(Contributor Rob Harvey visited Vicarious Visions to take a look at their upcoming Skylanders release, Swap Force. This is his report.)
Quarter to Three’s official Skylander trio of Mommy, Kiddo, and Rob sat awaiting our meal in the local Dairy Queen. Kiddo knew I had a secret. He had been bombarding me with breathless guesses for what my watch informed me was an hour, but what my ears insisted was longer than it takes for a planet to form.
Rob: “Guy, I have to take a trip for the next few days. I will be out of town–”
His smile evaporated and his head bowed as tears started to form. I knew I had seconds to act before SWAT styled troopers with “CPS” velcro identifiers on their backs repelled down from the ceiling to confiscate the ice cream and declare me unfit for parenting. Probably in that order. Those Blizzard’s are tasty.
Rob: “But Kiddo, Activision has asked if I want to fly out to New York to see Skylanders Swap Force.”
Tears froze pre-formed and his head snapped up with eyes so large you would think Santa Claus was sitting in the booth behind me. Then, he started to vibrate. Not jump or wiggle, but vibrate, as if the molecular bonds of his excited seven-year-old body were doing what normally required miles of atom smashers.
Kiddo: “Skky-yyy-lannd-der-der-sss SSuss-saah-wapp-force!?!?!?” Some other incoherent and excited syllables continued to shake out of the vibrating testament of how advertising still works.
But, after the jump, how will Skylanders Swap Force look to the molecularly stable adult?
I should set the tone up front and confess something. My enthusiasm for Skylanders had started to temper in the level headedness that comes with no longer trying to catch them all, and the energy at the Dairy Queen was mostly Kiddo driven. The cooling in my own fandom was exemplified in a conversation earlier this year:
Rob: “It may be the calm wisdom of May, but I think I need to dial back the Skylanders this year. We went a little nuts.”
Mommy: “You are standing in Toys R Us wearing a “salmon” hoodie and that is your epiphany?”
Fashionista slam aside, I had the mindset of a moderated fan. I planned to approach Skylanders Swap Force with a level head. The first test of this was the meet and greet cocktail reception hosted by Vicarious Visions. Toys for Bob developed the first two Skylanders, but now Vicarious Visions was in the hotseat. This led to potentially awkward questions about A versus B teams, franchise hand offs, and the like. And in case you are not already aware, the last thing a cocktail reception of a bunch of gamer folks needs…is awkward.
But as I was on my first Whiskey Ginger, the Kiddo at Dairy Queen story went viral. I originally told the story to one of the story development leads, who (in indirectly affirming an affinity for storytelling) must have passed the word on to the visual development director, who then approached me about the breakdown of Kiddo’s molecular bonds. He was genuine in asking me how I thought my boy would respond to the main feature of Swap Force, where the figures break apart at the waist like a children’s mix and match book, rather than Giants, where the figures were set in immutable plastic. A great deal of focus testing with kids had focused on exactly that issue. I would also later discover he was the creator of “Frankenlander,” the iPhone video of cut up Spyro’s Adventure figures that blew up the phones of the development team a few years ago. In that video, the portal readable figure was assembled with one hand while held together with magnets, thereby simultaneously solving technical and youth dexterity concerns.
This tells you two important things about Vicarious Visions. First, they are eager, energetic, and a little light on the poker face when it comes to their excitement about Swap Force. Second, the “Frankenlander” was made out of Spyro parts not because they had oodles of green bases sitting around the office, but because they have been working on this project since before Spyro’s Adventure. They are no B team.
While the reception broke the initial fears and made me realize that nobody has seen Ninjini (a super rare Giant) in the wild, I still needed to do some final journalism prep. So I went back to my room to phone back to HQ to make sure I had all the really important questions covered.
Rob: “Hey Kiddo, keep sticking with the good plan for Mommy, but I need you to think real hard for a minute. If you could ask Activision anything about Skylanders…”
The actual press event began with a Power Point presentation. When someone in jeans and a sports coat starts talking about his tech industry job, and the word “garage” is on the first PowerPoint slide, but you are standing in his big office building, it’s usually a good sign that he’s on to something. Still a history lesson delivered through PowerPoint is a tough sell for generating enthusiasm. And yet… I had an ever growing feeling that VV was a workhorse studio that had weathered some punishing missteps (and betrayal) to have just the right kind of proven heart and skill to carry on the Skylanders lineage.
Still I was not completely sold and I remained a skeptical but teetering non-believer.
During a tour of the building, I saw a huge LCD display where an employee was testing out something of Swap Force. I don’t know what that something was, but I know it was in huge 1080p Playstation 4 not-just-for-kids-anymore HD. It was Swap Force’s new Alchemy engine.
And as I saw the light, I saw that it was good. Seeing the new engine with my own eyes was the moment my Skylander fatigue faded. I became a fanboy again.
