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Building a Billion-Dollar Game Franchise, One ‘Skylander’ at a Time

Chopper from Skylanders Trap Team
Chopper from Skylanders Trap Team

Chopper from Skylanders Trap Team (Activision/Toys for Bob)

I-Wei Huang has been drawing his entire life. But these days, his drawings no longer stay on the page.

A former mechanical engineer and animator, Huang is the toy and character director at game developer Toys for Bob. He’s been with the company since 2002, but his value grew exponentially when Toys for Bob began working on the Skylanders franchise for publisher Activision. Huang has become to go-to guy for designing the game’s myriad monsters.

And it starts with just a few scribbles.

“Usually I start out with something on an empty page, just doodles,” he told Yahoo during a recent visit to the company’s sprawling office space in Novato, California. “Maybe I have in mind a type of element — a Light character, maybe — but there’s no gameplay or anything. It’s just a drawing.”

Chances are, you or someone very close to you is playing with one of Huang’s drawings right now. Skylanders is the pioneer of the “toys-to-life” game genre, which lets players warp physical toys into virtual worlds.

It pretty much prints money. More than 175 million Skylanders toys have been sold since the franchise debuted in 2011; last year, Skylanders figures outsold the top three competing action figure lines combined. Between the toys and games, Skylanders has generated more than $2 billion in revenue in a scant three years, good enough to make it one of the top 20 video game franchises of all time. It’s been so successful that it’s prompted competitors like Disney and Nintendo to revamp their business strategies to get a slice of the toys-to-life pie.

Skylanders Trap Team screenshot
Skylanders Trap Team screenshot

A screenshot from the upcoming Skylanders Trap Team (Activision/Toys for Bob)

But those companies have a luxury Toys for Bob does not: They can lean on established, licensed characters rather than inventing new ones. Why dream up a monster when you can package and sell Monsters, Inc.?

To Toys for Bob CEO Paul Reiche III, however, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“The advantage we have is that this character was designed to be a Skylander,” he said. “Her powers are all about being this monstrous hero and being a member of that world.”

That specificity — building creatures by, of, and for Skylanders, instead of trying to squeeze a preexisting character into a game — informs every aspect of how the game’s menagerie is created. For instance, there’s a good reason Skylanders tend to be shorter and fatter than the more elegant Disney Infinity characters: durability.

“We wanted the toys to feel chunky — not cheap, spindly things that could break,” Huang says.

How Skylanders work as toys pervades Huang’s designs, too. Take the case of Chopper, poised to become the breakout star of the upcoming Skylanders Trap Team.

Pencil drawings of Chopper from Sklanders
Pencil drawings of Chopper from Sklanders

Chopper: Click to see him evolve from drawing to toy(Activision/Toys for Bob) 

Chopper is a miniature T. rex with a propeller strapped to his torso. He’s adorable and ridiculous, with a puppy-like tongue and eyeballs for days. But he didn’t start that way. Initially, Huang designed Chopper to be a fearsome beast, an imposing thunder lizard that was to be part of the Skylanders Giants series.

“The problem is, if you put a big base on him, he’ll just knock over all the other characters,” he said. “He’s too long. He wouldn’t even be able to fit in the package. But then when I tried to draw him stubbier, he looked like Godzilla, a guy in a suit. It didn’t work.”

So Huang shrunk him down, and to ensure that the character felt sufficiently fearsome, added a propeller for flight and missiles for muscle. A star was born.

Of course, they can’t all be winners. Somewhere inside Toys for Bob lies an Island of Misfit Toys — Skylanders that didn’t make the cut. The worst of the lot?

“It was a Slime Slug,” recalls Reiche. “He had an eyeball and lightning bolts and slime trail … he had a lot going for him. We don’t do focus groups as a general rule, but for this one, we just kept getting pushback from pretty much everybody outside the studio. So we finally took it to some kids and they were like, “No, we do not like this toy.”

Thank heavens for Huang’s drawings, then, though his first drafts never represent the final form of the Skylander. More often than not, he’s looking for some sort of interesting, tactile attribute to work with — a spiky head, for instance — and then uses that as the foundation for another round of drawings. The spiky head becomes an artichoke, naturally, which gives Huang his theme. Toss in some sort of vegetable-shooting gun, and it starts taking shape. It gets refined and retooled, first by Huang and Reiche, and eventually by Toys for Bob’s team of animators and programmers, who make more changes and tweaks.

Food Fight from Skylanders
Food Fight from Skylanders

Food Fight: Click for more images(Activision/Toys for Bob) 

The end result, a character called Food Fight, is surprising even to Huang.

“I work so hard on all these things that I don’t actually see the game until it’s pretty much done,” he said. “So a lot of characters I don’t really get to see until they’re in the game … 99 percent of the time when I play it’s like, ‘That’s so cool! Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”

Even the physical toys themselves are prototyped at the company’s home base. A 3D-printing room houses hundreds of in-progress toys; Huang himself chips away at molds to uncover each figure, a fossil hidden in the clay-like photopolymer.

Skylanders MakerBot
Skylanders MakerBot

The MakerBot, mother to all Skylanders. (Activision/Toys for Bob)

The whole operation is a dream come true for Reiche, who has been making monsters for as long as he — or many of us — can remember.

His credits date back to the glory days of Dungeons & Dragons, when he worked alongside D&D mastermind Gary Gygax on classic modules like the D&D Expert Set pack-in, The Isle of Dread. He designed a creature, the multi-limbed thri-kreen, that still exists in contemporary D&D lore. He’d eventually move over to video games with classics like monster chess game Archon, Mail-Order Monsters, and the spectacular (and monster-filled) Star Control series. If it’s got monsters in it, it owes a debt to Paul Reiche.

These days, however, Reiche is laser-focused on the monsters of Skylanders, which he hopes will revive a dormant love for physical playthings.

“I have a couple of childhood toys left, but if I hold them I still feel something,” he said. “I still remember afternoons or rainy days where we did something together. [Toys for Bob] had this belief that if we could connect toys and video games intimately, we might be able to create that suspension of disbelief that it was magical.”

It’s a lofty, Pixar-esque goal, but “magic” isn’t an entirely inaccurate word to describe what it feels like warping a Skylander toy into the game world. The next game in the series, Skylanders Trap Team (due out Oct. 5 for just about every platform, including tablets) will try to reverse that by letting players “capture” in-game enemies inside physical toys. It’s a cool trick, though whether the new game’s got enough juice to stay ahead of Disney Infinity and Nintendo’s Amiibo line remains to be seen.

Either way, Reiche seems content.

“If we can make the experience of living in this world more joyful and more magical and more integrated with myth, we’ve done our jobs.”

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