The winds of change have swept through Skylanders creator Toys for Bob since our first visit to their Novato, California studio in 2011 as the franchise’s second game, Skylanders Giants, was on the verge of release. Success has bred well-funded competition, and in turn the studio has exploded in both manpower and physical size to accept the challenge by multiple rival Toys to Life game properties.
For all the new tiki-bar themed square footage, fancy technical tools, additional creative minds, and unsurprisingly money at their disposal, the team at Toys for Bob is as grounded in their success as they were when the Skylanders phenomenon was first discovering its legs. The goal then remains unchanged today: to deliver new innovations that make kids perk up and wonder, “wow, is that magic?” year in and year out from a blank conceptual canvas unabated by the creative constraints of an existing IP. It’s no easy task, and yet the team of Toys for Bob innovators are ready to deliver another magical experience to kids with Skylanders Trap Team.
Development on Trap Team began roughly two years ago as a brisk and truncated development cycle on Giants was wrapping up. By that time, Swap Force developer Vicarious Visions was midway through a two-year development cycle on their first console Skylanders game. Toys for Bob needed to provide a physical innovation on par with the “swapping” mechanic developed by Vicarious Visions they were already aware of, and hoped to utilize the new Swap Force Portal of Power that was designed to last multiple games.
The initial small idea for trapping villains was born from a desk of an unidentified Toys for Bob developer. From there the idea was tossed around internally and began to gain steam as pushing and pulling villains from the game world into the physical world and back, though at that point it hadn’t been signed off on as “the idea” to pitch to Activision. The concept was creatively stimulating, but the perfect execution remained elusive.
Enter Toys for Bob audio director Dan Neil and his sound designer cohort, Jason (whose last name eludes me; Sorry, Jason). The audio guys aren’t usually at the forefront of game innovation as more flashy game mechanics and visuals steal their thunder. For Trap Team, the final design might not exist if not for what Dan and his team brought to the table.
Dan felt there was a way to capture the trapping of villains and pushing/pulling them from the game into the physical world using audio as the stimulative cue. In around December of 2011, Dan and Jason built a rough prototype using a frankensteined Portal of Power, wires, a circuit board, and a Wii Remote controller’s speaker to push an audio signal back and forth between the TV and the Portal. That idea stuck and eventually evolved into the Traps and new Traptanium Portal of Power you see today, though it was never the intention of Toys for Bob to develop a new Portal; that was born out of necessity to implement their innovation.
In the new wing at Toys for Bob and adjacent to an impressive 3D printing room housing a king’s bounty worth of prototype Skylander figures, Senior Toys for Bob Engineer Robert Leyland’s desk looks like an ongoing science experiment that Dr. Emmett Brown would exclaim, “Great Scott!” if he laid eyes upon it. Piled atop scores of gizmos and gadgets are early designs for the Trap Team Portal that reveal how the magic happens. I won’t spoil the wizardry, but a close-up inspection of the new Portal of Power reveals no circuitry where you place the figure. Originally it was designed to not have a base at all so the figures would literally sit on whatever surface the Portal sat on. How does that work? Quite cleverly, I must admit, and it’s that type of thinking that will make kids gasp and buy into the new magical “trapping” formula.
Aside from the new Portal of Power’s translucent base, the obstacle at the forefront of development was how to amplify the audio at an acceptable level through an incredibly small speaker while not pushing the final product’s cost beyond what the market can sustain. One idea was to include a speaker in each figure that would sit on the Swap Force Portal of Power, but that was quickly deemed “hideously expensive,” in Robert’s words, nor able to properly amplify the audio due to different sizes and shapes of the physical toy figures.
The other idea was to modify the Portal of Power itself and let it be the speaker, what ultimately stuck as the only viable option to proceed with despite a new Portal of Power already in development at Vicarious Visions.
Robert let the shape of the speaker and its cone dictate the design of the new Trap Team Portal of Power rather than trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It’s no accident that the speaker is placed at an angle as that configuration works best with the purposely shaped speaker enclosure hidden underneath. The illusion of a villain being transported from the game into the Portal of Power Trap and vice-versa hinges on that speaker’s performance, and it pumped up the volume more than adequately in our controlled environment. True, a quiet cubicle didn’t have screaming kids or dogs barking in the background as many homes that Trap Team will find its way into often do, but I suspect the magic won’t be lost among familial chaos.
A Skylanders game is as much about the characters as it is the innovation so check out our Skylander Trap Team Characters Preview: Inside the Halls of Toys for Bob Part 2.