Skylanders: SuperChargers’ Drive to Keep The Series Fresh | MOUSE n JOYPAD

Skylanders: SuperChargers’ Drive to Keep

The Series Fresh & Fans Happy

My Personal Tour of Vicarious Visions and Their Balancing Act With Their Expanding Series

With the Toys-To-Life model continuing to surge in our market, the steady and continued growth year after year isn’t anything a gamer should turn their nose up at. With many child-friendly companies like Nintendo, Disney and Lego hopping on board, no one can deny that Skylanders was the series that revolutionized and coined the genre. An analyst for the NPD Group, Liam Callahan, observed that there’s been a 48% growth in gross sales of TTL software, figures, and various accessories over the past two years, and as the market as a whole grows, so does the series that made it all possible; the adorable inhabitants of the Skylands.

Stealth Elf in the Sky Slicer hops in and starts- well- slicing the sky I suppose.

I was recently invited by Vicarious Visions to come check out their studio, an old industrial building that’s been resigned into a circular hub of creativity, to see their newest entry in the Skylanders series; SuperChargers. I was amazed at how their studio was designed with workflow in mind, as everything seems to branch out from a common area located in the center of the office, allowing everyone to feel like an important piece of the whole. We were invited to see the coding area, where they installed a traffic light to indicate the stability of the build. They took us to their back printing office, where they 3D print their prototypes for new toys. We were even able to get a look into the planning offices, where artists worked on upcoming ideas.

Sitting down with the developers, you can hear the passion they have for their series. They take their characters through constant changes, all in the pursuit of making the most entertaining versions they can. They even bring kids up to their studios to try out test builds of new levels and toys, to gauge their reactions in order to make the experience more enjoyable. It seems like they embrace a word that’s become a dirty one in our industry; FUN.

I was introduced to Karthik Bala, CEO of Vicarious Visions, a man who has built a company with his brother from their parents basement. “One of the things we tried to do with Skylander Superchargers this time, we relied on two guiding principles; of course the magic of bringing toys to life is at the center of it,” he says, standing in front of a monitor displaying their newest cinematic trailer, “but the actual storytelling, the entertainment experience, the narrative is something we really tried to add an additional level of texture to. Everything that’s woven into the game, comes together in the context of an epic adventure.”

In my exclusive video interview with David Nathanielz, Executive Producer at Vicarious Visions, he stated that “the inspiration came from the fact that every year when we’re working on Skylanders, we’re thinking about how we can take Skylanders and toys-to-life forward, how can we innovate, how can we bring a new experience. What we hit on early in development was that vehicles were a great opportunity, not only for new and compelling gameplay, but also awesome toys.”

“I think this is the deepest, richest, most emotional story,” Nathanielz continued, “exploring the characters of Kaos, Glumshanks and Flynn, and The Darkness as a villain. I’m excited about the depth of this story. It’s not just about the game for us, we’ve put a lot of effort into delivering over 40 minutes of story.” In my full video interview, we also touched on their Nintendo partnership, answered some Reddit questions, and talked about the future of the series.

The cinematic trailer won’t be released publically till September 14th, and features a captured Master Eon telling the audience that Kaos has returned, and brought The Darkness with him. Kaos has created a device called the Doomstation of Ultimate Doomstruction, that he uses in an attempt to suck up the Academy. Through a pivotal moment of self-sacrifice, the Academy is able to escape and go into hiding. A special team of Skylanders called SuperChargers must stop The Darkness’ reign of terror, with the help of their allies Buzz, Flynn, Cali and Hugo.

Various versions of Dive-Clops and his Dive Bomber in Vicarious Vision’s print lab.

All the cut scenes were created in the game’s engine, leading to a nice uniformity across the gameplay and the videos connecting those moments, into what they hope feels like playing an animated movie. John Paul Rhinemiller, Senior Animator at Vicarious Visions, said the goal was to refocus the experience to have a “greater emotional depth,” and that their new approach and technology helped push them into a more cinematic presentation. They’re really wanting to make the experience and the world engaging for both adults and children, while allowing imagination to fill in the rest.

