Activision obviously has a lot riding on Skylanders given its success and their investment made to date. As viable competition has finally entered the "toys to life" space that Activision knew eventually would, a push began over two years ago to ensure today's latest installment would be cutting edge and offer something genuinely new for consumers to embrace. That's where Vicarious Visions and their unique approach to games came into play, and that's why Activision flew a select group of journalists to the developer's studio in Menands, New York to understand the story behind Skylanders Swap Force and why it's the franchise's crowning achievement thus far.
The offices of Vicarious Visions are dissimilar to those of Toys for Bob on the west coast (read about my Toys for Bob visit last year if you haven't already), housed in an old converted warehouse that seems to anchor an otherwise nondescript town wearing age on its facade. Upon entering the structure and navigating up a steep stairwell that would be unforgiving to intoxication, there's a sense another world awaits where a large Skylanders display and cabinet housing various games developed by VV illuminate the reception area. Beyond reception lies three intersecting circles of workspaces that comprise the impressively large studio capable of housing 250 or more employees depending on how many q/a testers are employed at any given time.
The attention to detail that Vicarious Visions cofounders and brothers Karthik and Guha Bala emulate in their games is evident in the space's architecture and construction. Karthik had an old dormant brick manufacturing facility fired up for the sole purpose of creating the exact brick he wanted for the central core of the space where executive offices and a spacious kitchen reside. Some might call that overboard or even an unhealthy obsession, but for Karthik, it's merely another illustration of the "scrappy" attitude he and his brother share; they'll work as hard as they have to and do whatever ever they have to, no matter how far outside the box it takes them, to achieve their goals and complete a technical challenge.
Few design aspirations shared by Karthik and Guha for the space remain unresolved due to reaching the construction budget before the entire list was checked off, including a train that was to go around the central core on a metal awning that is already in place. I have a suspicion this dream will become reality should Swap Force become a commercial and critical success given the determined glance Karthik gave to the awning while describing its original intended use.
In addition to the scrappiness Vicarious Visions abides by as they overcame obstacles that might have bankrupted or destroyed other companies, another word was regularly thrown about to describe the founders and their team: tinkerers. They are problem solvers at heart and have essentially made a living from tinkering with technology and coming up with new ways to make the seemingly impossible, possible. That tinkering began in their parents basement, built the first 3D game on Game Boy Color, made Guitar Hero logistically possible on DS, and became the reason Skylanders Swap Force is on the verge of release.
Fun Fact: Fryno is a favorite Swap Force Skylander of many VV employees. He's a biker rhinoceros who gets a little hot under the collar when provoked or angered. As Fryno is upgraded either at the Woodburrow hub or all-new convenient upgrade stations set within chapters, the biker jacket he wears will gain additional patches stitched on its back. Be on the lookout for those when Fryno is available to purchase and own.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Ah Hah!
The real magic in Swap Force is the Swap Force Skylanders themselves, something I admittedly wrote off as a "gimmick" when first announced at Toy Fair and have since swung a hard 180-degree turn on. These toys were born out of many brainstorming sessions and ultimately an idea that resonated amongst the team. "We knew that we were coming out in three years, a third iteration into the franchise," explained Jeremy Russo, game director for Swap Force. "We knew we wanted to expand upon that and do something different with it... we wanted to do something that would change the play experience with the toys. One idea we kept coming back to was the idea of mixing and matching to create your own Skylander."
The idea of "mixing and matching" was soon presented to Activision executives including CEO Eric Hirshberg. "That's an idea I haven't seen before," Hirshberg told the VV team, and once he latched onto the concept and VV had their first "ah hah!" moment, as Russo calls it, the ball was rolling on what would become a two-year development process and by far the most ambitious project VV has ever taken on.
The first Swap Force prototype churned out by the engineering team resembles a clay figure that a kindergarten student would bring home from school. Intentionally unpolished and crude aesthetics aside, the purpose of the figure was to demonstrate how and where a Skylander might be broken apart. The initial "how" was to use an audio jack connector, which didn't feel right or "magical," and the "where" was in two places: at the neck, and at the waist.
The second "ah hah!" moment came one day when Brent Gibson, the visual development director at VV, took a handful of Skylanders home to tinker with: Prism Break, Dark Spyro and Voodood. "We didn't want kids to think about it [swapping] or fumbling with toys," explained Gibson. "So we had started talking about magnets, but there was a lot of apprehension because of the induction field and other stuff... but it feels good, and magnets is the closest thing to real magic in our world and kids respond really well to it."
