Who knew actual physical toys would propel a videogame to become the number one selling Activision title (so far) this year and generating over $200 million in sales? Developer Toys for Bob struck gold with its ingenious idea of merging the world of real toys and videogames together with the Skylanders series, and the momentum is still going strong leading up to the release of Skylanders Giants, the first sequel to last year's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure.
I paid a visit to Toys for Bob's offices just north of San Francisco recently to speak with co-founder Paul Reiche, and I found out the rich history of the company, how the Skylanders toys are made, and why creating toys with high-quality care is more important than saving costs.
Paul Reiche's obsession with monsters
Paul Reiche believes that "in our DNA here at [Toys for Bob] is monsters, heroic adventure, and having fun with fantasy adventure." Given Paul's history with gaming, it makes sense, especially with the amount of games he's made with monsters in them.
Paul's first taste into the realm of gaming and monsters began with Dungeons & Dragons during high school. His early success with D&D would soon see him working for TSR (the former Dungeons & Dragons publisher), where he helped develop multiple Dungeons & Dragons and Gamma World games.
Paul's interest soon shifted to digital gaming, and growing up in Berkly gave him a chance to learn programming at the Lawrence Hall of Science. This proved most fortunate for him as he "happened to be in the right place, at the right time" for the dawn of videogames, making his first D&D-based videogame for the TRS 80 and Apple II. From there, he and Jon Freeman (co-founder of Epyx) formed Free Fall Associates, where they worked on some of the first games for Electronic Arts such as Archon and Mail Order Monsters, both which had you controlling monsters that fought each other.
Paul eventually left Free Fall Associates to form his own company, Toys for Bob, with Fred Ford in 1989. It was just the two of them at the beginning, and the company's first title was Star Control. Paul focused on the design and fiction, while Fred handled the programming.
Star Control would later be ported from the PC to the Sega Genesis, but Toys for Bob had to work around Sega's restriction and create an unauthorized version for the system. "Back at this time we were trying to break first party," Paul told me. "It didn't work, so we worked with reversed engineered material to create Star Control. It was the biggest cartridge [on the Genesis] at the time."
Picture via Ars Technica, which has more on the unauthorized Genesis dev kit
They then made Star Control II, and according to Paul, "To this day, we still have a dedicated fan base who want us to abandon Skylanders and just go back to working on it (laughs)." In 1994, Toys for Bob worked with Crystal Dynamics to make Pandemonium, The Horde, and The Unholy War, the latter two both being monster-focused as well.
It was also at this time that they made Majokko Dai Sakusen: Little Witching Mischiefs, their weirdest game ever. Paul loved the SD Gundam series, so he went to Crystal Dynamic's head of studio at the time, Rob Dyer, in order to reach out to Bandai and get the rights. Somehow they ended up making the Little Witching Mischief instead, a game based on the Japanese anime from the 1960s.
The game was only sold in Japan, and he's not sure how well the game did as their original contact at Bandai ended up quitting. He is looking for copies of the game still, as they only have one in their possession.
Their last title with Crystal Dynamics was 102 Dalmatians: Puppies to the Rescue, for which they serendipitously looked at the original Spyro as the basic model in order to make a good kids game.
Toys for Bob would go on to partner with Activision in the early 2000s and make Disney's Extreme Skate Adventure. The company was bought by Activision in 2005 and continued to make kid-focused titles such as Madagascar, Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam, and Madagascar 2.
How the idea of Skylanders was born
It was around 2008 when Paul noticed, "[T]he world started to change. The high-end licensed titles just weren't making enough money to really justify a great big studio in Northern California. So we ended up being asked come up with something new."
Specifically, Activision had sent out a company-wide email asking if anyone had any good ideas that the they could patent. "I just kind of thought that was a funny email," Paul told me. "I said, 'Well, no one is going to answer this. Who would just send off their ideas into the void?' So I said, 'I will! It's a challenge.'
"Whenever a studio is told that they know, 'okay, we better do this' (laughs). We want to remain in existence. So we sort of said, well, this is the first time in a long time we've been offered the opportunity to come up with our own game.
