, and they certainly have a lot to work with, but our success story is about doing something new. And that's how we'll keep doing it.