Skylanders is, at its core, an enjoyable action platformer. It’s got excellent voice acting, good puzzles and decent graphics, but at the end of the day it’s just a child-friendly platformer.
So why do I rave about it? Well, it has two things that really make it stand out from the crowd. The first is the obvious gimmick of buying figurines to play in the game.
The second is the playable characters themselves. In addition to special moves, fighting styles and powers, each has a distinctive personality.
My favourite is Trigger Happy, the manic dog-like gunslinger who repeatedly yells, “Mine, mine, mine, mine,” whenever there’s loot around. My second choice would be Stealth Elf, the intense, silent sneak attacker who dual wields whirlwind daggers.
My five-year-old also loves Trigger Happy, but his second picks are the fishman Gill Grunter, title character Spyro and the undead Ghost Roaster (three second picks? Yeah, you have to be five to get that.)
Anyway, all this rambling on the characters brings me to the second of the Skylander Q&A’s local distributors Red Entertainment sent me. It’s with Toys for Bob’s toy and character director, I-Wei Huang, the man responsible for creating the Skylanders.
Q&A with I-Wei Huang, Toy & Character Director at TFB
What do you think are the most important factors in successfully creating characters for children?
Answer: In the beginning I spent a lot of time trying to define the look of the Skylanders characters, trying out a lot of different styles and feels. We wanted toys that you can’t help but want to pick up and feel. We wanted the characters to be compelling good guys for all ages, and we wanted the toys to feel substantial and heavy for their size. The first successful character sketch that ended up being a blue print for other characters was the character “Bash.” Bash was the first to have all of these qualities – he ended up defining our first dragon and our first Skylander. He’s chunky and strong, yet still has a bit of that puppy dog feel as well. Then there are also the Chompies. They’re odd and make you laugh, yet looking at their chomping teeth, it’s still easy to understand their purpose and intentions as “bad guys.”
Where do you draw inspiration from for each character?
Answer: I work closely with Toys for Bob’s studio head, Paul Reiche, so we draw inspirations from each other often. He comes from the world of sci-fi and fantasy, and I bring to the table inspirations from the natural world, as well as some old anime influences. We both love silly and funny stuff too, so together we strike an interesting and quirky balance in Skylanders.
The look of the character always comes first. I’m actually not involved in the story side, and don’t have strong desire to make up what these characters do and where they are from. I like to create a character that really makes you wonder, such as, why would an archer wear a blindfold? But my colleagues at Toys for Bob are much better than I am at creating a story around each of the characters, and I really enjoy sitting back and seeing where the animation team and the game design team end up taking these characters store-wise. It’s always a pleasant surprise when I see the character implemented.
Do you test concepts with children? At what stage?
Answer: If we feel like we’re “stuck” on a particular character, we might bring some kids in to ask them what they like about a certain toy, what they don’t like about him. If we do bring kids in for focus testing, it’s always later in the development, usually after the character has been animated with its powers and movement. The typical process starts with me creating dozens of pages of loose sketches, something that only takes minutes to draw, and show it to Paul Reiche. He then helps filter through the characters, and we often mix and match different parts of different character sketches together, while trying to retain the main essence of the original sketch. Each character has gone through multiple changes and evolutions from the sketching phase to the physical figurine before anything is tested with kids.
What limits do you set yourself when creating characters for children?
Answer: That’s a good question and the answer’s not a super easy one because we’ve made the Skylands universe pretty vast with a wide variety of elemental groups. We’ve created a lot of different Skylanders and want there to be a nice balance, gameplay-wise as well. Like for instance, we wouldn’t want eveybody being a long range shooter like Gill Grunt.
There are also some very general rules, like the Skylanders characters need to have clear faces, they can’t have any super small, super-detailed pieces that won’t read well from far away. The Skylanders should easily fall into one of the eight elemental groups. Their base attacks need to be simple and straightforward, and each character’s toy pose needs to appear “battle ready.“
That said, these guidelines still leave a lot of room for interpretation. And, luckily for us, we have a very strong, experienced creative team that have been able to establish the look and feel of the Skylanders characters, and these guys work super hard to maintain that consistency and balance.
How do you go about creating characters that appeal to both genders?
Answer: Luckily, the Skylanders franchise has a lot of range – we wanted to create diverse characters so that fans of both genders (and of all ages) could have different favorites – that there would be enough diverse characters so that everyone could identify with at least a few different toys. That’s the beauty of the world that we created – it’s all so different, yet it all fits together. It is more difficult to create a good guy, or hero, that still looks tough and capable. It’s much easier to make powerful characters that are evil, than strong characters that are good heroes.
Which characters have been the quickest/taken the longest to develop?
Answer: Probably the Giants themselves - there are lots of limitations with the Giants characters. We want them big, but they also needed to fit on the portal, which makes for some challenges in posing and designing of the giants. An increase in physical size and paint detail of the toy are also needed so that the Giants don’t look like toddler toys, or just scaled up Skylanders. We wanted them to look like Giants and feel substantial and strong.
Which do you think are the most popular characters and why?
Answer: When we come up with the Skylanders characters, we make sure that every single one of the toys has the potential to be a fan favorite – each character has to be somebody’s favorite character. We would never say, "Well, this Giant character is not necessarily an A-lister but he’s pretty cool and we've already got plenty of other A-list Giants so we can have a few B's in there." No way. We remind ourselves every day that someone out there will love each and every one of these Skylanders and we need to make sure that they all deliver.
How would you describe the new Skylanders Giants characters?
Answer: The Giants were actually the very first Skylanders to exist and were around many thousands of years ago. Like dinosaurs before humans, they also just completely disappeared one day. Back then, an evil race of magical technological beings called the Arkeyans ruled over Skylands with an iron fist (and I mean that literally). The source of all the Arkeyans’ power was an enchanted iron fist. It was the Giants who banded together to free Skylands from the evil Arkeyans reign. This final battle between the Giants and the Arkeyans is what led to the Giants being blasted to Earth, where they were buried for centuries. When Kaos (resident “bad guy” of Skylands) manages to reactivate one of the old Arkeyan war machines, the Giants become unearthed and must return to Skylands to deal with this ancient threat once again.
How have you make Skylanders Giants characters differ from those in Skylanders Spyro’s Adventures, beyond just being bigger?
Answer:With Skylanders Giants, itwas important to us that this next incarnation of both the Skylanders video game and the toy lines had some new features that are immediately clear to the player. People are going to want to know what’s new about the new game, and we believed we needed to explain the new features to our audience in very simple terms. We also didn’t want the new innovation to stray from what made Spyro’s Adventure fun and interesting. It is our strong feeling (and hope!) that the concept of Giants really fits that criteria well. Plus it’s just inherently fun to be a big, powerful giant too, right?
How many new characters are there and how can you keep making them all different?
Answer: Skylanders Giantswill feature 16 brand new Skylander characters, including the super-sized Giants, the LightCore Skylanders that light-up in the game and in the real-world when you put them on or near the portal. Then there’s the Series 2 Skylanders, which are returning fan-favorites from Spyro’s Adventure. And, lastly, there are brand new Skylanders with new personalities and new powers.
All of the Skylanders from Spryo’s Adventure are 100% compatible with Skylanders Giants – abilities and upgrades intact. So you’ll definitely be seeing their familiar faces in Skylanders Giants too!
You’ve said in the past that you couldn’t pick a favourite our of the Skylanders characters - do you have a favourite Giants?
Answer: Yea, I get asked that a lot. I can’t pick, I am too close to each and every one of them to have a favorite.