Utilizing Dark Spyro's head, Prism Break's body, Voodood's legs/base, a drill and some glue, Gibson created the first magnetized Swap Force prototype at his kitchen table around midnight that same night. He then shot a 10-second video of how the magnets worked on his cell phone - which we were privy to watch directly from Gibson's phone - emailed it to Russo, and neither could sleep that night knowing that they had found the magical solution they were looking for.
Fun Fact: Additional chapter collectibles are themed to the chapter they come from. The two levels I played through in their entirety offered up five "Marshall Wheelock Plushy" and "Monkey Statues" to discover, in addition to returning favorites hats, Legendary Treasures, Winged Sapphires, and Soul Gems.
There was an unforeseen bonus to the use of magnets for the Swap Force Skylanders. When the magnets came together, they generated a loud "click" sound that served as reassurance the two parts had established a connection. Gibson presented the idea internally and all he heard during the meeting was "click, click." Even during a visit to Toys for Bob, the founders of the franchise, the same thing happened when the concept was pitched; the meeting was taken over with the constant sound of "click, click, click" as everyone became obsessed with swapping the toys.
Here is the first Skylanders Swap Force trailer that debuted at Toy Fair earlier this year. Vicarious Visions had no idea the "click" would be in the trailer, and they were over the moon thrilled when it was heard in the finished product.
As for any technical reservations about magnets, Gibson put those concerns to rest when he put his first magnetized and "Frankensteined" Swap Force Skylander on the Portal of Power, and Voodood joined the game without a hitch.
Fun Fact: As kids came in to test the Swap Force figures for the first time, they would get so caught up in swapping the physical toys that the VV team struggled getting them to focus and play the actual game within their allotted testing time. I predict this exact scenario replaying itself in homes around the world. Kids will become obsessed with swapping the toys and that satisfying "click" when you do.
This is How You Fight, This is How You Move
It took VV some time to figure out how exactly to break the Swap Force Skylanders apart. Would it be at the neck? The waist? The legs? The arms? All of the above? The three-part toy was put through kid testing and didn't work out to well. "We had some funny moments when we had the kids playing the game early on," described Jan-Erik Steel, lead engineer on Swap Force. "[The kids] had no idea that they came apart. The guy who was running the kid testing just pulled off the head and they just sort of freaked out. We were like, ok, maybe we shouldn't do the neck joint."
A decision was ultimately made that the top half of the toy would be for fighting and the bottom half for movement. After all, the target demographic for Swap Force is kids so embracing simplicity helped push VV in the right direction. Once they figured out the swapping, the game's design and direction naturally fell into place.
Fun Fact: The original concept designs for Magna Charge included a massive gatling gun on his left arm. This was eventually dropped in the toy design as the figure finalized, but the team still liked the idea so they included it as Magna Charge's Soul Gem upgrade.
The concept of 16 Swap Force characters whose top and bottom halves separate to create 256 combinations is great on paper, but how on earth do you animate? And what happens when the top half of a gorilla character ends up on the bottom half of an octopus character i.e. Grilla Drilla and Wash Buckler?
The answer to this problem in non-technical terms is that the movement portion of the SKylander i.e. the bottom half would alter how the top half moved. For example, if Stink Bomb's top half is placed on Grilla Drilla's bottom half to create Stink Drilla, the top half's arms would move like an ape to match the bottom half. The solution is seamless and helps give more individuality to the various swapped character creations that might not otherwise exist if the animations didn't change.
Fun Fact: VV used generic names for all the new Skylanders before the final names were decided upon. One such name is Fan Girl, used for Star Strike. She has a sweet ability to deflect her own projectiles, which in turn get stronger with each perfectly executed deflection. In fact, you might be able to play tennis using this feature. VV wouldn't confirm that, but they wouldn't deny it either - and did so with a smile.
Bonus Fun Fact: Karthik Bala might be CEO and co-founder of the studio, but he's really a big kid at heart. While talking about various rare Skylanders to a small group of us, Karthik ran back to his office to grab and show off the Activision Employee Edition Snow Flocked Prism Break from last winter. In addition, Karthik was proud to tell us that he has his pre-order in for the Dark Edition Starter Pack at GameStop. Yes, the CEO will be buying the game same as the rest of us.
Get Up and Jump
Vicarious Visions is no stranger to the Skylanders franchise having released four prior games to date, all for mobile platforms. The first, Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure for 3DS, is where the link to Swap Force is strongest due to the Skylanders' ability to jump. That mechanic makes its console debut in Swap Force and is called upon almost exclusively to navigate select areas of stages.