At the end of the tour I had a quick exchange with Karthik Bala, Chief Creative Officer and co-studio head. He expressed a heartfelt sense of responsibility about the Skylanders franchise, not only as a current brand, but also as a long lasting impression on children. Today’s children are tomorrow’s adults who might revisit the franchise similar to the way we’ve revisited Transformers, He-Man, or Star Wars. I am not sure I helped his burden when I recounted the times I’ve picked up Kiddo from daycare to find him and his friends sitting in a circle making up Skylander games, rules and all, using only the statistic cards that come in the figure boxes.
As the press event continued, we went through a series of lightning seminars outlining features of Swap Force. These resembled educational group speed dating, but without a bowl for car keys. The seminars included tasty bits more moving than the usual key feature parades. My eyes feasted on development tools showing off that sweet sweet engine, with close ups of wind blown foliage and character animations, such as the heated metal transitions of the anger management poster child, Fryno. I was treated to a behind the curtain recounting the evolution of the swappable Skylanders from three-piece clay hulks that I could probably sculpt to fairly evolved five-piece figures and then back to the two-piece units. As it turns out, more than two pieces becomes a nightmare for animators, creates body part identity issues (ah, high school), and brings in lost parts concerns on $15 figures. The visual technology team put on an impressive tech presentation of next-gen parralax effects, occlusion, and motion blur. Swap Force probably isn’t a launch title you’re thinking about, but maybe should. Then there was the dynamic music progression which usually slips under the radar, but this one struck me as strongly as Total Annihilation’s orchestral combat transitions. This was highlighted with careful character movement that showed off the subtle and not so subtle shifts in the dynamic orchestral layers. Although apparent to me audibly, the lead audio designer could pick it out visually while staring at a Matrix like display of the 80 or so sounds for each Skylander. Finally, if I told you about the room of top secret 3D printed Skylanders, I would have to kill you.
As the finale, we were given hands-on time. This is where I got a good feel for the more traditional nuts and bolts of Skylanders Swap Force. The new engine scales depending on what system you’re using and I am told the Wii U version and PS4/Vita combo will support off screen play.
The new engine thumbs its nose a bit at recent Nintendo decisions by bringing back the third dimension with the inclusion of jumping for all past and present Skylanders. This adds a fair bit of platformer to the franchise along with upping the agility options to further expand and improve the critter variety such that I can see the horde mode being a co-op household favorite. Or a competitive household favorite as the script gets flipped in the score based horde variant.
The dynamically swappable characters lend the game the action RPG concept of grouping bundles of abilities.The top half of a Skylander contributes two buttons worth of upgradable abilities while the bottom half contributes another button, as well as a type of locomotion. Both of these halves have their own skill trees. Whereas the giants in Skylanders Giants were a laser-focused kid gimmick, the mix and match halves in Swap Force are engaging brain candy. It’s the best of Diablo III’s swappable skills and Diablo II’s gratifying skill tree choices.
There are 32 completely new critters to indulge your Skylanders version of Pokemon fever. That and the 16 returning Skylanders as reposes and 8 light cores to bring the total up to 56 “holy crap I need a sale” Skylanders. Of the 32 new ones, 16 are swappable. This doesn’t sound like much until you use all of not only yours, but all of your neighborhood’s fingers and toes to realize you now have more than 250 different skill tree combinations to chew on (note: avoid chewing on your neighbors’ toes– I think it is a commandment or something). The two Swap Force characters in the starter pack are actually four guys. If you get one more, you now have 9 unique Skylanders/ ability bundles. It starts to hurt the head, fingers, and toes.
The difficulty options are still here: easy, medium, hard, and the kick-you-in-the-junk nightmare mode. Heroic challenge collecting is out (thank Zues’ saving head icon), and in-game bonus missions are in. The extra missions will let you up your star count (think Angry Birds) which affects something called Portal Rank. They were a bit cagey about the details on Portal Rank, but it ties into social aspects like leader boards and public profiles, as well as meta-bonuses for your Skylanders to aid saving your junk in nightmare.
While fully identifying with the Gamer Dad contingency of the event, the gamer side of me also looks forward to these options. Vicarious Visions is certainly onto something that will take kids by storm. But it might also thaw the skepticism of grizzled veterans. We will see when Skylanders Swap Force is released on October 13.
As for my own household, consider it a final tip of my hand in the text message I sent home after the press event: “I want an Eyebrawl and Thumpback now…need to find them.”
Rob Harvey grumpily resides in California where he has forgone REM sleep for months as he lovingly walks with his co-dependent cat Little One through the biological mania of Feline CRF. He is longing for the day he can return to the Pacific Northwest “where a person can experience, you know, actual trees, weather, and the color green”. He also continues to struggle, mostly in vain, for his graduate level education in philosophy to produce anything beyond obscenely expensive soul building. He posts on the Quarter to Three forums as Chaplin.