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Q&A: Capturing Kids' Imaginations With  Skylanders

Q&A: Capturing Kids' Imaginations With Skylanders Exclusive

October 10, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield, Tom Curtis

October 10, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield, Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Exclusive, Design

With the latest incarnation of the long-running Spyro series, Activision plans to extend the franchise beyond games with a new title that interacts with a series of specially-designed figurines.

The new game, dubbed Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, comes with a set of infrared-enabled toys and a "portal" peripheral that allows players to transfer their figurines into the game as playable characters. Players can expand their roster by purchasing additional figures at retail toy stores.

Activision studio Vicarious Visions, which has historically worked on a number of licensed titles for Nintendo platforms, is developing the 3DS version of the game, which is more of a traditional platformer than its console counterparts, but still relies on the same toy-based mechanic. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are being developed by XPEC Entertainment, and Toys for Bob is developing the Wii version.

Here, Vicarious Visions game director Ben Throop speaks with Gamasutra to shed light on the toy-based structure of the new game, offering insight into the studio's approach to developing kids' games, and why the studio believes this title will help capture players' imaginations long after they stop playing.

When working with the 3DS, do you find that you tune the game for the 3D or tailor the 3D to the game that you're trying to make?

Ben Throop: Well, I think for the overall game direction that we chose in making a platformer, we wanted to have that feeling of you know the screen rushing by you in a more parallax effect so we did make a game design choice around what would feel good with 3D and play to the system's strengths.

Okay. Here's something that I often ask people that are making games for younger persons. In your opinion, what are the tenets of a good kids game?

Well, I think that imagination is a huge thing for kids, and I think that any good kid's game is going to engage a kid's imagination and it's only going to dictate so much as is necessary to engage them. After that, you have this amazing tool of children's minds and their imagination wanting to run wild, and the toys and game here give them an opportunity to do that. They can play a level, but then they can continue the story in their head, so I think giving them fuel for not just playing the game but to be really engaged in it outside of the game itself is a really key thing.

Yeah, a lot of physical toys are very much just about the imagination, but here it's sort of like you've got the book and the movie, like the toy would be analogous to the book where you've got infinite potential for what it can do in your head, but then the game gives you a certain vision of what that could be.

Right, and I think it's, it's even above that like a third way where in books and movies and toy tie ins, there's always this finite nature to the whole thing, but with the game, you're controlling them. You're creating the experience moment to moment with what the toy is doing so I think it opens up the possibilities of how a kid can be engaged. See, I have a two year old, and I'm really excited for him to get old enough to play with these.

Do you feel that having a child yourself at all changes how you approach directing this game?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think when you have a kid, you start to see how fresh their view of the world is, and all the things that you assume and take for granted aren't there for them. I think there are positives to that -- for example, you can't predict the things that children are going to imagine when they see what you've made.

But then there are also assumptions that you make, like, 'of course they know what double jump is,' but a lot of kids might not have been introduced to a great platforming game before. So in our first level, we take the time to get them ramped up on a lot of things that older gamers take for granted, and then we really let them run with it after that.

Speaking of that sort of thing, how do you make tutorials when you know there are people of different reading skills and things like that?

Yeah, well I think one assumption that we have is that you're not going to be able to teach just by putting a lot of words up in front of a player, and I think that might even be true for older players too. We made the beginning of the game really focus on a very gentle, progressive challenge, with button prompts telling players what they should be doing.

But we're never locking you out; we might say, 'here's where you should be learning how to double jump,' but it may not be required at that point. I think we have a gentler learning curve in the beginning, but one thing we've been really cognizant of is not to make the game too easy or too hard, to find that really nice spot where even an adult can enjoy it.

Now, in terms of the IR toys, this is a handheld game, so you won't be carrying these toys around with you all the time, so how did you conceptualize this setup?

That it's been an interesting journey, because on one hand we wanted to give players the opportunity to run to the store with mom and be able to bring the game along, so that would be a case where being able to leave the toys at home is a convenience.

But I think that there's going to be a lot of kids and a lot of players in general who are going to be proud and happy to be toting their toys and their portal around. I actually had this whole setup on the airplane recently and I wanted to do a play through of the game, and it was kind of interesting to be on the seat of the plane playing the game, and I had a twelve year old and a thirteen year old behind me, they were like, 'that's the coolest thing I've ever seen!' and I didn't even realize that they were there.

I think that there's a certain spectacle that you create by getting this whole rigmarole out and doing it that I think a lot of people are really going to get a kick out of.

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