"So one of the ideas I had, although I didn't know the precise technology underlining it, was this wireless communication through this portal where you have a character, and you would put it on the portal and the game would interpret it and that you can freely move the characters around.
"And then they said, 'Oh, and by the way, would you like to work with the Spyro license?' We said, 'Yeah! That's a pretty cool license.'" Activision added that it can't just be a new Spyro game, though. It had to be a new kind of game, because for it to be successful in Activision's eyes, it not only has "to be the top kids game of the year, but it has to be in the top five games period of the year."
An extremely tall order, but the timing couldn't have worked out better, as Paul saw it as a chance to combine his portal idea with Spyro. Paul and I-Wei Huang, character and toy director at Toys for Bob, went to Activision with a couple of illustrations to show off their idea, where they would make toys that would work with a piece of hardware that communicates with the game and create a real-world relationship. "The floor of what we needed to achieve was almost unachievable,” Paul explained. "Fortunately, they gave us some time to prototype, and we ended up coming up with this idea for Skylanders.
"All through this idea, I kept asking myself, 'Am I smoking crack?' Because we literally had to craft everything by hand, go to Activision, show these crazy demos, and once we actually got to the point where we could put [a toy] on a portal, and it would come to life in the game, this sort of light bulb went on in everybody's head and we said, 'Okay, now we just got to make it good.'"
Creating a toy company within a game company
As we all know now, Paul and Toys for Bob's crazy idea worked. Penny Arcade immediately took to it, figures were selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay, and even Justin Bieber is a fan. Toys were selling out like crazy, especially around Christmas. Right now, there are so many Skylanders figures that if you were to put every one of them side by side, they would stretch out for 1500 miles. Paul further drove that point home by stating that there are more Skylanders toys than there are people in the United Kingdom!
The series is successful now, but I couldn't help but wonder if Paul had any fears when developing the whole idea. "I think we were fortunate in that we didn't know what we didn't know. I think if we had known all of the things we were going to confront, we would have said it was impossible. But fortunately we didn't know, and so what we had was people who worked with us for many, many years. The guy who actually invented the portal technology [Robert Leyland], I've worked with him on and off for more than 30 years. Robert had done hobbyist electronics his whole life. We actually signed Electronic Arts development contract #1! A very obscure game about a murder on a zeppelin."
Robert, I-Wei, and Paul went through a lot of different prototypes with the Portal itself, and even at one point made things out of dish drainers. Once the prototype was settled, they went to Red Octane, Activision's proper hardware group.
"[Red Octane] had made all of the hardware for Guitar Hero, and then Guitar Hero had sort of found its natural level of success. And so they were ready and waiting to help us take a prototype and make it manufacturable. There's a whole proper physical engineering that we really didn't know about how to do it. We worked with a company called Creata, and they did the toy engineering for us. And then we worked with Red Octane and they did the Portal."
While Red Octane was busy creating the Portal, Paul and the team focused on making the toys. "This time around, we sort of went from the Stone Age where I-Wei was crafting things with clay. I had made rubber monsters and plastic monsters as a hobby, that was my contribution to the hobbyist part. I was able to say, 'Well, I can show you how we can take your clay toy, make a mold and then we can cast a bunch of them.' 'Cause every time we would send a toy down to Activision for them to show somebody it would vanish." Paul joking speculates that some kid of an executive would end up with it.
"So we started making our own little sweatshop here where we would, after work, cast all these toys and hand paint them. And then those would all vanish. So finally we ended up working with Creata, and they took our solid toys and showed us how they get broken apart." Paul described how the toys are broken down into a very complicated system so that they can be created with as much detail as possible, marveling at how "there's a whole science to how you break toys apart."
It's a process that was well above what Toys for Bob could do on their own, so it was fortunate for them that Red Octane was seemingly lying in wait. As for Creata, that whole partnership came about thanks to a man named John Coyne.
"We knew when we were getting into toys that we actually needed to have someone in the business who understood toys and had sold them before. So we found a guy named John Coyne, and he had worked at Spin Master, which was the company that launched Bakugan, and before that he had worked at Mattel, and he knew collectable toy lines.
