Activision and Toys For Bob were kind enough to invite us in for a visit to the development studio as work is finalized on the sequel to one of last year’s hottest games: Skylanders.
As I shuffled through the door to the airplane hangar, I found myself instead entering an office building populated by a variety of businesses. Next door, for instance, was—maybe you’ve heard of them—2K Games. We headed up to the second floor of one of these nondescript buildings and made our way into where we’d spend the rest of our day.
The interior of the Toys For Bob headquarters is perhaps as unexpected as the exterior of the building. As Paul Reiche III joked to us while we took our seats, it’s a “pretty serious” atmosphere. The walls were decorated like Tiki Huts, complete with torches with fake tissue-paper flames and other elements of Polynesian lore. There were more Skylanders toys hanging on the walls than in any retail store, and display cases showcasing everything from the most well-known to the rarest and even prototypical Skylanders. At this point, I had already undergone the kid in the candy shop transformation.
After a few moments of coffee-gathering and socializing, Paul began his short PowerPoint introduction of the company, explaining along the way his passion for game development and how he just happened to be—as many successful people often say—“in the right place at the right time” when complex videogames emerged as a commercial phenomenon. Notwithstanding their roots in the beloved Star Control series, the company quite clearly specialized at producing games involving giant, hulking beasts fighting other giant, hulking beasts. Fast forward to 2005, following Activision’s acquisition of the studio, and they’re right back to the work they love, conjuring crazy ideas for new creatures and building a compelling world around them.
This wall features an illustration for almost every Skylander technique to date
In the beginning, it seemed like quite a stretch. Paul’s company was essentially proposing that they take a huge leap of faith through the development of actual accompanying toys (something they’d never done before), a portal accessory that would be sold separately in a starter pack and required for play (again, completely new), and then somehow convincing parents and other consumers that it would be worth their money to invest in these things. It almost seemed crazy, but at this point, the entire company was on board—and if it worked, it worked. If not, on to the next.
Needless to say, it worked. Last year, supply constraints, eBay frenzies, and many thousands of desperate parents all added up to what became a bonafide phenomenon. Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was the Pokémon of 2011. And, like that other game of collectible monsters, while the fanbase is mostly comprised of kids, that hasn’t stopped many adults from enjoying the world of Skylanders as well. That’s because the development team poured attention into aspects of the game design that can easily be discounted by most companies in the business of catering to younger audiences—stuff like art, music, story, and humor. The end result was a product which is widely loved by children, but which also possesses the same sort of quality required to captivate older gamers.
A Series 2 Cynder (note the orange base)
The Basics of Giants
Skylanders: Giants is, appropriately, an extension of that philosophy. Due out later this month, it didn’t even receive a full year’s worth of development. But that hasn’t stopped the team from going nuts with the ideas. Now that the design and the engine are in the bag, the next order of business was improvement and growth. And from what I saw today, the creators are firing on all the right cylinders.
The idea was actually touched upon in the original game. If you’ve played it, you may recall a particular Story Scroll which references the elemental ancients, giant iterations of today’s more modest Skylanders which protected the lands of the past. Giants creatively finds a way to bring this world to life in context with modern-day Kaos (the bad guy—“that’s K-A-O-S”) and the familiar Skylanders. Specifically, there exists a remote island where the ancients rest, and it’s this island that a newly-revived Kaos wants to leverage to assist in his undying quest for world domination—by resurrecting the ancient army of war machines used in a primeval to destroy the Core of Light. Far-fetched? Absolutely. But why not?
Shown here: One of four launch-available Giants, Crusher. Voiced by Kevin Sorbo!
Giants introduces 8 new Skylanders along with 8 giant Skylanders, which are basically a slower but considerably more powerful variety of monsters (represented by correspondingly larger real-life figurines). The goal, as usual, is to strategically switch between your characters on the fly throughout the environments, and this design supports that goal—as playing through the entire game as a slow giant would be inconvenient and even impractical. In addition to that, 24 of the previous Skylanders have also been reintroduced as “Series 2” iterations to include new techniques and cooler-looking, redesigned figurines. All of the new toys feature a clever design that allows them to light up when even just in close proximity to the Portal of Power—and now, more elements of them than simply their bases illuminate, producing a pretty cool-looking character.
All this, plus the fact that all of your existing Skylanders from the previous game can be played in the sequel—and they even bring along with them all of the gold they earned in the previous game for use in purchasing new goodies in Giants. The pervasive theme in the development of the sequel (and other accompanying products as well) is to respect the player’s collection. You’ve spent the money on the Skylanders you own, and as such, they should all be forward-compatible with new products in the series.
Every Skylander, new and old, can now be grown to level 15 as well, five levels higher than in Spyro’s Adventure. However, only the Series 2 Skylanders gain new moves along with their continued growth—thus the difference between them and their inferior originals, and one more reason to shell out a bunch more money for more toys. Another final improvement to the growth and leveling system is the ability to switch upgrade paths for any of your characters. This means there’s no need to reset a toy just to be able to experience all of its techniques.
