From it's humble beginnings as an imaginative Spyro reboot, Skylanders has become nothing short of a phenomenon. A game which saw you playing as collectable figures in game, it quickly went on to become one of the best-selling toys and games franchises in history, and kickstarted what would soon come to be known as the 'Toys to Life' genre, with both Disney Infinity and now Lego Dimensions leaping on board the hype train. The second game in the series, Skylanders Giants, supersized the figures, whose increased strength brought with them a whole new raft of puzzle challenges - and then came the seriously neat Swap Force, where characters could be pulled apart and switched top and bottom to create hybrid characters with unique abilities. Trap Team meanwhile, introduced a whole new form of collectibles - traps - which let you capture villains you came across in the story - and then play as them.
But Skylanders is one of those games that likes to keep you guessing, and we spent a lot of time trying to work out where the series would go next. We even got a little bit carried away one day when we spotted a McDonald's promotion in America was giving away figures of the villains, assuming it was a sign that there'd be figures of the amazing Chompy Mage and Painyatta for the next game. But, it turns out we were barking up completely the wrong tree, and the guys at Vicarious Visions had other ideas for the next game - this time taking the Skylanders to the land, sea and sky in a variety of swish looking vehicles, mixing up the traditional adventure with some pretty nifty vehicle sections.
Following on from our recent hands on with the new Mario Kart-esque racing multiplayer mode at Gamescom in Germany, we sat down with Guha Bala, the president of Vicarious Visions, to talk about the upcoming Skylanders Superchargers game. As is always the way whenever we get talking about Skylanders, it's a long one - but there's some interesting stuff in here:
I guess it's probably best to start our interview with a quick question about last year's game. As we're huge collectors of the figures ourselves, one of the problems we had was that some of the figures were very hard to find. The second wave of minis, especially, like Thumpling and Breeze were basically like hen's teeth and really, really hard to find. Some of them, like Gnarly Barkley, didn't even seem to hit the UK at all, as far as we could tell...
I think those things are kind of hard for us to know ahead of time - there's no planned scarcity or anything like that. I would say our toy assortment is more straightforward this year. It's twenty Supercharger Skylanders and twenty vehicles, and so that keeps the mix pretty simple, and that should hopefully mean that everyone will be able to get their hands on everything they like!
How come there's never been Vita version, despite a 3DS game being a pretty permanent fixture?
Well, really it depends on where our customers are playing - we try to go for a really broad platform support, because we want to be anywhere where the kids are playing. And that hasn't really happened on the Vita like it has on the 3DS - it's a younger market. The Vita skews older, and it's more core gamer, so there's fewer of our audience over there.
Who's the most popular Skylanders character?
We don't have a very specific one. When you look at the raw numbers, it always points to the Starter Pack characters, but that's not really the right way to look at it, because everybody gets that automatically, right? But then when you start to look outside the Starter Pack characters, it's a relatively even distribution. You have some kind of curve, but what it really means is that each consumer is finding their favourite. The purpose of the design of the collection is not to have a rank order, it's to offer diversity.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you go on the Skylanders forums and reddit and such, it sometimes seems like every character that Sarah really likes - characters like Wrecking Ball and Whirlwind - are some of the least liked figures!
They're actually really popular! The thing is it's more about the diversity than anything. When we look at the actual distribution, it's the diversity that's valuable. You can imagine that, if there's only one type of character was so popular, you'd see a lot more of that, but we try to maintain a really diverse cast. Just because that's how the players really like it.
How come the level cap's stayed the same for SuperChargers?
Part of it was that raising the level cap didn't actually present much of an advantage from a game stand point. We have to try and make the AI [enemy] progression both really good for new guys that are starting from level one, as well as for existing characters that may be at level twenty. So you start running into issues like the front of the game being way too easy and the back of the game being way too hard, so we have to try and scale enemies accordingly. And what's actually more valuable in a game like this is to say that, OK, people just want to sit and play with their Skylanders, so let's just make it a great experience - levelling is important, but only up to a point. Otherwise we'd probably be up to level fifty now or something like that.
I guess the other, really important question I had was about the vehicles. With the traps last year, some people will have gone out and bought all the traps, but now they don't really have that much of a purpose this year, apart from giving you element specific ammo. Can you say that if we go out and buy all the different vehicles, which are a lot fancier than the traps, will they actually have a use in future Skylanders games, or will they just end up gathering dust or being a new power up?
Well, I think that that's a really important point for us, so we're really committed to making sure that everything has value.
So that's a yes then? [laughs]
I can't give you a very direct answer on that one, because it would be talking about future projects, and I can't do that right now, but it's a really important value.
It's just that if I'm going to invest in all the Skylanders and things, I need to know that I'll be able to use them for years to come. I mean… the traps seem to have essentially been one use only?
