Games with toy tie-ins saw a relatively short-lived popularity boom a few years ago. But Toys for Bob took its time in the creation of Activision Blizzard's Skylanders -- and early signs for toy sales are beating expectations, studio president Paul Reiche tells us.
The studio had spent some years working on Activision's licensed games, but as many publishers learned, the formula for license companion games had become less predictable than it once was. "We had just finished up Madagascar 2, and it was pretty clear that the world of licensed games was changing," Reiche explains. While those types of games were "more of a craftsmanship exercise," the team decided to shift its energy to a "creative, freaked-out endeavor, which Skylanders was."
Although since launch Skylanders has become a brand name in its own right, achieving some distance from its original tie-in, the initial vision came from Toys for Bob's mandate to reinvent one of the licenses that had been Vivendi's: They chose Spyro the Dragon.
Attempts to revive broad-audience mascot franchises haven't seen predictable success in the game industry. Just creating a new Spyro game after the traditional fashion was unlikely to work, says Reiche. And reinventing the character as a "really gritty, strange otherworldly Spyro" didn't seem like a promising idea.
Spyro needed a radical new idea. Reiche says he had considered integrating technology with toys and games for a while, and it was the kind of concept that was so outlandish that it was the most promising idea the team sketched out for the brand.
"We weren't professional toymakers, and we weren't professional electronics engineers," Reiche says. "Fortunately, we had the skillset in-house." Toys for Bob's I-Wei Huang is a hobbyist craftsman who makes neat things like steam-powered robots, and along with the electronics expertise of others on board, the studio could start tinkering with the development of physical toys that could have persistent counterparts in a game world.
"In three months, we were able to put together a prototype that showed the magic moment -- where you put the toy on [the electronic platform] and it appears in game," says Reiche. Even though that prototype was crude, seeing an object go from real to virtual right before one's eyes felt special to everyone. Reiche says Toys for Bob saw the opportunity to go much further than other toy-game brands had gone, where the toy is generally a vehicle to convey an unlock code for a simple online flash game.
After 20 months of development, the publisher and developer together made a key decision to go big or go home with Skylanders, and to spend another year investing deeply in the degree of polish that could create something that aimed to go beyond the fad and become a lasting brand.
"[Activision chairman] Bobby Kotick said... the way this will win is if it's high quality," says Reiche. "So he said, 'make the toys better, and make the game better.'"
Toys for Bob set about developing more toys, and more interesting toys, with a focus on broader appeal. "I had a daughter who was 12 or 11 at that time -- I wanted there to be strong, cool, powerful and genuinely feminine characters," says Reiche. Market research on young audiences showed the team that girls are happy to play games with either boys or girls, but that boys tend to prefer to play with boys.
The insight of people with traditional toy industry backgrounds helped create a broad spectrum of characters designed to capture a diverse audience, Reiche says. The most popular toy currently is the female dragon Whirlwind, he adds, an interesting yield for companies looking to create new character models for kids.
The biggest challenge in the toy production was getting the toy manufacturer, which produces millions of toys for all kinds of companies, to work up to the standards that Toys for Bob had set for Skylanders: "We overshot [the quality standards] tremendously," Reiche claims. "Our toys have anywhere from 30 to 60 paint operations and they're quite small."
But that was a worthwhile expense of effort, he says: "Part of what a lot of the adults react to is that the toys don't look like cheesy little toys." The team has now moved into using 3D printing to prototype the toys to improve their final appearance.
"Toys are so emotional, and everyone attaches to them," Reiche says.
Getting a product like Skylanders to retail was its own effort. Reiche describes the toy business as a "tightly understood" thing, governed by laws about which types of audiences will gravitate toward which types of toys, locations and displays within a store. "It makes any gender stereotyping or age bias in our industry seem trivial by comparison," Reiche reflects.
But Activision once again went all-in with its retail partners, creating key displays within partner stores that would allow people to try placing Skylanders toy packages on the portals to see how they actually worked. Reiche confides that he and many other Toys for Bob employees have found themselves hanging around stores like Target to watch consumers discovering Skylanders for the first time.
"It's amazing we weren't arrested, because we've all been lurking around the kids' areas," he jokes.
And even staffers at Toys for Bob who have worked on the game at each stage have found themselves excited to buy the toys, he continues. Skylanders appears to have found a surprising adult audience in general -- a glance at gamer culture across social media and web comics, plus an ear to industry chat suggests that more than one adult is buying lots of Skylanders toys and emphasizing "it's for my kids" just a bit too strongly.
That unexpected audience might be part of why, according to Reiche, the game is beating expectations. While the company isn't providing numbers, "Activision had a pretty aggressive plan, and the toys have far outstripped it," he says. "The game itself is selling better and better each week... we've also stepped outside and there are some people who don't even own consoles that are buying the toys."
The company will keenly watch the key holiday shopping season, particularly Black Friday. The performance of Skylanders will surely be telling of the future of this new generation of toy-based games, and the opportunity for all kinds of games, whether for kids or otherwise, to have physical collectibles, figurines and other tie-ins that can become playable components.
"We're all waiting to see how high this goes," says Reiche, adding, "It's the most rewarding project we've worked on since Star Control."