"It's the easiest pitch in the world," says Paul Reiche, studio president of Toys for Bob, the developer behind Activision's new take on Spyro. "It's so emotional and primal. It's what you expect. You have a toy, it's in your imagination, it's alive, and the fact that it isn't is strange. So when you see it instantly come to life, it's a natural, pleasant experience."
He's right -- while the actual game behind Skylanders is clearly meant for younger players (we'll get to that in just a second), the technology is pretty amazing to children of all ages. Toys for Bob has made the transition between the real-world toys and the in-game characters almost seamless, and it makes this kids' game worth a look.
Despite its name, Toys for Bob didn't come at this as a toy company. Reiche is an old-school gamer, and his company has a solid history of development, including the legendary Star Control titles and 1996's Pandemonium. In fact, when Activision first approached Toys for Bob about doing a Spyro title, Reiche and his company originally aimed for something much darker than Spyro has ever been before.
"Let's blow Spyro out," Reiche said at the time. "Let's raise up the age range for him, let's appeal to the kids over 16 up into young adults, let's make it tough and bloody. And we did all of this concept work and just lost our enthusiasm. That wasn't Spyro. That isn't what our passion was about. It was much more joyous and active, and so we sort of stepped back from that."
Especially seeing the younger bent of Skylanders and Toys for Bob's recent games, it's hard to imagine the property with a tougher edge, but it was one of a few ideas they went through before (sky) landing on this one. "We spent about six months on a variety of different directions with Spyro," says Reiche, "and to Activision's credit, they just kept saying more innovative, do something new, more innovative, and they gave us the time and the budget to really seek out what was our dream."
The dream, it turns out, was to make toys, and create a simple and intuitive way to make them interact with a game console. That's a task that Toys for Bob turned out to be perfect for. "I'd been making hand-carved, hand-cast toys for a while," says Reiche. "We had a hobby electronicist, and so cobbling together a game, we could put a toy on the portal and bring it to life on the Wii."
The game itself is almost a hack-and-slash title -- Spyro and his various friends are tasked with exploring a series of repeatable dungeon-style levels, and can find loot and money as they go through. The gameplay's broken up with puzzle areas (one part consisted of a series of platforms that had to be aligned just the right way for players to pass through correctly), and each character has an element associated with it, which means some heroes are better for some areas than others.
There's also a PvP element -- two players can put their toys down, and battle them out together in an arena. Those fights are more simple than the co-op game, but it may be just enough to set to rest any discussion of whose toy is the more powerful.
Reiche says that the parallels to more mature hack-and-slash titles like Diablo are definitely there, especially emphasized by his old-school pen-and-paper RPG experience. "I love fantasy adventures," he admits, "all the way back to Dungeons and Dragons, so what we were trying to do was access an environment where lots and lots of monstrous heroes made sense." But at the same time, many of the design decisions that lean towards hack-and-slash co-op titles weren't necessarily pushed by any other influence than just trying to make a solid game. "A lot of it is just parallel evolution," he admits. "The decisions that led people to make certain games before lead you right there as well."
It's not completely clear just yet how these toys will be handed out to kids -- there will definitely be a $70 starter pack with three toys and a portal included with the disc, so even players who only grab the initial game will have some switching to do. Other toys will come in expansion packs after that, up to the full 32. And depending on the success, of course, there may be other ways to collect and find toys that work with the game -- all of the usual childrens' marketing methods, no doubt. Reiche says Toys for Bob has built 48 toys total, though it's not clear how many of those were just prototypes, and how many exist outside of the initial 32 release toys.
It's hard to see from a short hands on whether or not this is something that will really resonate with its audience. There is some fun tech hidden somewhere in the toys, though Reiche declined to explain it fully ("it would kind of blow the magic," he says carefully), leaving it up to toy hackers to tear the game apart when it finally comes out to see how all the data transfer and storage actually works. And the experience is impressively seamless -- like the best tech, you just put the toy on the portal and it all just works.
The Call of Duty crowd isn't exactly interested in buying cute toys, however, and some parents may flinch at investing in yet another collect-em-all scheme. We'll wait and see if Skylanders can get enough power to lift off in the first place.