I would say it's more useful than you might think. So when you play with the traps, you have two attacks per vehicle [as standard], and so getting a different weapon is actually quite useful, as each of the elements behaves a little differently. And the new version of Skystones is also really interesting too and encourages deck building. If you've trapped villains, those villains have unique Skystones that they unlock as well. So there's this additional value as well as trapping villains.
While we've been blown away by how good the racing mode is in Skylanders SuperChargers, we have to ask - how come there's no four player in the split screen racing mode? When you're competing with things like Mario Kart and Sonic All Stars Racing, it'd be a useful thing to have?
There's two reasons we didn't go for that - one is that, when we actually look at the consumer base, the probability of more than two players playing goes way down. The number of people playing four at the same time is comparatively little, and we're trying to do a lot on the screen at one time. So when you divide it by four, the screen size becomes super small and you're rendering four different windows, which means you kind of have to drop the level of detail on the tracks. So we can't communicate our tracks as well, and with a lot going on on the tracks, we said it's better just to stick with two player split screen local co-op, and then do online multiplayer where each person has their own dedicated screen for the full experience as well. We looked at it actually though, pretty seriously.
I just think it would be nice to get the whole family playing Skylanders together! Sarah's little cousin is a HUGE Skylanders fan, and she'd want everyone to play at once, basically.
It would! I see the value in that, yes. But it was simply one of the trade-offs we had to decide on while we were in development.
One of the first things you notice about Skylanders SuperChargers is quite how nice it looks. I mean, going from Giants to Swap Force there was a massive difference - some of the Skylanders looked more furry and stuff...
For Swap Force we actually recreated all of the Skylanders and updated them with the new visuals. With this one it's more the actual rendering technology we were running has been rewritten. Every couple of years we try to make a big push forward, so we can make sure that the consumers are really getting the best, and we can lead into what the experience really needs to be as well. It's a more continuous infrastructure and the technology so we don't have to redo all the characters to make them look a bit better this time!
Thinking a bit further forward, one of the things I was thinking about is that there's going to be a point, I guess, where you won't be able to fit all the information for all the Skylanders on the disc. How far away are we from that?
I don't really know exactly how far away we are from that but for me I'm not so bothered by those sorts of things. I think, by the time we get there, we'll also have a very high connectivity rate among our consumers, so we can always just put data in the cloud for all our collection items and that kind of thing. I mean - do you remember our tablet game for last year for Trap Team? Because tablet data footprints are so small, we basically stream a lot of things on the fly, from the cloud, and so we could actually do that. So yeah - there are things that we can do. None of this is really relevant to the kid though, because all they really want to know is that it just works. But I think we can be clever enough to figure out how to do that!
When we were first trying to guess what this year's Skylanders was going to be, we were kind of expecting it to be more villain-based. Because you've made all the villains, designed all their moves, given them their own theme tunes - we kind of thought they'd be the main characters in this one, but they don't seem to be?
Well - there's a couple of things there. One is that we wanted to do our job right and [come up with something new]. Because, for a lot of kids, they said after Swap Force, why didn't you do swapable giants? But that's just a combination of the last two ideas, not something totally new. The villains do have a role in our game though, and you'll see different characters from the past - and from Swap Force - returning to Superchargers. We haven't shown any of that material yet, but you will see that. And the racing environments - each one of the race tracks is themed around a villain.
Yeah - I noticed there was Chef Pepper Jack in the one, and the Chompy swamp too, with Chompy Mage.
Exactly. Basically, when you get the action packs you're going to have a boss trophy with them, and when you put the trophy on the portal, it'll open up a challenge to race against the Chompy Mage. Beat the Chompy Mage and you'll be able to race as the Chompy Mage and use his vehicle. So, we've thematically incorporated the villains as well, but our primary objective is 'let's keep you guessing'. I mean, there's no surprise if you already know what to expect, right?
When SuperChargers was officially announced, we were kind of expecting it to be a pure, Mario Kart-style racing game.
That was also important, right, because when people think about racing, they only go for the kart racing - and vehicles can be so much more. There's so much that hasn't been done yet. That's why we had a large emphasis on this in Superchargers - it's more of a vehicle adventure game. And that's something that hasn't really ever been explored, so that gave us a lot of places to go with that.
[A wild change of topic appears]
[Commenting on gameplay] So, you're coming to a Supercharger gate - any Supercharger can access this. These gates are all different types of gameplay - some are similar to the giant areas of the past, some are similar to the special Elemental areas, generally more extensive though, and it's part of our enhancement for the play.
Any Supercharger can access them?
Any Supercharger can access them.
So you can do them all out of the box?
