Interviews// Skylanders Giants: Life Beyond Spyro

Posted 29 Jun 2012 10:48 by
Skylanders is the great success story that you?ve probably never heard of. The original, a re-invention of the Spyro platforming series, was an interesting fusion of the video game and toy industry. It wasn?t followed by the vast majority of the gaming press for that reason - that, and the fact that Activision was dazzling core gamers with Call of Duty at the same time.

What has got kids so hooked on it though? Well, it introduced a range of separately sold toys that could be placed on a special platform and read automatically in the game. The result? The toy you just put down was now controllable in-game, and players could swap characters around at will in the same way.

The original Skylanders remains, as Activision?s product specialist Noah Kircher-Allen says, the number one best-selling video game (including action figure sales) of 2012 so far. So with the incoming release of sequel, Skylanders Giants, it was time to catch up with Noah and learn more about the nature of this innovative gaming franchise.

SPOnG: The first Skylanders game kind of breezed past the gaming press, but now it?s become such a successful franchise it?s attracted a lot more attention. What do you think about that? Does it annoy you slightly?

Noah Kircher-Allen: I think any time you?re introducing a new intellectual property - and even though we understand the heritage of Spyro and we?ve kept to that somewhat, we treated Skylanders as if it was a new intellectual property - you have challenges in terms of getting people to understand it, cover it or believe in it.

So for us, from the start, we knew that it was going to be somewhat successful. I mean, it was definitely more successful than we could have possibly imagined, but we had high hopes for it from the start. Once people got the game though, they then start to understand the overall concept of it, and that?s what drives the madness and frenzy of people wanting to get more Skylanders and experience more of the game.

SPOnG: Was part of that success down to the bet you made with reinventing Spyro, and do you feel that?s paid off?

Noah Kircher-Allen: It?s an interesting question. So to give you a little background, we acquired the Spyro property when we merged with Vivendi a few years back. We looked at ways we could reinvigorate the franchise - Spyro in the 1990s was a huge property, after all. One of our amazing studios, Toys For Bob... one of the guys there is a huge robotics genius, and pretty much created this Skylanders concept in his garage.

He brought it down to Activision and said, ?this is what we can do to set the Spyro franchise back on fire again.? As we started developing the game and added more elements to it, we realised that this was enormous. We couldn?t just have one main character, so we added a cast of 32 characters.

If anything, I think it definitely helped with people who knew about the Spyro property beforehand, but we?ve got this amazing cast of 32 characters now, which goes beyond... you know, Spyro?s still always going to be a main character in the game, but the game itself has evolved beyond Spyro now. If you?re familiar with the Spyro franchise and play it back you?ll always see some bits and pieces of the classic Spyro there.

SPOnG: What do you think has been key to the success of Skylanders? Do you think games should be heading towards more of a collectible-style format that you?ve explored?

Noah Kircher-Allen: We should as an industry, always be looking towards how we can innovate gameplay and new ways to play. I think the reason why this was so successful was really a few different ingredients. Firstly, the game is fantastic. We invested heavily in making sure the game was quality. Even without the toys, it would still be a great game to play.

I think a lot of companies that might have attempted this would have approached it from the toy side first. With us being a video game company, we understand that the gaming experience has to be there. Second of all, we invested heavily in the toys. You mentioned how high quality the decor on the toys is earlier... and more importantly is that it?s a relevant game piece.

It stores game information - not only does it talk to the game but the game talks back to it. It makes sense to use the toy, from a gameplay perspective. So it?s not just some gimmicky thing that activates content or something like that. This is an integral part of the experience. Especially if you talk about it in the context of social gaming. I think that was a big part of it. Just building the folklore, investing in the innovation and the overall gameplay experience really paid off for us.

SPOnG: How much of a challenge was it to truly kick-start this project at the beginning? Did you have a hard time convincing anyone to help see production of both the game side and toy side through?

Noah Kircher-Allen: For us, again I think it is always incredibly risky to introduce a new IP, especially in the gaming space. You don?t have to look any further than what the biggest games are right now. But I think in particular for Skylanders, it probably wasn?t as challenging as you might imagine, just because this is one of those concepts where it clicks for those who see how it works. The challenge was more about educating the public about it. But as far as from a dev and production standpoint, it was probably far less challenging than you imagine.

On the toy side, We were lucky enough to bring in some top talent from the toy industry, who really knew what the right balances were going to be in so far as quality is concerned. Looking at the success we?ve had over the last year, as well as just how much these toys have resonated with children, I think that the we?re pleased with our performance in that space.

E3 2012
E3 2012
SPOnG: Skylanders appears to have transcended the boundaries of just being a kids? franchise. It?s also attracted serious collectors too. There are stories of some rare toys selling on eBay for a thousand dollars.

Noah Kircher-Allen: I can tell you, I was at Toy Fair in New York this year and we were giving out a limited edition paint job for one of our toys. I had people changing their outfits and then coming back to get a second toy! We knew how hot and collectible they were, but I remember going on eBay whilst at the booth and checking out how much the toys were going for. Someone was selling one for $1500. Someone had paid that much for one of our special paint job toys.

So yeah, I think it?s very interesting when you say it?s transcended the space of games... one of the coolest things about this is that when anyone brings this level of innovation into the marketplace, it gets people thinking what else is possible. What other iterations of this concept is possible in this space. Which I think is exciting as a gaming enthusiast.

E3 2012
E3 2012
SPOnG: Did you have an idea that you were going to capture the older audience in this way too, or was that the plan all along?

Noah Kircher-Allen: We had a feeling that this would drive people who are into collectibles - especially when we started seeing how fast it was picking up and flying off the shelves. I think when creating a video game you always want to keep in mind a wide audience, especially for something like this which appeals to kids. Not only to attract parents who want to play with their kids, but also for people who just like this style of gameplay.

I talk to people in their 20s and 30s who play this game - not because they have kids, but because it appeals to them. Obviously, our average player is a child and our marketing is geared towards a younger demographic, but I think there?s definitely elements in it who used to play dungeon crawlers and adventure games back in the day.

E3 2012
E3 2012
SPOnG: How challenging was it to create a full-blown sequel in Giants, bearing in mind that you had to support the old toys as well as any new ones? Is there a danger in the future of having too many toys and characters to support?

Noah Kircher-Allen: There?s not a danger or concern for us really, from a development standpoint. It?s always challenging to have over 40 playable characters in the game and also to make it all backwards compatible with past toys in the series. As far as overwhelming our audience with characters, that wasn?t really a concern though.

The level of resonance we?ve seen with the characters in the first game, and the amount of characters we?re adding in Giants is enough that?s going to give people a large enough amount of choice. But a big important aspect for us is making sure each Skylander is unique and their own strong personality. We?ve been able to do that pretty easily.

E3 2012
E3 2012
SPOnG: Are you worried that you might stumble onto gameplay mechanics or character design that becomes too repetitive in the future though?

Noah Kircher-Allen: I think that?s the obvious concern when you?re talking about a collectible line of characters. The rate at which we are going to have to build characters, and the amount of detail that needs to go into each one of these toys and their in-game character, is such that it would be difficult to run into that problem.

Unlike some other collectible characters, where you?re just putting a few different elements together, with Skylanders we have to drill down deep to everything - from the most minute animations and their actions, to their personalities and catchphrases and abilities. There are so many different gears and dials that you can turn, that having a problem where making characters being repetitive is not something I think we?d run into for a very long time.

SPOnG: Thank you for your time.

Noah Kircher-Allen: Thanks very much!

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