The Hidden Geek Street Cred Behind Skylanders

Skylanders 3x3

I like to play Skylanders with my daughter. When she was 1 or 2 years old, she had fun putting the figures on the portal accessory and hearing the funny lines from TV. Occasionally, she would just sit, watch me play and yell for me to take out the bad guys. Now that she’s 3, she is starting to play with the controller and move the Skylander heroes around the screen herself. It’s like witnessing the birth of a gamer, one funny interaction at a time. But while Skylanders is certainly designed and marketed with kids in mind, I’ve always been impressed with how much I enjoy it as an adult. To me, the Skylanders reminds me of The Muppets or old Warner Bros. cartoons in that there’s plenty to enjoy for all ages to love about them. But whenever I mention the series to my peers, yes even the staff of here at The Escapist, they scoff like a music hipster scoffs at 128 kbps MP3s. I spoke with the co-founder of Toys for Bob Paul Reiche III this week and asked him this point-blank – Why do gamers dismiss Skylanders so easily? More importantly, how can I convince them there’s something worthwhile in the cleverly designed toys, interface and software?

“There are some people who are kind of in the intersection of two sets,” Reiche said, describing a sort of Venn diagram. “There’s the set of people who know Skylanders and love it, whatever their avenue into it, whether it was their own kind of love of toys or characters or their kids, they’re there. Then there’s the group of people who just either don’t know about it, or at least are kind of put off by bright colors, and kind of craziness.”

Reiche thinks that those people are similar to those who have strict concepts of what kinds of content they will enjoy. “It’s sort of like dragging someone to The Fifth Element,” he said, referring to the 1997 film starring Bruce Willis and Chris Tucker. “I had a lot of more serious science fiction fan friends who were really put off by how crazy and colorful and almost out of control the creative sense of that movie was. But I loved it! There was this sort of creative chaos to me and a willingness to not take itself, or even the viewer take themselves too seriously, so if you have kind of a fun, funny take on the genre.”

So that’s kind of what Skylanders is like – a creative, colorful and irreverent take on action adventure games. The colors and the toy gimmick doesn’t mean the core of the series is any less rooted in hardcore genre tropes than the over-the-top Fifth Element had a strong sci-fi skeleton. For Skylanders, that skeleton is Reiche’s history designing monsters for the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons back in 1980.

“I, just like many people, discovered fantasy role-playing games in high school and I happened to be tremendously fortunate that the group of people I was with ended up moving into the professional world of making role-playing games,” Reiche said. “My buddy was a guy named Erol Otus, who was one of the original artists who, if you remember Deities and Demigods from way back.” He moved to work for TSR, the company that published D&D back then, and his favorite task was designing the monsters that ended up on the pages of books like the Monstrous Manual and the quirky sci-fi sub-setting called Gamma World. He’s credited on several landmark adventures such as the Isle of Dread and the Scourge of the Slave Lords series, as well as inventing the Thri-Keen race.
“I had started meeting people in the nascent computer game industry at D&D conventions, and so when I left TSR about a year later, I came back and hooked up with them, and these are the people who had founded Epix,” he said. He ended up working for some of my favorite game developers in the 1980s – I played games like Archon for too much on my Commodore 64. “We ended up working on some of Electronics Arts titles, Archon and Murder on the Zinderneuf, later, Mail-Order Monsters, with a couple of other people.”

skylanders trap team_head rush

He founded his own studio Toys for Bob with Fred Ford in 1989 and the firm worked on the Star Control series, Pandemonium and The Unholy War before taking on contract work for licensed games through 2000s. Toys for Bob finally scored a major hit with Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure in 2011, but Reiche believes there is a through line in all of his work.

Archon is sort of about two teams of very symmetrical monster characters, and then Mail Order Monsters [lets you] create your own monster characters, and then Star Control – lots and lots of crazy spaceships fight each other with crazy aliens, and then the Unholy War – monsters who fight each other and jump and run,” said Reiche. “All roads lead to Skylanders, effectively. Creating monsters is just about my favorite thing. What I liked to at TSR more than anything else really was invent monsters.”

The conceit behind Skylanders is that physical toys, when placed on a USB accessory, enter the digital world of the game’s software. You control whatever hero is on the portal through a linear mission-based story and each hero levels up abilities in the game independently. The three titles released so far in the series focused on the heroes, called Skylanders of course, and iterated on the original idea by introducing larger figures (Giants) and heroes with interchangeable halves you can mix and match (Swap Force). For this fall’s Trap Team, however, the monster-designing roots of Paul Reiche are coming through a bit more.