And you can finish the whole story with just the stuff out of the box, without the need to buy extra vehicles?
Exactly. That's really important for us you know. It's a minority of our consumers that stop at just the Starter Pack - a small percentage - but we want to make sure that every consumer has a fantastic experience. So when you start off with just the Starter Pack, you're going to get the land racing, the entire adventure and story progression.
Have you ever thought about doing some more specific things for the different elements? Such as using water Skylanders to put out a fire - actual elemental interactions that you need to use some real-world logic to get past that kids could still cope with?
So we had a look at the sorts of things, and in some cases we tried it, in various situations, but really all those things need to be down an optional path, because if you don't have a lot of Skylanders, we don't want to force you. But I like the idea of saying 'hey lets come up with a way that water can be used'. It's kind of fun if you have a fire Skylander, because there's a level [in Superchargers] with chickens in it, and if you zap the chickens with a fire element Skylander they'll turn into roast chickens, which in turn work as food and heal you.
Will there be any new light and dark element Skylanders this year?
Actually, we have Nightfall, who's… not… here… I think she must be outside. She's a dark element character, but we haven't announced the light element character yet.
So there will be one of each?
There'll be one of each, yeah.
Are the Nintendo figures [Donkey Kong and Bowser] going to be available separately, or are they only through the Starter Packs?
Only as Starter Pack characters. And the reason why we did that is that it's easier for consumers. You can imagine if there's a single Bowser, [some may] think they can take it back and use it on a Playstation or something like that.
One of the things we've often wondered is, how many Skylanders does the average person have?
It's hard to look at an average number, but while I don't know the exact number, you do find there's a distribution. Like, there's some players that have like, all of them. That's a small number - but they MUST have all of them. Most people will buy a handful of extras. There are very few people that only have the Starter Pack and that's it. Ten percent or less will buy three or four different ones, and then there are some people that have like, ten ish. It changes a little bit from title to title. And then there's some people that have twenty ranging to having everything. But it's always been about finding your favourite.
Speaking of finding your favourite, one of the problems with that tends to be if you decide you like a particular type of figures. I mean, I like the lightcore figures, while Sarah likes the minis, but lately, these figure types seem to be a one-game deal - you'll have a batch of minis for one game, then they'll never be seen again. Is there a reason for keeping certain figure types exclusive to certain games, rather than letting us buy new minis for SuperChargers?
Well, it's kind of a paradox, having all the characters work in the same way across every game, whilst still allowing each game to do something special as well. So, we make sure we support it all, so your old toys will work in the new game - that's an important step. I mean, you'll probably find that you used them most in the game they were created for than you play with them now. The second piece is a challenge for retail and distribution, where we create a number of toys - it's impossible to have three hundred toys that are presented at Tesco or something like that. You have to have a variety that they can stock and that's easy to understand and read. You can imagine a mom or a dad buying a Christmas present, going 'What do I buy? There's three hundred figures in front of me. It's really difficult.'. And it's hard to manage that through a physical distribution channel as well, and so that's the second thing. We try to make the toy variety each year simple enough, like this year it's even simpler than last year with twenty Superchargers and twenty vehicles, maybe some special editions and stuff like that in the mix. But yeah, you keep it simple so it's easy for the consumer and easy for the retailers and that kind of thing. But we support it all, so both the collectors and fans can discover their favourite ones. So those are a couple of things that we have to balance against each other.
Can you tell us a little about the process that goes into making these figures? One of the things we noticed about the Skylanders is how crazily detailed they are compared to figures for other games.
Yeah, and it's something we can bring to the table because, as game developers, we model all these things with really high resolutions and pre-rendered cutscenes and cinematics, and we take those models and then use them for toys. So the toys become super detailed [themselves].
I remember seeing at E3 about how many revisions and stuff Bowser and Donkey Kong went through to meet both yours and Nintendo's expectations.
Oh, oh yeah. It's pretty crazy actually. So, you know, we never thought this would ever be possible, but we worked with the creators of Donkey Kong and Bowser, and we designed the toys together with them. We'd make iterations, they'd mark it up, and we'd change things and suggest something else and say 'Oh! That's a good idea! Let's do that!' and they'd be all 'That's a good idea, but we'd like you to push it even further.' and that kind of thing. So it was a really cool creative collaboration.
Yeah - we've always heard about how Nintendo are very… controlling, I guess, but this seems to have been much more open.
Well, there's a reason for that. The same creators that created Bowser and Donkey Kong are the people who own these characters today, so these are their babies, you know. They've been with them for twenty or thirty years! And so it takes a lot of trust to say lets get creative partners that can deal with these characters with the kind of care we give our own. And that's where it all started. So this certainly wasn't a licensing exercise or anything, or a commercial opportunity - it was a creative opportunity by creative minds. That's how it all started.