"So he helped introduce us to people in the traditional toy world. A lot of them said this is impossible. No one's ever, out of the blue, made 32 toys and sold them in Toys 'R' Us." Paul was grilled about the idea, being asked by people what isle they would sell the product in. To which Paul simply stated, "The aisle with space ... ?" It's not as simple as that, of course. "In Toys 'R' Us, there's an aisle for boys' 8-10 action figures, there's an aisle for girls, there's an aisle for this, etc. And we were like, 'It should sell everywhere! It should sell by the videogames, it should sell in the toys!' And they were just like, 'You can't do that!'
"Fortunately, or unfortunately, there's been a decline in the age at which kids will continue to play with toys, particularly boys. They migrate to videogames cause videogames are so compelling. Toys 'R' Us was really excited that we found a way to reintroduce toys and make plastic toys more by adding this sort of intelligence into them and this communication, and then building this narrative about the toys moving between worlds. We showed it to them early on and they said, 'Wow, this is really cool.' So they worked with us as a partner, helping us, again, learn all the ropes of 'well, how do you move into this aisle?'
"The world of retail is a whole really complicated business. We make videogames and we have partners at Activision that really help us and [one day] they said, 'We got the something shelf at Walmart!' And we were like, 'Cool! ... What is that?' And they said, 'This is the shelf that normally stocks ketchup and mayonnaise.' And we were like, 'Okay ... ' They said, 'No, you don't understand, this is the most coveted shelf at Walmart and you guys got it worldwide!' 'Cool! Mayonnaise and ketchup alright! We got it!' It's business. Because we have something people want to buy, we're getting a lot of support from the retailers."
How the Skylanders are born
The scope of how much quality control Toys for Bob have now wasn't made clear until I talked to I-Wei, who will draw, create loose sketches, make iterations, and then get a 3D model printed in full color. He told me, "Once we have this in our hand, that's when we go, 'Okay, is this a cool toy? Do we like it?'"
I-Wei specifically showed me the many iterations of Bouncer, one of the new Giants characters. He first was this extremely fierce-looking robot with Gatling guns for hands. It reminded me of the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica, in fact. Cool but not something suitable for the kids. From this initial design, Paul and I-Wei tried to mold the character. They were set on giving him some type of gun-like weapon, and while trying to think of specific examples, they both kept using their own hands as a gun. It's something everyone has done with their hands, so they applied that idea to Bouncer.
From there they went through many different color designs and wheel designs, making sure that not only did he look cool from the front but also from the back and above, as that's what the player has to see in the game. I-Wei went through about a couple of dozen designs, from small to large changes, before settling on something on paper with Bouncer.
For the next step, the team modeled the character out in full 3D within the game, animating it and making it strike different poses. Part of this process is to figure out the actual constraits for the toy, as they have to make sure that it both fits on the Portal alongside another toy as well as in its retail packaging.
Next they get feedback from Creata and the manufacturing process. If the design can't be mass produced within the set limitations then the design has to get altered yet again. Then there's the painting process -- this is something Paul and I-Wei really obsess over, debating back and forth with each other. Automation is not part of the paint process, and every paint stroke costs money. They first go about making the toy look cool then scale back, typically with the color schemes, in order make the toys affordable.
"If you compare [our toys] to what's on the shelf today in Toys 'R' Us or whatever around the same price range, this is a much higher quality 'cause we use so much more paint then anyone else," I-Wei tells me. "That's mostly because we care, first of all, about our characters. Originally, it was because we were ignorant. We weren't toy people, we just wanted cool toys.
"When we got prototypes back, it's like, 'No, that looks like crap, you knew you need to paint this part, and let's try doing this and this.' The toy companies are trying to tell us, 'You know, you're like twice more than what you should be. It'd be fine just doing this.' No, we just want a cool toy," was I-Wei's blunt answer to the manufacturers.
