Shaping the Vision: Vicarious Visions and Skylanders
A half hour train ride from New York City, on the outskirts of Albany, one finds a poster, hanging on a brightly painted wall in an almost secluded game studio.
The studio belongs to Vicarious Visions, and the poster states their desire to be involved in shaping contemporary culture. They've become quite good at that over the years.
In 1991 the brothers Karthik and Guha Bala started their own game company while still in high school. The games industry was neither as big or accessible as it is today, and the brothers took various odd jobs to keep their heads above water, a period Guha describes as the studio's "garage years". In 1996 the brothers released their first game, a point and click title called Synergist, but the studio's origins would not be any easier because of that. On the contrary. They were thoroughly deceived by their first publisher and ended up in huge debt. The brothers searching frantically for support to continue their business, but the sums they owed became so large that they even in a phone conversation with their own father was met with silence. He gave strict orders to fix it themselves and hung up.
However their luck would change. An investor helped the brothers to keep the debt in check, and they managed to stay afloat until they finally ended up on Nintendo's radar with the release of Spider-Man for the Game Boy Color. They had finally managed to make a name for themselves.
The studio grew and gathered licenses to develop games for multiple platforms. The debt would still hunt them until they got their real breakthrough with Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 for the Gameboy Advance. This, according to the brothers, is the first 3D game for a handheld console, and it would get them both BAFTAs and seven-digit sales figures.
After agreeing to be acquired by their faithful partner until then, Activision, they had great success with making Guitar Hero games on Nintendo platforms and mobile. These games would see them as pioneers of downloadable content for the Nintendo Wii, making them the first game studio to offer support for in-app purchases of additional material on the iPhone (something many iOS games support today). Karthik and Guha Bala's studio Vicarious Visions has definitely helped to shape popular culture, and their next contribution is Skylanders: Swap Force.
The Skylanders series has become hugely popular with children. The concept behind this success is simple enough: The player has a small portal connected to their console and various toy figures that, when placed on top of the portal, come alive on the game screen and can be controlled by the player.
Add the devilishly clever twist that you can buy dozens of new characters and you get one of the biggest hits in the last decade, and possibly pose the greatest threat to the average household finances since Pokémon. Skylanders lets kids collect, upgrade and play with their figurines, while also playing in a colourful and dynamic world. That this is a formula children love is perhaps not surprising, but strangely enough, critics are also on board.
After getting a thorough presentation of Skylanders Swap Force, the latest Skylanders game, on three different platforms ( 360, WiiU and PS4 ) and listened to various developers talk in detail about the sound, graphics and design, I am reminded of why it is not only the youngest who finds it fun to sit with a plastic toy in front of the screen. Were many developers would have bet that the younger players do not know better, Vicarious Visions made, as Games for Bob did with the first two games of the series, a product that oozes production value.
The new twist in Skylanders Swap Force is that the characters have a magnetic joint in the center that allows them to be separated at the waist and linked together in different combinations. If, for example, a Skylander called Wash Buckler (a pirate octopus), is cut in half and his feet (in this case: tentacles ) are attached to the top of another of the eight new divideable characters, you get a new character.
With a pirate octopus, a snake cowboy (Rattlesnake Shake) and a wheel driven robot (Magna Charg ) I can therefore create a robot octopus, a pirate snake or wheel driven cowboy, depending on how I divide them up and put them together. This opens the game for experimenting with the characters while giving the player more freedom of choice in the game.
So that parents should not lose sleep over nightly cries caused by broken characters and dislodged magnets, Vicarious Visions has sworn by a motto: "It just works". They have put a lot of effort into making sure characters connect easily together, that the magnets will not dissolve and that the portal should recognize shapes quickly and painlessly.
They have children regularly visiting the studio to ensure that even the smallest can play the game without problems. I even received free access to a variety of figures that I could connect as I pleased, and as the motto of Vicarious Visions suggests: It works. Every time. Figures click perfectly into place when I connect them together and the game takes less than a second to understand what I have placed on the portal. (Those who want an example of how important it is that these things work should play Eye of Judgment.)
Vicarious Visions has also put a lot of work into how the paired characters would appear natural when they connect. Combining a character's torso with a Wheelbase and the body will behave differently than if it had been able to rely on eight tentacles. The figure will lean out its arms, if it has arms at all, and do its best to balance on the new chassis. Eight characters with two parts each means that there will be 256 different combinations.
For a game with the target group 6 to 12 years, Skylanders Swap Force is nearly a technical masterpiece. Dynamic lighting, mood lighting and seamless animation may not be top of the list when children write their gaming wish-lists, but Vicarious Visions insist that this gives even the youngest player a better impression of the game. The developer is reaching for the quality we are used to from a Pixar film, and seeing the PlayStation 4 version of the game, it's making a good attempt of it.
Skylanders is still walking a fine line. Here, for the first time, casuals and core gamers should be able to play together. It should be challenging enough for the oldest and easy enough for the kids. All figures should fit together both in digital form and toy form, they must be unique enough to stand out from other Skylanders without breaking the current Skylanders formula, not to mention they must appeal to children without scaring away sensitive parents. Swap Force balances remarkably well on most, but not all.
It will probably be fairly easy for an experienced player to see that the control layout is adapted to children's hands rather than an adult's. Of course it is not as easy for a six year old to reach the controller's shoulder buttons as it is for a grown player. The core gameplay is limited enough with all the main functions without including the shoulder buttons and bumpers. Although I'd like to have had a greater variety of button combinations and different moves, but these are understandably enough omitted to make the game more accessible.
It's not that Skylanders Swap Force is bad in this area either. In fact, the combat system works pretty well, but with a slightly slow pace and absence of 10-button Street Fighter combos it won't be seen on any an e-sport channel any time soon.
Skylanders: Swap Force will probably be perfect for the little ones, and certainly has enough meat on it to make older players want to play as well. If you miss those toy characters from childhood, this might be a golden opportunity to relive the joys of a simpler time. (Remember, toy purchases can always be disguised as Christmas presents for children and younger siblings.)
On the way home from the studio visit in Albany, I had a few hours to kill in Manhattan. I took a look in a Toys 'R' Us in Times Square to see if I could find a gift to take home. It wasn't surprising to see it stacked with Skylanders boxes along the walls in no less than three of the floors of the huge toy store. My thoughts went back to the wall at Vicarious Visions and that poster that read something about shaping contemporary culture. They've surely made it.