The most amazing thing about Skylanders, apart from the magic of toys coming to life inside of videogames, is of course its zany, wacky host of characters and the physical toys that represent them. We got the opportunity to visit Skylanders developer Toys for Bob in California and got to take a look at how those characters are made – from conception, right up until they’re in a blister packs on a store shelf.
From the moment we walked through Toys for Bob’s door – and found it to Tiki-themed, we knew we’d come to someplace special – and it certainly is; I’ve never engaged with developers so genuinely passionate and infectiously enthusiastic about their product – and that enthusiasm is readily apparent in character designer I-Wei Huang, the guy who’s responsible for creating just about every character.
A tinkerer at heart, I-Wei starts thinking about the character from the perspective of it being a physical toy first – and coming up with toys that he – imaging himself as a boy – would actually want to own. “It always comes from the toy first,” I-Wei told us. “I always put myself in the position of a kid in a toy store, telling mom ‘I really want that!’”
With input from Studio head Paul Reiche, I-Wei kicks off the character design by doodling – and the pair come up up with characters – often creating Frankenstein creatures, utilising the head from one creation, with the limbs from another until they have something cool. exuding character and humour. the goal is to make toys that are chunky, with weight to them – that look cool from the front – showing off their character, while at the same time still being detailed at the back – because that’s the perspective you’ll see them from most in the game.
“It’s many different iterations of drawings, until we finally get down to details, like colours and that sort of thing,” he told us. “Paul comes from a fantasy background, while I have more of a manga background – and we just have a synthesis.” Once they’ve got something they like – it’s probably impossible to tally the number of concepts that end up on the cutting room floor – it gets digitally created in super high resolution, and then those very same, intricately detailed models are downscaled for use in the game. After that, the character would be 3D printed in full colour – giving a rather detailed approximation of what the toy might look like when it’s finally produced. It takes a ridiculous amount of time just to print the character in 3D; about an inch per hour – but it’s still a time-saver; In the past, before digital printing, I-Wei would lovingly model them all out of clay.
“At that point,” says I-Wei, “we can hold it in our hands and say ’okay, that’s a really cool toy’” – they’ll then play around with the character’s poses, making sure that they not only represent the character in question, but also fit inside the constraints of the physical blister packaging. “No matter how high res it is in 3D on the computer, it’s a different experience when you can actually hold it in your hand,” Huang affirmed.
3D print vs final toy
From there, they proceed with the next step; getting the toys manufactured. At a factory in China, each toy’s composite parts is injection moulded and pieced together – with numerous picture and physical prototypes making their between Toys for Bob and the factory – until everything meets their exacting standards. Because Toys for Bob is rather insistent that the toys are high quality offering – and not the sort of junk you’d get free with a kids meal – each toy goes through far more prototyping than I’d expect from a simple kids game. Toys for Bob even gets pernickety about exactly how each character – hand painted at the factory – is painted – making sure it’s done right, before trying to implement any cost cutting measure to keep the toys at $8, instead of $80.
The many iterations of Bouncer
When he’s not busy designing characters, I-Wei dabbles with building functional steam-powered robots. Yes, really.