I like the fact they can both be used as amiibos and Skylanders as well.
Yeah, that's also like a way that we can add value to our fans.
I guess that's probably quite technologically tricky as well to have something as simple as twisting the base to switch between amiibo and Skylanders mode?
Well, the easiest thing to do for games or with tech is to make it complicated! We could come up with a complicated scheme for everything! To do something that's hard to do but keep it so simple that you can just do it like that, that's really tricky. And so we did that on Swap Force with the swappable toys, and [ended up getting a lot of] people thinking about how we did that. And that's what makes the whole thing tick, really. That's the magical part. For us, if it looks really complicated, that means we haven't done our job.
Once you start delving into the technical parts though it starts taking some of the joy and the magic away from the consumers. So while as a developer that's interesting, and as an enthusiast and an editor that's interesting, but from a consumer standpoint it's sort of like taking the magic and the wonder out a little. And so we say lets keep it around just the experience without giving too much away. Even in the concepting we're focusing on the experience.
One of the other nice new touches for this year's game is the fact that while some of the characters may be reposes, it's more than just a cosmetic difference - they come with a whole new upgrade tree as well.
That's actually an important detail. The Superchargers won't be playable in the older games. And there's a reason for that - because they're actually new characters. Take Gill Grunt for example - he looks quite different to what he did before, and his move and upgrade trees are totally different. Stealth Elf also. And so, for her to now appear as the old Stealth Elf with the old upgrade tree wouldn't make as much sense. So you should really think about each of these guys as new characters actually.
So these ones aren't backwards compatible?
Yeah. Backwards and forwards is sometimes confusing. But it's essentially because they're new characters. So one of the things that we heard was that the series is such a great series, but the question is always did we go far enough with the new experiences. And it's like we'll answer that by making totally new experiences for all the characters! But this is just one subtlety to that.
We do find that, in practical use, the going backwards with the same character is generally a more limited use too.
I think one of the things you find when you buy Skylanders is that, sometimes, you might thing the figure looks OK, but when you see it in motion and see what it can do, you find there's actually a lot more depth to the figures than you think. Like with Eye Brawl, where his eye can come off and fly around the stage and such, some of the moves can sometimes really surprise you.
One of the things we find with consumers is they say 'ok, this guy [holding up Donkey Kong] has a barrel, so I guess he's going to do something with that barrel!', and so that's the expectation and that's important because you want to stay true to that, because they're really excited to play as them because of this - but if we stopped there, it would be no fun. So then the surprising things that they can do, that nobody else can do and you haven't seen anywhere else - that's where it's really interesting.
Like DK's bongos, where the Donkey Konga bongos come out!
Old school is my favourite. That's the Soul Gem move where you bring down the house and all sorts of girders and things come down. And with Bowser - he turns into Magma Bowser, and that's really cool too. He can set his Dry Bones on fire too - the minions he can drop.
You mentioned the vehicles have their own stats and stuff?
Yeah. They're vehicle-specific, so it's like the handling stats and such. I think there's maybe six stats that are exposed to the player - there's more that aren't - but these six stats are handling, top speed, acceleration, armour… erm… that's four so there are two more… And the mods affect each of these. So you have a base stat, you have what your vehicle is really good at and the mods will allow you to maximise that and do some trade-offs and things like that.
Are the mods randomly unlocked or are they something you go and buy?
There's a sort of probabilistic rating to the drops. It's a random system but with a probabilistic weighting so the mods are largely going to be for the toys that you own already, coming at a certain frequency there'll be a combination of, you know, the Barrel Blaster, with different things you can put on the back end for it's engine, different ways of switching out the wheels, for example. But also there'll be a wide variety of horns available, all with different sounds as well. So those are the kinds of mods that you'll be able to get, and they'll drop and sometimes you'll get Barrel Blaster, and sometimes you'll get Hot Streak and sometimes you'll get the others. So, yeah, there'll be variety of different things that drop. But part of that is like a loot system, basically, as rewards for playing again and again. We know a lot of our fans continue to come back for replay, and so we wanted to reward and reinforce that.
With all the Skylanders and vehicles now, you must be topping three hundred figures now...
Yeah, over three hundred. It's funny, because with the first game we were worrying about how we were going to support thirty! Needless to say, we figured it out!
Skylanders Superchargers will be racing/sailing/flying it's way onto all major consoles in less than a month's time, on the 25th September. While the Xbox 360, Xbox One, Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and Wii U will get the standard, vehicle-based adventure game, it seems (although hasn't been outright confirmed yet) that those playing on the Wii and 3DS will be getting more of a Mario Kart-style racing spin-off. We don't know about you, but we can't wait!