Every once in a while, a game comes along that catches the enthusiast press (that's us) completely off guard. Sometimes that's because it comes from out of nowhere and rides to success on a wave of word-of-mouth sharing, as in the case of Minecraft. But with Activision's Skylanders franchise (now sitting at something like a billion dollars of sales in the 18 months since it debuted), its surprise popularity happened because the press took one look at the game and said, "That's for kids!" And a few million kids looked at the game and said, "Hell yes it is. We'd like one of each figure, please."
When the original Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure launched at the end of 2011, I distinctly remember everyone in the office kind of shrugging and pushing the giant box of figures Activision mailed out into a corner to be forgotten. A few months later, we all returned from holiday break, and every family man in the office slyly crept over and swiped those disused Skylanders crates to take home to their kids. And then a funny thing happened: The parents of all those Skylanders-obsessed kids realized that it wasn't too shabby, really. In fact, it tugged at some primal memory.
Chris Wilson, a producer at Vicarious Visions (currently taking over development on the next Skylanders sequel, Swap Force, from creators Toys For Bob), attributes the series' popularity to its agnostic approach to age. "We're not just making a game targeted, laser-focused, at kids," he told me at a recent pre-E3 event. "A lot of companies do that, and it doesn't really appeal to anybody else. This is one of those games that, even though it is a "kids' game," is fun for everybody. We're not trying to dumb anything down."
More than that, though, Wilson aspires to tap into the gaming experiences of his own youth. He recalled the day his family first acquired an NES, musing, "My dad was helping me set up Mario. I was in my bedroom, thinking, 'Man, it's taking a long time to set Mario up out there.' I went down and he's already on level three.
"That's kind of the thing we originally thought about," he said. "We wanted to make a game that's all-inclusive. We wanted to make sure it's fun for everyone. Nothing about this is pandering. It's not like we're babying and hand-holding them... We have multiple difficulty levels. We've got a crazy nightmare mode, which I would have loved if I were a kid."
Wilson says the games he played in his youth have been hugely influential in guiding the design of Swap Force, which adds dozens of new characters to the Skylanders mix -- this time with the added twist of consisting of interchangeable parts. Each new hero's toy consists of a top and a bottom half, and by mixing and matching the halves of different characters players can create new skill combinations. Furthermore, each toy half maintains its own memory of experience and upgrades, allowing a character's two parts to develop independently and intermix freely.
Interestingly, Wilson cites Mega Man as an influence. "I was a Mega Man kid," he said. "When I was a kid, games were hard. One of the mentalities that we always had was, not necessarily to make [Swap Force] hard, but to make the game something that you can grow with. Hopefully, by the end of it, they're tackling nightmare mode, which for a little kid is no mean feat. It's pretty hard. If you don't have a fully leveled-up set of Skylanders, you're going to get worked. You can get one-shotted pretty quickly.
"So from my experiences as a gamer, it's that variety, that creation. The experience of getting a new weapon when you defeat one of Dr. Wily's robots, and then you get to play around with it and experiment with it. The fact that we have all these different characters that all play completely differently, it's not just taking your one character on a set adventure. It's trying out all the different moves, all the different abilities, and now all the different combinations, through this adventure. It's a fun playground to experiment with these moves."