One such area presents a series of discs with musical notes printed on them. They are springy discs, so jumping on them will send the Skylanders hurtling high into the air. The object is to land all the discs without touching the group or chasm around them. While seemingly easy early in the game, the difficulty ramps up with additional discs, moving discs, and even discs that rotate so the "bouncy" side is only visible for a few seconds at a time. The harder disc-jumping challenges are typically found in the Elemental zones where collectibles such as hats and Legendary Treasures are tucked away. It took me several tries to get past one such disc roadblock, and theoretically harder ones could appear later on in the game.
Fun Fact: During testing with kids, the team at VV discovered animosity growing amongst siblings when the older one would go grab all the treasures before the younger one could get to them. In one instance the younger sibling actually broke down crying. The solution was simple: all treasure and XP earned in a chapter while playing cooperatively is given to both players regardless of which player picks it up.
Do You Hear That?
Part of the polish that makes Skylanders unique is the music and sound effects. Toys for Bob pushed both a little further in Giants with seamless transition from one musical zone to another, and now Vicarious Visions is taking another "giant" leap forward with Swap Force.
Composer Lorne Balfe, an understudy of Hans Zimmer, composer of the original Skylanders: Spryo's Adventure theme, has returned and laid down all-new tracks for Swap Force that fit right in with the whimsical and adventuresome tunes of the previous games. Balfe composed the score for Giants, Assassin's Creed III, and worked with Zimmer on film scores such as The Dark Knight Rises and Inception.
VV has taken Balfe's work and found new ways to manipulate it within the game. One such manipulation is based on movement. When a Skylander stands still, the background music is entirely bass-driven. As he or she starts to walk forward, a subtle percussion track lays on top and picks up intensity depending on how fast the Skylander is moving. As a Skylander nears enemies, yet another track with a dangerous tone is added to the mix.
What's impressive about how this audio "swapping" works is not that the technology exists, but in how seamless the transitions are and how natural the music flows together. This applies to ambient sounds as well, including the chirping of cicadas when venturing off the main path into lush flora, and plays directly into the team's goal of creating a cinematic experience.
Fun Fact: Smolderdash has some cool attacks in which she can use fire whips and pull down the sun from above, smashing it into the ground and damaging all enemies nearby. She also has an eclipse mode that turns her and the sun spheres she shoots out dark. This is the third upgrade in her path. Smolderdash is voiced by Grey DeLisle, whom ironically - or not - voices the Fire Princess Azula on Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. Kaos' mom will also feature a voice by a prominent actress, though you will have to wait to find out who that is.
A New Generation Early adopters of new gaming consoles are typically the stereotypical hardcore gamer; the 18-34 year-old who spends a lot of time playing online with friends in generally mature-rated games. Yet Vicarious Visions not only decided to port Skylanders Swap Force to Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but they have made some improvements as well.
One glance at the PS4 version of Skylanders Swap Force running in 1080p on a 70" television is akin to love at first site. "We really wanted to bring an animated film feel to the game," described Michael Bukowski, visual technology director. "We wanted to make you feel like you were playing a movie. That informed a lot of the technical decisions we made on the project."
Many of these new technical features are present in the current and next-gen versions of the game as VV pushed the current-gen hardware as far as they could. In some instances, such as new water physics, the technical development guided the creative so there will be worlds in the game where water and ice comprise most of the environment.
"We ended up using the same type of rendering technologies you would find in a hardcore game like an FPS," added Bukowski. Typically a kids' game, outside Nintendo, has dumbed-down visuals and tech driving it. In the case of Swap Force, VV is pushing boundaries and hopes to reap the rewards.
One such example is the use of motion blur. To achieve the "movie" experience they are aiming for, Bukowski and his team worked tirelessly to ensure moving parts - and there are many of them in the game, especially characters with spinning features - didn't look pixelated. Sure enough, the difference between fast moving objects with the blur turned on and off is night and day.
"Parallax inclusion mapping" is a big phrase, but it's one of the key reasons why the PS4 and Xbox One version of Swap Force are superior to their current-gen counterparts. In short, this technology, which is primarily used in PC gaming, takes a surface and through layering gives it depth. An example shown depicted a flat sand surface in a Swap Force level with Parallax turned off, and then the surface became more three-dimensional as light bent around it with Parallax turned on. It's not the kind of change a kid would necessarily pick up on, but does play directly into the movie feel of the game and offer a tasty lure for early next-gen console adopters to potentially chomp down on.
