Skylanders: Imaginators, the sixth installment in studio Toys for Bob's action-adventure toy bonanza, is coming on October 16. With it will be a tool that will at long last let players create their very own Skylanders.
TIME spent an hour with Activision taking the game's new creation tool for a spin. We also chatted exclusively with Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg about Imaginators' inception and the toys-to-life category's long-term viability.
We also spoke with Toys for Bob cofounder, CEO and creative director Paul Reiche, who elaborated on some of the design choices this round, including whether kids will be able to generate physical, real-world versions of their in-game creations.
The Imaginators were inspired by years of kids' letters and drawings
"We come from roleplaying backgrounds. My original job back in high school was working on Dungeons & Dragons back in the old paper game days," says Reiche. "So for me character creation is one of the greatest things ever. It's one of those things where we'd be making Skylanders every year, but we'd just get tons and tons of letters from kids with their designs, and you just can't deny your fans. They tell you over and over 'We want to make characters.' And the right thing to do is what we did this year, which is give them the best tools we can to make cool Skylanders characters."
Players can tweak their Imaginators at any time during the game
"One of the single biggest challenges we've had is where do you put rails," says Reiche when I ask if allowing players to retool their creations at leisure might reduce their investment in a character. "We are biased at the studio towards freedom. And there have been a lot of cases where we've thought, 'You know, maybe it would be better to add this restriction or limitation.' What we're seeing people do in our play tests is they regulate pretty much on their own. They find a character base they really like, usually it's the body parts, and they don't stray from that much after they've created it, given it a name, chosen an upgrade for one of those powers and picked their tagline. They're really attaching to the character."
"I've got toys that are sitting on my desk that I don't want to change because I've gotten attached to them. At least at present—I think this is still in development so I'm not going to give you a firm answer—I think the working premise is that people will self-regulate. Freedom, creativity, openness and generosity of spirit is where as a studio we try to come from whenever we can."
A 'limited number' of players will be able to turn their Imaginators into real life Skylanders toys
"We've been using 3D printers to make Skylanders from the very beginning, so we see that as closing the loop," says Reiche when asked about the possibility of a 3D printing options or service. "In this year's Imaginators, it's 'bring your imagination to life,' but then it's really 'bring your imagination back to the real world.' So we're going to be offering a limited number of players the ability to build three-dimensional prints of their characters that are playable in the game."
"The details aren't settled yet, and we haven't announced anything beyond what I've just told you, but this whole time, for us, Skylanders are not only great fantasy characters, they're also toys, physical objects and artifacts of the real world. And they really matter. Kids not only use them as an interface to the game, but they carry them away from the game."
"So the ability to interact with your own imagination, to play through the game and then build a representation of your character in the real world—that, to us, is the ultimate expression of what we're doing. I have some examples sitting in front of me that I treasure, and we don't know yet how wide we can go with this, but we feel it's going to be a really exciting part of the whole endeavor."
They're also working on other ways to let players share creations
"We're not talking about the details on this yet, but we hear you," says Reiche of possible alternative ways to share creations with friends. "I think you want to show off not only the product of your imagination, but if you've really struggled to get the fiery dragon armor, you want people to know you have it. There's a variety of different methods, and we haven't settled on which collection of them we're going to use, but we do want people to be able to share their creations."
Imaginators is the most expansive Skylanders game the studio has made yet
"This is the biggest, most complicated and most difficult Skylanders game we've ever made, far and away," says Reiche when I ask him to contrast the development effort on Imaginators with prior versions. "It's not so much the technical challenges. There are plenty of those, like combining all of these pieces in an animated skeleton together, and having a nice, smooth, complete version of a character. But it's really been way more about player experience, and how it is that they navigate through this."
And it took all the prior games to prepare the studio for Imaginators
"I think we had to create over 300 Skylanders before we really understood the complete language," says Reiche. "Each year we're trying to find something new and unexpected, whether it's play patterns like capturing villains and making them playable, or driving racing cars, or walking around with giant Skylanders. We decided early on with this version to go for the creative angle, and the whole game just blossomed out of it. As we've made the parts, for instance, we've found there are certain instances where we'd never made a character like that before, but everyone was clamoring for a specific werewolf or mummy."
"But it needed the whole foundation of what a Skylander is, what Skylands is like, and building up the mystery of the ancients. The storyline is all about the history of how Skylands was created out of the imagination of these ancient beings, and how this tremendous power has a dangerous side, and now it's exploded back into Skylands. And the portal master has always had this unique power to bring your characters to life, and now you have that power. Now you can actually create them."
"So if we hadn't laid the foundation with multiple Skylanders games before, there's no way we could have tackled something this complicated with the level of success we actually achieved."