Superchargers is introducing some new ideas, while exploring and expanding previously explored ones. Of course, the most obvious being the inclusion of 42 vehicular challenges and races for each of the three types of terrain; sky, sea and land. These courses are hosted by a holographic inhabitant called ‘Pandergast’, who runs them out of a ship that he treats like a game show set. There’s a train where you fight in randomly generated cars, in order to rescue hostages. There’s quests hosted by ‘Operative 11 ⅗” based around SuperCharger vehicles (a vehicle upgrade when paired with their matching Skylander), where you can achieve permanent stat boosts to your personal Skylander. Mags has created a new test track, where you can take your vehicle for a spin in an environment littered with catapults, ramps and half-pipes. You can even place your legendary items around the academy, with everyone of them being interactive in some way.

They’ve also brought Skystones back, in a new game called Overdrive. This card game has been redesigned with inspirations from Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. They say they’ve added a lot of new strategies, and have rebalanced it so you can play online with your friends. You can obtain cards by playing random characters hidden across the Skylands, trapped villains from Trap Team and even by random drops.

Vicarious Visions is adorned with all of their previous work; an impressive collection.

When approaching this new vehicle-inspired entry, the developers shared that there was some initial hesitation- not just because it might bring easy comparisons to Mario Kart and other racers, but that they wanted to stay true to the core gameplay. The designers were quick to reassure me that there’s still a large selection of action-based gameplay missions, all with a unique gameplay elements and fun themes. The designers walked me through their development process, where they showed off imaginative levels that their studio-wide game jam sessions had inspired.

Marc Webber, Senior Game and Level Designer, showed me the new levels that could only be imaginable in the unique world of the Skylands. In one level, they’ve introduced a scale beam, where you resize elements in the environment in order to progress. They have one where you have to drink various potions in order to change your Skylander’s size and appearance in order to make your way through the stage. One map features a dynamic world shift, where you’re racing and platforming your way across the back of a giant dragon, and you have to contend with heavy winds and sliding objects. One thing they wanted to embrace was the freedom for their designers to try things, and the opportunity for their young testers to tell them if it worked.

“We don’t think about us,” Leo Zuniga, a smiling level designer told me, as we watched a giant titanized version of a Skylander stomp on goblins, “we just think about the audience, and what they’ll enjoy.”

One story that impressed me was the fact that new innovations on the technical end can lead to problems with the series. With the introduction of jumping and dynamic lighting, they found that a sun floating off of the horizon made jumping difficult- so in Trap Team, the designers bent the shadow physics, so that whenever you’re attempting to make a jump, the shadow will always be underneath you, no matter where the sun may be shining from. This kind of attention to detail is impressive, and the developers genuinely got a smile whenever they talked about how they approached these problems.

Kids around the world are probably pleased to know that VV does value your fan-art and letters.

The aesthetics of the world seems to be just as important as keeping the gameplay fun, especially since they’re moving closer and closer to a silver screen-esqe presentation. Michael Bukowski, Technical Director for the series, said one of the areas he focused on was the land’s clouds- something he feels adds a great amount of weight to the overall presentation and feel of the series. His crew would constantly send him interesting cloud coverage they can across, from airplane windows to shots from outside of their apartments as they developed the fog-form mechanic. In the cloud kingdom for example, clouds billow up, almost supporting the level. When Skylanders move through it, the clouds break around the player, pushing away as they progress across the platforms, or fly through the air. Water effects has also taken a huge leap up, especially with the inclusion of vehicles that not only skim across the water, but also become fully submerged. Buckowski suggested that this version has the “greatest amount of detail” his team could achieve in their development window, and has even bigger ambitions for the future.

There were a lot of question when it came to approaching the game’s layout in order to accommodate the vehicles. They went with a Halo approach first, allowing you to hop into your vehicle anywhere on the map- but found that this didn’t provide the fast-paced racing action they had been hoping for. They ended up deciding on a more linear approach, where the classic adventure mode is on a central island that leads to a looping, high-intensity track revolving around it. One thing they knew for sure, they want this game to feel like another solid entry in the franchise, and they didn’t want it to feel like a spin-off.

CEO of Vicarious Visions Karthik Bala standing proudly in front of his team’s newest creation.