Fun Fact: Glumshanks will be a little more involved this time around. Kaos' loyal butler and stepping stool (literally) can't escape the Evilizer. Get ready for Glumshanks like you have never seen him before.
Bonus Fun Fact: The lower half of Stink Bomb is used to create invisibility with his musk, and only his eyes are seen. When you swap in a one-eyed character like Magna Charge's top half onto Stink Bomb's bottom to create Magna Bomb, only his one eye will be seen when the musk is activated.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The narrative plays a big role in Swap Force as it has in the previous games of the series. Unlike Spyro's Adventure and Giants, Vicarious Visions has rendered most - but not all - of the cinematic cut-scenes entirely in the game engine, and they are run in real time. The object of this decision was to bridge the gap between gameplay and cinematic so it wasn't jarring to leave the game, watch a cinematic, and then return to the game.
Multiple cinematics I watched look fantastic, as you might expect, and will introduce many new characters into the Skylanders lore that will be introduced over the course of the game. Other journalists and I watching were effectively tricked into thinking a cinematic was running on PS4 when in fact it was running on Xbox 360, a testament to how far VV has managed to push the current generation hardware.
Fun Fact: It would have been impossible for Vicarious Visions to create Swap Force without a fancy new 3D printer that was delivered during development on the game. We were able to see printouts of virtually every playable character in the game, including some that aren't playable such as the final boss. One such unannounced character has a paint scheme that sets him/her apart from every other Skylander created thus far. I predict he/she, who happens to be modeled off of a specific type of insect, will become a fan favorite based on the unique and highly identifiable paint scheme alone.
Bonus Fun Fact: Before any actual Swap Force Skylanders characters were developed, a stand in was created to populate the world and test environments, combat, etc. This stand in, whose name I cannot share, sadly, utilizes what can best be described as a hissy fit slap attack. When he's idle, he picks his butt with no shame. No, this character is not unlockable in the game, but someone at VV liked him enough to create a physical version from the 3D printer, perhaps as inspiration or a desk ornament.
Wii Haven't Forgotten You
A tricky consumer trend Vicarious Visions has to grapple with is the lifespan of Nintendo's Wii console and the number of Skylanders players who still prefer that platform. Because Skylanders Giants Wii sales were relatively strong when weighed against the entire pile of skus sold, a Wii version of Swap Force could not be ignored.
In speaking with VV co-founder Guha Bala, I learned that three concessions had to be made by developer Beenox in order to take a game optimized for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U, and make it work on Wii. The first was lowering the resolution across the board so the game ran at 480p, the maximum resolution Wii supports. This immediately scaled back the game's demands.
Another concession came in some of the game's more dynamic flight and alternate action sequences. Some of these had to be removed entirely as they simply could not work properly on Wii. As such, the Wii version is technically not complete, though the sequences removed won't affect the overall gameplay experience.
Lastly, because some of the chapters in Skylanders Swap Force are so large, the Wii version breaks select oversized chapters into two parts that are loaded separately. Naturally all load times in the Wii version will take longer than on the other platforms.
Fun Fact: Here's a fun thing to try right out of the Starter Pack. Blast Zone's top half can create a ring of fire on the ground if you spin him around while shooting the flames. When he shoots his cannon balls through the ring, they catch fire. This applies to all projectiles, so simply swap in Wash Buckler's bottom half to create Blast Buckler, shoot Buckler's ink through the ring of fire, and viola, you have a new flaming ink attack that the developers never planned for. It was one of many accidental happy surprises that occur by the nature of swapping.
Bonus Fun Fact: Many of the lead Swap Force developers started at VV up to 10 years or more ago. During that time they have matured, aside from the occasional hallway archery contest, and in many instances had kids, including some born during the production of Swap Force. Keep an eye out for a potential "babies born during Swap Force" segment during the game's closing credits.
I left Vicarious Visions fairly excited to spend more than 90-minutes of hands-on time playing Skylanders Swap Force (special shout out to VV producer Amy P. who endured my incessant questioning during the hands-on demo's entirety). That was Activision's intention, to prove that Swap Force is not only another great Skylanders game but a great game period that will look stunning on PS4 and Xbox One. Prospective Swap Force buyers will find that the game's innovations and fun-factor, especially where the physical toys and that hypnotic "click" are concerned, will speak for themselves.
- Dan Bradley
Note: There are 10 new Skylanders Swap Force screenshots below; six are from the Xbox 360/PS3/Wii U version, while the other four are from the nSpace 3DS version (it's obvious which ones).