Vicarious Visions’ president on balancing between two audiences in Skylanders

It’s only been two years since Activision’s all-ages Skylanders franchise debuted its first installment, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, but in that time the innovative series that combines collectible figures with an action role-playing game has carved out an impressive niche for itself to the tune of billions of dollars in sales and widespread praise from critics and kids alike. 

Skylanders developer Vicarious Visions now stands poised to release the third major installment of the series, Skylanders: Swap Force, which ups the ante by giving players the ability to mix and match parts from figures to create a wide range of in-game effects – and offers a brand new adventure primed for the next generation of consoles, too. 

Guha Bala headshot

Guha Bala, president and co-founder of Vicarious Visions

Digital Trends visited Vicarious Visions’ studio to get an early look at Skylanders: Swap Force, and also had the opportunity to speak with the studio’s president and co-founder, Guha Bala, about the series’ evolution and treading the fine line between delivering a game that stands as a true “all-ages” adventure. Oh, and we also brought along some questions from a Skylanders expert: a friend’s six-year-old son, who may be the biggest Skylanders fan we know.

One of the most interesting things about Skylanders is that the series really lives up to the “all-ages” designation. It’s a huge hit with six-year-old kids, but it also has a huge following among adult gamers – which isn’t all that common. How do you tread that fine line between making a game for kids and making a true, all-ages game?

In terms of Skylanders itself, our focus is children first – we want to keep children at the center of the experience. We want the child to feel powerful and heroic in bringing the Skylanders characters into this world. So our core demographic is 6-12 year olds, both boys and girls – but it even starts earlier than that. When I started with Spyro’s Adventure, my daughter was four-and-a-half years old and she started playing with me. The play pattern at that age is to pick the right Skylander and use it for this area, then switch, then switch again when you need to, and then – with a loud bang, slamming the figure on the portal – switch again. It’s a very different way of playing than older kids play. A 12-year-old is a totally different human being, developmentally, from a six-year-old. So to span that age range, we have to opt for an easy way in, and we have to make sure that magic moment really is magical. 

The relationship with the physical Skylander [figure] is also so important, because that’s your very own Skylander and it has a unique identity in this world. That’s very special at the youngest of ages. It has a relevance across the board, of course, but that’s a very special kind of bond for a child with a toy. It’s kind of physical, too – because the child can hold the figure and tell their own story with it. They learn as much with their hands as they do with their eyes and other senses. 

That’s the easy way in, and the game environment is a playground for this toy – so that’s why it makes sense for us to make these rich, immersize worlds. 

Skylanders: Swap Force screenshot 5

What about with the older audience? What’s your approach to bringing them in? 

As the child grows, we have layers of depth. There’s comedy, which at one level is easy to appreciate, but it has subtlety to it in the language and the animation that we use. And then we have this deep leveling system where you can really get into your characters and the way you play the adventure. That keeps the interest of the 12-year-old who’s now an experienced gamer. And a 12-year-old gamer resembles an adult gamer more than he does a six-year-old. 

So, by keeping children at the center of the experience, you actually make it relevant for the parent and child, and for a lot of first-time gamers as well. Really, the way in for children also makes it possible for us to get parents and children involved who might not otherwise be sharing this family experience. 

“We want the child to feel powerful and heroic in bringing the Skylanders characters into this world.”

When you come up with something innovative, everyone tries to duplicate your success – and that’s happening now with Disney Infinity. This is the billion-dollar question, of course, but how do you stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the next step after you do something big and unique? How do you switch gears from coming up with the “new thing” to coming up with the newer thing? 

Our studio is filled with different groups of people pushing creativity from different angles. Whether it’s graphics or the way characters are designed or our animation system, it’s done with a sense of, “Hey, look – there’s something really surprising that we can deliver. There’s a simple idea that hasn’t quite been done this way before…” Using the intuition from each of these angles, we can make something truly different. We have to challenge ourselves, too – and ask if the latest thing is going far enough, and then usually push it further. It’s all about getting that cohesive, simple, but powerful idea and then approaching it from these different angles to come up with a way to surprise and delight the user – but not today’s user. We’re trying to surprise and delight users a couple of years from now. 

That’s how we visualize a problem. And then we keep returning to that, saying, “Okay, I’m going to surprise him or her, but is it simple enough to get into? Is it too complex?” And then we might rein it back. The complexity is there for richness, but it shouldn’t be a barrier. It’s easy for us to say Swap Force characters have 16 upgrades, and next time we’ll have 32, for example. But that’s not very surprising, for one thing. And while it might please the hardcore gamer who’s overly invested in one toy, it’s not going to mean much to the six-year-old. 

Skylanders: Swap Force screenshot 4

Even though you’re doing all of these new things with each iteration of the characters and their respective toys, the first collection of figures is still viable to use in the latest game. Given all of the backwards-compatibility controversies we’ve seen over the years in consoles, do you worry about painting yourself into a corner by making the old stuff in Skylanders work with the new stuff? 