The upcoming Skylanders Academy TV show was a 'bucket list experience'
"We're not talking too much about the details of the TV show, besides that it's coming out later this year," says Reiche. "But Skylanders is this endless source of amazing things in our lives, like having a balloon at the Thanksgiving Day parade. I never knew I really, really wanted to have that, but once we had that opportunity, it was like 'Oh my god, this is a bucket list experience.'"
"Having a TV show made of your game turns out to also be one of those. Activision has its own internal studio to handle it, and they're super-talented people who have it under control. But being able to talk to them, share details, ensure that Skylands looks exactly like Skylands and that each character is totally recognizable, that's also part of this total package this year. We had to make an awesome Skylanders game and expand its functionality, but also connect it into the worlds of TV media, and as I mentioned earlier, of physical toys with our 3D printing plans."
Fan-favorite Skylanders are now central to the story
"We're focusing a lot of the storytelling through the Skylanders this year," says Reiche. "And we're introducing these teacher Skylanders called Senseis who have traveled from all over Skylands. They're the master of their fighting style, or what we call battle class. They arrive at the academy as soon as they hear about the emergence of mind magic, which has exploded across Skylands. It's what's allowing you to create the Imaginators, but also what's allowing series villain Kaos to create the Doomlanders, these ferocious, fearsome new villains."
"Since you're creating these Imaginators from scratch, we wanted to make sure, sort of like Mr. Miyagi or Obi-Wan Kenobi, that you had a teacher. So these Sensei allow you to level up your skills in your battle class, and also do things like increase your level cap. As you gather Senseis, all of your Imaginators can grow stronger and unlock secret techniques."
"So since we're introducing an awful lot of characters in the gameplay, we wanted to make sure that we didn't lose the heart of where we started, particularly characters that are very important to the show. So that's why we started reinforcing the appearance of our core Skylanders in the story itself. We really want them to be an essential part of Skylanders, whether or not you choose to play as them."
There's no lower cost digital-only starter pack this year because 'the audience wasn't engaging'
I originally posed this question to Activision senior producer Chris Wilson during my demo. "We found that our audience just wasn't engaging," he told me. "And so that's why we decided to stick with a more traditional starter pack this year. The way we look at it, is there's great value there. You're getting two of the Senseis, the portal, the software and a creation crystal." When I put the same question to Reiche, he agreed with Wilson, then added this:
"My perspective on this is kind of emotional," says Reiche. "To me, the toys are an essential part of Skylanders, in that with them, my experience of a character is so much stronger. The act of getting the toy in my hand and of collecting and putting them on the portal, that's always been essential to us, and what differentiates us. I think one, in cases where we have tried it, it hasn't really been successful. But that doesn't surprise me, because at its core, we think the relationship of the physical object and the virtual character is imaginary. The toy is the character and the character is the toy."
The newly playable villains are Skylanders, but darker and edgier
"I think that's part of why they're so appealing," says Reiche of the game's reformed do-badders. "Some of them are crazy, like the Pain Yatta with his giant candy axe, or the werewolf (Wolfgang) with his heavy metal harp. I have to credit my son there, because he's a heavy metal musician. And I asked him 'What sort of instruments should our undead heavy metal werewolf have? Should he have a guitar?' And my son was just like 'Oh dad, that's so expected.' So that's how Wolfgang ended up with his heavy metal harp."
"With our Skylanders, we're a bit more restrained, because they're heroes. But with our villains, we gave ourselves permission to go off the ranch."
The studio sees nothing ominous in Disney's sudden exit from toys-to-life
"It's funny that we can talk about this now, because toys-to-life didn't exist, and then we made Skylanders and now it's a genre," says Reiche when I ask him to comment on the health of the category in the wake of Disney's sudden abandonment of it. "If you look at the segment, it's a successful segment, and we have a different perspective from everyone following us. We always have this clear blue ocean in front of us. And to succeed we always have to innovate."
"The simplest answer to your question is that toys-to-life is inherently more fun than toys that don't come to life. That's just true. You can play with our toys, but the fact that somewhere they come to life and you can play with them and remember that experience, that's always going to be better than the alternative. So in my mind, one way or another, in the future, all toys have to be more than just plastic. They have to have some way of engaging your imagination that's new and interesting. The toy industry wasn't doing great before Skylanders, but it was this idea of one-upping toys, making something more than the plastic that really reinvigorated that whole segment."
"What's the collection of ideas for the next year, and the year after that? There's no shortage of ways of making toys and this interaction special and cool and magical. It's simply a matter of what are we going to tackle over the next two years or next 18 months. It's making sure that every year, there's something new that we can put out there that we know kids are going to love. As long as we keep doing that, we know we can keep the category relevant, and as long as we're the best at it, we think we can make it sufficiently successful to keep doing it."