Skylanders took a simple idea and made it happen – toys can come to life in the form of a game. Now, with Swap Force, Vicarious Visions has taken the game to a whole new level. I got to visit the studio in Albany New York, to meet with the guys behind Swap Force – and get some hands-on times with the new toys!
Before getting to the studio, I was under the impression that Vicarious Visions (VV) was just a porting studio. However, these guys actually really impressed me – not just with their creativity and intellect (which is substantial) – but also with their spirit. Led by two passionate brothers, Guha and Karthik Bala, most of the key figures at VV have been part of the company for over 10 years. This gives the studio a really warm, familiar and almost familial vibe. The people behind Swap Force know that their toys will help shape a generation’s creativity, just as He-Man and TMNT toys affected children from the 80s and 90s. VV takes this responsibility seriously.
Skylanders: Swap Force sees a number of interesting developments that take the game to the next level – this is definitely a title that is ready for next gen.
Michael Bukowski, the Visual Technology Director, took us through some of the interesting rendering technology. While there are some cool things across all platforms, including dynamic lighting, things got particularly pretty when we looked at what we could expect on next gen.
Using parallax occlusion mapping, Bukowski explained that it
“takes a surface that’s normally almost flat looking and give it a great amount of definition. In next-gen builds you’ll see this on floors and walls.”
Combined with the dynamic lighting, it made the world seem much more realistic and textured. The walls seemed to be actually modelled out of individual stones, and even the floors looked rougher and moulded.
Across all platforms, Swap Force features high quality motion blur, something that gives the game the look and feel of an animated movie. It’s designed to act almost like visual glue – it’s not intended for you to notice, but just to bring the whole scene together.
Back in the day, game music used Midi, which could be integrated into various aspects of the game, allowing for interactivity. Tempo and key could be changed with ease because it was all digital. With stereo tracks, while the quality was greatly improved, it became very difficult to manipulate and adapt those sounds to be interactive and immersive. Due to their work on Guitar Hero, VV used their knowledge of stems.
By dividing the track, the sound engineers are able to dynamically adjust the experience of the player. As the character moves, tracks are added, giving a sense of momentum. This was tested and found to be particularly useful on kids to keep them engaged and immersed. Furthermore, depending on proximity to enemies, you can get an awesome percussion track. This is subtly done – during gameplay it was more of an unconscious awareness than clear musical cues.
Check out this clip:
Building the Characters
The idea for Swap Force actually came around before the original Skylanders were released. VV worked closely with Toys for Bob and helped build the engines necessary to make Skylanders happen in the first place. During this time, they were also trying to push the envelope for future developments. However, it was not just a matter of deciding on swappable characters.
Initially, they were convinced there would be three sections. However, this proved to be too complicated – kids simply did not understand the point of the legs vs. torso vs. head. Once they decided to make a two part Swap Force, the rest of the pieces fell into place. Following the simple “this is how you fight” and “this is how you move” division, kids could easily mix and match to create their favorite character for any given situation.
It was interesting to find out about the technical difficulties that VV had to overcome as well – including issues with the RFID and power exchange due to taller characters. Despite fears that they would disrupt communication with the Portal of Power, Brent Gibson (Visual Development Director) was convinced that they needed to use magnets. Not just because all the other connections were too difficult, but also because:
“Magnets are the closest thing to real magic that we have in the regular world”
The result is ease of use when swapping between pieces, making the transitions feel natural and intuitive.
I spoke to Dan Wallace, Senior Producer, about mobile apps and more multiplayer options. Swap Force will be supported on both existing mobile apps: Skylanders Battlegrounds and Skylanders Lost Islands. However, these do not include plans for asynchronous gameplay at this point. Four player co-op is something that VV is looking at, however for Swap Force their focus was on getting the two player co-op to be as interesting an experience as possible. I later joked with Karthik Bala that maybe the Portal of Power wasn’t big enough for four characters and they should look at creating a “Platter of Power” – if you see that in a few years, I’m totally taking credit for that name.
I must say that I was impressed with the attention to detail at VV. Whether it is art direction, sound design or toy modeling, each element is carefully constructed with the intensity one would expect from a “hard core” game. This isn’t just a kid’s game designed to help parents part with their cash. VV wants to create an experience that kids and parents can share, something that will foster creativity and play in children for years to come.
Last Updated: September 23, 2013