I-Wei pointed out a case filled with Skylanders figures across from him that all had something wrong with them. "We go through a lot of eyes, eyes are never painted right the first 10 times." Bouncer in particular took a few months from concept to final version to complete. That's just one figure, but they're creating a lot of different characters at the same time, too.
"I was really fortunate that I got to participate," Paul told me. "I-Wei and I decided early on that he and I would work together to do all the character designs. He's the artist, the illustrator, and the modeler. So really, the vision of the characters is very strongly in his hands. What I come into it is saying, I come from a D&D player head, I'm like, 'Okay, I have this giant tree guy, and he's going to be really strong.' I started clenching my fist, and I-Wei would go off and start sketching.
"Sometimes, we'll get requests from the design department they'll say, 'Okay, we need a range guy, he's a fire range guy who's funny. Those are the things you guys have to work with.' But normally, I-Wei would bring me some sketches and I'll say, 'Oh my God, that guy's great. Now let's replace that crazy skull head with a furry little creature head,' and he would go do 40 variations on that. I-Wei sometimes just draws these crazy monsters, and I just get to play with them."
Paul explains, "[I]t's this amazing new creative job, but by shifting and taking more responsibility over the look of it, what we're able to do is really increase the quality of the toys." The toys and game models in Giants are 1:1 this time around, something that wasn't the case for the first game as they didn't have certain technology at the time, specifically their gigantic 3D printer.
Improvements have of course happened on the game itself too, as the team knows what they're doing better for the sequel. "This time around, we really knew what we wanted to achieve on both on the toys and on the game." Combat is better, there's a better presentation and more variety, and they even got some more Hollywood talent. Patrick Warburton is back as Flynn, Richard Horvitz is back as Kaos (who's basically Invader Zim here, I mean, come on). New to the cast is George Takei of Star Trek fame and Kevin "Hercules" Sorbo. Kevin actually reached out to Toys for Bob, asking if there was some way he could be part of the game so he could score some cool points with his kids that love the series.
This is Crusher, a new Giants character voiced by Kevin Sorbo
Dealing with pressure by focusing on quality
Skylanders is now one of Activision's biggest sellers with the likes of Call of Duty. That adds new pressure to the humble studio, but it's "the kind of problem you want to have," Paul tells me. "You can't look at the dollars and the numbers or you'll go insane. You have to just focus on the things that you can control, which are quality.
"There is tremendous pressure. We went from being nothing to being a half-billion dollar franchise. And of course [Activision] wants it to be more. We would love to do that too. We want more kids to enjoy our game. And success is good, it guarantees we continue to have jobs. The only way we can control it is quality, and that's what we focused on."
This time around, "[Toys for Bob] went into the toys and said, you know last time the way we worked with the toy developers [and] the engineers was we would send them illustrations where we would send them in-game models and they would craft from 3D from the ground up. We would go back and forth with them many, many times trying to actually recreate the character that we created.
"This time, we bought a 3D printer, and we did all of the new characters in hi-res and ZBrush ourselves. So we sent them, this is exactly how it should look. We had the 3D prints, so we could send them a solid object and say this is how it should be colored, and then we would go back and forth on the paint operations."
The ultimate bar that Paul envisioned was reaching Nintendo heights. "When we started this project, we said, 'What do we need to achieve to make this work?' One of them was our game needs to stand up to Nintendo first-party titles. They're the gold standard of quality for our audience.
"Nintendo has a way of tracking how many hours people are spending with what games. We just surpassed Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 in terms of average number of hours players play Skylanders. That was as good as we could of imagined. We want kids who are spending money on these toys to feel like it was really worth it. Not only in terms of how cool the toy is but that they got more play value.
"I-Wei and I both have to evaluate stuff, and mine is 'Do I want to be this guy?' I-Wei's is 'Do I want to reach up on the shelf and buy this guy and convince mom to pay for it?' Without that, it's too cerebral because toys are way more emotional. Physical objects trigger different relationships than virtual ones. I think they're more emotional, and I think they're more deeper in your brain."
Skylanders Giants is out today for the 3DS, PC, PlayStation 3, Wii, and Xbox 360, and coming November 18 on the Wii U. Read up on our review for all that's new and improved.
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