One of very, very many prototype Skylander designs on display
More = better
Although there are actually fewer chapters in Giants (16 versus 26), the environments are supposedly larger than in the original game, thus providing a comparable amount of content (according to the developers). In addition to the main game, Heroic Challenges also make a return, totaling 46 this time in all. And there’s also an all-new branch of separate challenges called Arena Challenges—basically, battle sequences featuring waves of enemies in a number of different arenas. There are 7 of each type of arena challenge making for a grand total of 21 arena challenges.
There’s also more to spend your money on this time around. For starters, a number of special power-up items (such as rejuvenation potions, which regenerate life slowly for all Skylanders for a short period of time, and Fairy potions, which provide the opportunity to instantly purchase an upgrade from Persephone for one of your characters without having to visit the hub world) are available for purchase from special stations throughout the game’s various chapters. There are new emblems that can be collected and used to play a new strategy mini-game. And, as previously stated, there are also even more abilities now for each Skylander. All of that adds up to a wide range of options for expenditures.
Meanwhile, the island hub world has been replaced with Flynn’s Ship, a nifty little home base that evolves throughout the game in various ways. The most interesting of those is, perhaps, the ability to use what were previously purposeless “Legendary Treasures” to upgrade and customize the ship. This provides all the more incentive to hunt these down throughout the adventures.
And finally, just in case you weren’t satisfied with the challenge of the original game (whether too hard or too easy), Giants provides three levels of difficulty and a fourth unlockable (“Nightmare”) upon completion of the game. Apparently on Nightmare, the game is so difficult that it’s practically impossible to complete a level without switching characters; in fact, the developers hold contests to see who can make it the farthest without doing so. (By the way, my joke about whether or not yet another unlockable “Inferno” level existed—a la Diablo III—was met with appropriate laughter from the development team.)
Attention to detail
But apart from some improvements to the design, an all-new adventure, 40 new figurines (including the 24 “Series 2” revamped originals), and more of pretty much everything else, Giants still refuses to compromise on the quality of its core. The game is still designed purely from an art-driven perspective: a new character is imagined, designed, and implemented, and the world is built to conform. The voice acting cast has expanded to include a number of other familiar names—such as George Takei as a giant, flying Arkeyan robot, Kevin Sorbo as Crusher, and Bobcat Goldthwait as Pop Fizz. Of course, Patrick Warburton also returns in his role as the beloved (most of all by himself) Flynn.
The music—fully orchestral, yet remixed to match the needs of the environments—has also become more dynamic. Lorne Balfe has returned to provide it, and this time, the instrumentation adjusts to match the mood of the area (as is often done in other action/adventure/platforming titles such as Super Mario Galaxy). As a bonus, you can even listen to each Skylander’s beatboxing in front of a record player-looking device on board Flynn’s ship. Just because.
On that note, if there was perhaps one defining theme of the many different conversations we had with the game’s developers, it was “Why not?” The staff repeatedly referenced the game’s lighthearted, imaginative theme as fuel for creative inventiveness. It’s a trait that many of the best games of this type have historically been born of.
Series 2 Eruptor
I spent a solid two hours playing Giants following our break-out sessions with each of the department leads. I’m sure most won’t be upset to hear that it is, quite predictably, more Skylanders. It’s the same great experience you found in the previous game, tweaked, improved, and expanded accordingly.
I played starting at around Chapter 8 and finished at Chapter 12. This stretch of the game included some cool moments, such as an invasion of Kaos’ castle (complete with named rooms such as the Sewing Room and little mindless dudes who introduce their history to you) and the assault on a giant, terrible Drill monster who has enslaved the Molekins to do his bidding. What’s even worse than that, say the captives? The fact that he SINGS. The boss battle featured a few different robotic musical interludes regarding his intention of smashing us to bits, all very humorous and very much appreciated.
Another observation worth noting is just how much bigger the optional areas are. At one point during a level assaulting an airborne battleship, I entered a special area restricted to Air Skylanders and actually spent so much time trying to complete it that I completely forgot that I was actually playing the original level. The developer watching me play remarked about the size of the offshoot segments, and I affirmed his observation. It’s a pretty big difference from the original in that regard.
Whatever difficultly level we were playing on also featured its share of challenges. On more than one occasion, I had to be helped through a segment by an omniscient Toys For Bob staff member who was able to buff my Skylanders to max level with all techniques. This is probably partially due to the fact that I suck playing with some of the new characters, but nevertheless, it’s fun to see a challenge in store.
What makes a great sequel
While the industry often looks to sequels for bold reinvention of a series, ultimately what decides the success of a series is whether each installment continues to provide what the fanbase seeks. In this case, the fanbase wants more, and they’re certainly going to get plenty of it with Skylanders: Giants. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been changes to the design; in fact, a number of improvements have clearly been implemented. But for the most part, this is just what fans are looking for: more Skylanders in its purest form, apparently complete with just the same level of production value and attention to detail that the original provided (and in some cases, seemingly even more).
“Why? Just because. It’s so liberating working on a game like this. You can create anything, as long as it’s fun.” Says Audio Director Dan Neil. Words we like to hear.
Be sure to watch for our full review of Skylanders: Giants coming very soon.