“In many ways, the series villain, Kaos, is almost the protagonist,” he said. “The Skylanders do what you want, and it’s hard to put words into your mouth, because you know what you’re going to say and if we put words in your mouth it may not come out right. Kaos, on the other hand, is this extremely emotional, high-strung, talkative dude who really wants to explain exactly everything that’s going through his head, even if it’s stupid. And so people really like Kaos. Even though he’s the bad guy.”

On top of that, many of the named mini-bosses of the games have become popular with fans. “People like the Chompy Mage, and some of the others – Brock has his fans,” he said. “How should we address villains? Should we just let you play them? Should we you know, have them be autonomous characters?

“What we really hit on was that we want to let you reach into Skylands – we sort of think of this portal as this sort of semi-permeable membrane that you have a special magical ability to reach through – so instead of taking a toy and shoving it through and having it come to life, we really wanted to give you the ability to reach in there and grab the most interesting things out of it,” he continued. “For us, that was the kind of, the fancier villains, including Kaos.”

With Trap Team, you’ll have a new portal that will allow you to trap a villain in a plastic gem through the course of play. You can then play with the crazy villains as characters for a short amount of time – one example is Painyatta, a villain “who barfs candy and whacks people with a giant lollipop.” Trap Team has essentially given the designers the license to reach truly Fifth Element levels of wackiness – “We get to break some of our rules that we normally have for making Skylanders.”

skylanders trap team_gill grunt

The need to innovate is high right now for Activision and Toys for Bob – Disney Infinity 2.0 aims to grabs some of the “toys to life” sub-genre market, and Nintendo has its own plans with “amiibo”. “We know there are people breathing down our necks now, and we really need to knock it out of the park. Do something unexpected and fun and something that everybody really wants to do, they just haven’t really said it out loud yet,” he said. The fact that they can move from heroes to villains quickly is an advantage, but it’s not the only one Toys for Bob has against the powerhouses of Nintendo and Disney.

“Obviously, we have to stand up against some titans now, and, so we’ll focus then on our tactical advantage, which is that we’re not limited to anything,” Reiche said, citing the decades of cultural baggage carried by characters like Mickey Mouse and Mario. “We can make the craziest characters in the world, as long as they’re fun and have interesting personalities and again give you some other avenue into this monster ‘slash’ hero kind of motif that keeps showing up.”

Software-wise, Activision and Toys for Bob will also score a major win by being the first AAA game to launch on 10 platforms simultaneously, including the mobile devices such as the iPad, the Kindle Fire, and the Nintendo 3DS as well as current and last generation consoles. Inclusivity is key to adoption, and allowing people to use the toys they buy across all of those devices is going to be a huge advantage. While I’ve heard people complain about the price of the toys and the need to collect so many, you never feel penalized for adding to your Skylanders collection. All the toys are backwards compatible, keeping abilities you’ve purchased, and newer titles even add features such as jumping to older toys in game.

I’ll admit that none of this is going to convince people to play Skylanders: Trap Team when it comes out on October 5th if you aren’t already invested. How do I get adults to realize they are missing out? “You just gotta trick em, you know,” Reiche suggested with a laugh. “Invite them over for drinks or something and roll it out.

“This year, some of our characters havee got much more weapon-y weapons, they’ve got more ‘edge’ and then we did bring in the minis, which sort of opened up the other end of this ultra cute,” he continued. “I’m not sure which is going to appeal the most to adults, because I find a lot of people like those minis. I think there’s some characters [which you’ll like] particularly if you have a sense of humor. I mean, maybe that’s it – If you can approach your fantasy role playing or whatever that thing we go to in our heads is – not take yourself too seriously and have a sense of humor – that’s the way you’re going to get into Skylanders because it has all those things.”

It is all those things and more. Not to get too sentimental, but I think the reason why Skylanders resonates so well is because it gets at the core of what makes play so important to us as humans. When you are pretending or playing a role, no matter what age you are, a light shines in your eyes. Our ability to act as if we were someone else is a profoundly human quality, and that element of play is encouraged by blocks, dolls and, yes, even video games.

“We founded the franchise that effectively made the world a little more magical and fulfilled a fantasy that everybody already had,” Reiche said. “Everybody already knew that toys came to life, they just actually hadn’t seen it yet because they had only experienced it in their imaginations.”

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