Skylanders: Swap Force

[Studio Visit] Skylanders: Swap Force

Live vicariously through us as we jet off to the lovely Albany, NY offices of Vicarious Visions.
Author: Ryan Green
Published: October 9, 2013
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I will be the first person to admit that I am not a huge Skylanders fan. The amount of money that I have invested in the massive toys-to-life empire amounts to zero. That isn’t to say that the series doesn’t have anything to offer; in fact, I believe the series, as developed by Toys For Bob, has made collecting figurines a trendy thing (which I thought was an impossible feat to accomplish).


After two games, Toys For Bob has (at least for now) moved on to something new and the other Skylanders team has finally been given some much-deserved attention. Vicarious Visions is a scrappy development studio located in, of all places, Upstate New York. New York State hasn’t been the most talked-about place for thriving game development, what with the few studios it houses closing up shop (Kaos Studios comes to mind); but the barren wasteland that is “north of Hudson Valley” has a lot more life than you’d expect.

Vicarious has a long history in game development, dating back to the good-old-days (aka 1991) when the studio founders Guha and Karthik Bala opened up shop in their garage. After some very ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful attempts in the PC gaming space, the brothers faked it until they made it big. From building their own codex to make an FMV game possible in the early 90s to tricking Sony and Nintendo to hand them numerous development licenses, and ultimately figuring out how to get a complex game like Tony Hawk to run on the GBA and not look like garbage, Vicarious Visions has proven themselves resourceful countless times.

Many of the popular games over the past few years are thanks to, at least in part, Vicarious Visions. Their Alchemy engine powers not only the Skylanders series but also some “modern classics” like X-Men Legends and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance. Having created ways to experience Skylanders on both iOS, 3DS, and Wii U, a transition to leading the next-gen effort is a no-brainer. During a recent visit to their headquarters, I had a chance to see how the team went about developing the game and how they are trying to make the series not only take a step forward but also put their own mark on it.

I’ve taken a few studio tours in my time, but there was a surprising amount of passion coming out of the VV team. They were excited to talk about their role in development as well as the game (which is frequently written off entirely as a kids game). One of the more interesting aspects of the tour was the model room which housed, among other things, their 3D printer. There were several display cases on-hand filled with design ideas and mistakes for each character, and seeing the evolution of them (and hearing the reasons for the changes) was rather enlightening. An earlier version of Rattle Shake (the undead snake that shoots... snakes) showed a snake projectile that’s tongue stuck right out of the figure. Sounds like a cool idea until you consider how fragile it could be. When working on the idea for how they could take the Skylanders toys a step further, a lot went into consideration. If they were to be taken apart, exactly how would they function and “what would swapping parts gain players” were all necessary obstacles to tackle. We came so close to having Skylanders that could be decapitated… maybe next year.
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