Forward compatibility is a big investment, but it’s a commitment we made. It’s something we have to be mindful of. When I look at Skylanders, what makes it special is that the kid is the hero. We’re dedicated to keeping the surprise and magic centered on the child’s experience as the “portal master” for those characters, and honoring the collection of Skylanders players have built. These aren’t disposable. They’re characters that you may have personal attachment to. It’s a lot of work to build a collection, and it’s a lot of money, too. 

That means we have to have a powerful commitment to the collection while at the same time pushing forward in innovation and different directions. So it’s an interesting balance to strike, and so far we’ve been able to do it, but we’re committed to keeping on and figuring out new and innovative ways to continue doing that. 

They’re characters that you may have personal attachment to. It’s a lot of work to build a collection, and it’s a lot of money, too. 

One of the big additions to Swap Force is online play. In the list of questions I received from my friend’s six-year-old son, he’s one asking whether he’ll be able to play Skylanders with his friends. What form does the online play in Swap Force take? 

With Swap Force, it’s a light entry into online play, I would say. When we look at these games, and why Skylanders is so successful, rather than support a really broad feature set and check all of the boxes, it’s more about what is core to the experience and what is special about it, and we invest very heavily in that and stay focused on it. It’s about bringing toys to life. It’s really a cooperative experience, too – even though we have player-vs-player, it’s more about friends playing together and siblings playing with other siblings or parents. We made a very early commitment to same-screen, co-op play, which keeps people talking. It’s very different than other kinds of Internet play, and with Swap Force we add a layer to that. 

[In Swap Force], the co-op play is local, but now you can see all of your friends. If you have an Xbox, you can see all of the other Gamertags and their collections. You can see how they’re doing on leaderboards – but it’s local leaderboards, not global. In Skylanders you collect hats, and you can see your friends’ hats and you can borrow them. It’s that kind of play that enriches the experience and brings you closer to your friends. It’s sort of a walled-garden approach, which keeps it safe for families. 

So it’s similar to the Wii environment when it comes to the online community? 

It’s a family-centered expericnce. There are no bullets in Skylanders, for example. It’s very lighthearted. “Livingroom co-op” is how we see it. . . . So it’s certainly not been a technical problem or anything like that limiting us from online play – it just hasn’t been the most important thing for us to focus on. 

You’ve worked across a lot of platforms with different games over the years, but Skylanders seems to exist across a much wider range than most games. How do you approach game development when you have to keep so many different platforms and generations of technology in mind for the same property? 

That’s an interesting development problem to look at. How do we deliver an excellent PlayStation 4 or Xbox One experience but also have a compelling Wii experience? The way we do that is, we develop systems on the gameplay side that are scaleable, and then look for other kinds of ways of scaling for each of the platforms uniquely. For example, you’ll see that most of the gameplay system is replicated in the Wii, but sometimes the levels are going to be a little modified and smaller. Fundamentally, the dynamic swapping and everything else is preserved, though. On the Nintendo 3DS it’s a different game, because it’s a completely different system. The same is true of tablets and phones right now. 

Skylanders: Swap Force screenshot 1

What about carrying the characters and collectible figures across so many platforms? How has that range of generations in technology come into play with the physical side of Skylanders? 

One of the cool things about Skylanders is that the figures have brains, so a lot of the character information is stored on the toy. I can play on the PS4 and play on [an Xbox] 360 as well, and that experience will be roughly the same. You can take the character and use a Bluetooth portal to play on a mobile phone, but the play rules are different on a mobile console. It’s a different kind of game. You can use your Swap Force guys, but you get a different game. 

My friend’s son was very interested in the length of the story for Swap Force. How does the playing time compare to Skylanders: Giants and Spyro’s Adventure as far as the main narrative? 

I thnk there are multiple ways to look at that question and answer it. It’s very comparable to Adventure and Giants in terms of its total size, but the games are very expansive. In each one, there’s a lot of replay with all sorts of secret areas, challenge areas, and optional areas to be uncovered in every one of the levels. You also have bonus missions and arena modes and co-op survival modes and so many different minigames throughout as well – including some all-new minigames created for Swap Force

There’s all of that, so the game itself on a disc is pretty enormous, but the way a six-year-old will play is very different than a 12-year-old. We involve hundreds of kids in the testing, and some just enjoy playing with their new toy and going through the level. But just like with my daughter, some kids just enjoy swapping and finding the right Skylander for the job. That’s where a lot of the enjoyment is, so that’s why we make the levels playgrounds. Some users, over the course of a year, might never even finish the story. The way they find enjoyment is different. 

So we have to think about multiple dimensions, not just how long the story is, but also how much replay variety there is in the levels. 

Skylanders: Swap Force arrives on shelves in October for PlayStation 3, Wii U, Wii, and Xbox 360. It arrives in November for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. 

Many thanks to six-year-old Skylanders fan Michael Jr. for contributing some of the questions used in this interview.

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