They revealed to me that certain choices are made in the best interest of the gamer, despite desires to change certain aspects up. For example, they originally wanted the vehicle to move at a consistent speed, and to use the right trigger button as something other than acceleration- but found that gamers tend to like to hold the button, even though they rarely ever took their fingers off the gas. In one of the previous entries (didn’t get clarification of which one), the characters were given “lip flap” during in-game segments when they talk to one another, but viewers observed this as poor lip-syncing, and so this technique was dropped. For the driving in this game, they not only listened to their minor play testers, but also took heavy inspiration from various other games, however feels their approach is radically different than other games that share similarities, citing the experience as ‘vehicle combat’.

A nearly final version of Donkey Kong and his Barrel Blaster on the new Portal.

One of the newest additions to the series is the inclusion of gaming legends Bowser and Donkey Kong. The developers are incredibly excited to be working with Nintendo, a company that also has its own line of ‘Toy-To-Life’ figures in their Amiibos. The amazing thing about these Skylanders, is that it can also be used on Nintendo’s own system, providing exclusive characters to the Wii-U and 3DS as well. One of Activision’s PR reps told me that she had recently worked for Nintendo, and that she feels the partnership is a great fit. It’s nice to see that they don’t see each other as competition, but rather innovators in their particular genre. Despite that, they were quick to mention that they would be handling the distribution of the Skylander versions of this Amiibos- a lighthearted joke at how Amiibos can be quite difficult to get your hands on.

The series was originally built off the name recognition of Spyro, but the developers at Vicarious Visions have prefer to move away from that property. They feel they may create fatigue in the series if they oversaturate it with Spyro based merchandise. They feel their fans enjoy experiencing new and exciting characters with each installment, but they do have plans on re-releasing some previous classic Skylanders with a SuperChargers redesign, all with completely new move sets.

The big question everyone seemed to be asking was since they’ve put vehicles into the game, is there any turning back now? “When we started looking at traps,” one of the lead designers said in response, “we’ve always thought that the focus on the next game should be the next game. We are leap frogging, so we may not go back to them (the vehicles) right away, but we’ll figure it out by then.” The main thing they wanted us to know, was that each version needs to feel fresh, and concerns of what that may mean years down the road takes a backseat to the current build. Is this the right approach; it seemed to me that they weren’t even sure of the answer.

An illustrator sits in a quiet room of the studio, drawing character artwork.

I feel that’s the biggest hurdle the developers probably battle with constantly as they explore this new sub-genre, one that requires significant investment from their audience. How do they change things up while keeping their core audience from feeling like they’ve jumped the Terrafin? Even worst- to keep them from feeling like they’ve gotten ripped off. When asked about this, I was told “(Vicarious Visions) asked parents, do you feel like were ripping you off? We have this dynamic- we can’t just make stuff for free, but if our audience feels like they’re missing too much of the game, they might feel that way.”

It’s a new arena, and it’s a finicky one where one wrong move could hurt the franchise drastically. People buy these figures, not just for their current game, but for all the games that come after. It’s a long-term purchase, where this additional content can always be used. So, what’s to come of the trophies, or the vehicles- if the next game isn’t designed with them in mind. Thankfully, I got the sense from the team that no matter what, they’ll find some way to keep them relevant and useful, no matter how large the catalogue may get. There’s a desire to have a compact roster, but to keep introducing characters for the fans, because without new ideas and toys, gamers might move on.

Despite these changes, there are many things that they hold sacred; the voice acting is done by all the same talent, so gamers don’t lose that personality they’ve grown to love. The controls are the same as they’ve always been, so fans can hop right back in and not have to relearn the ropes. Despite the inclusion of vehicles, new modes and stages with unique attributes, they hope that gamers find the familiarity they’ve always loved in the series. It would seem the future is bright in the Skylands, as long as the fans remain happy with the small changes and enjoy taking a ride around the clouds.

Skylanders: SuperCharged is hitting store shelves in North America on September 20th, and European ones on September 25th. It’ll be available on Nintendo 3DS, Playstation 3, Wii, Wii-U, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Xbox One and iOS (offering digital downloads of the characters and vehicles). We hope to have a review for you when the game is released, so make sure you keep reading Mouse N Joypad for future updates in the Skylanders universe.

Inside the studio where they manufacture the toys, they keep all the previous prototypes.