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Skylanders: Swap Force: In Depth at Vicarious Visions

Company: Activision

Activision and Vicarious Visions recently invited us up to Albany, NY to both check out VV's studio and get some time to talk to Skylanders: Swap Force's development team and, of course, some good hands-on time with the game.

The day started off with a lesson about the studio's history and how it seemed like all of their projects up to this point really made them a solid fit to work with Toys for Bob on the initial Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure project. Between VV's history with working on handheld games and their familiarity with connecting to proprietary hardware like the Guitar Hero guitars, having them work on the 3DS version of Spyro's Adventure seemed like a natural fit.

Well, for the third game in the franchise, Swap Force, Vicarious Visions is taking the reigns for all console versions. While Toys for Bob is still a big part of the development process, especially when it comes to designing the new versions of the previous characters, VV is the studio that is putting the new Skylands world together and providing this round's newest mechanic, mix-and-match characters.

Swap Force Innovation:

In our first meeting of the day, we got to talk to Brent Gibson, Jeremy Russo and Jan-Erik Steel, the game's Visual Development Director, Designer and Lead Engineer respectively. We learned that the group had been trying to determine just what the next big step was for Skylanders when they came across the mix-and-match idea. At that point, Gibson grabbed a Voodood, a Prism Break and a Dark Spyro and took them home with him. After some tinkering, cutting and magnets, he had the team's first mixed-up character, complete with magnetic connections.

While this character who had Voodood's feet, Prism Break's torso and Spyro's head won't ever make it to the store shelves, it got the ball rolling and provided a way to truly show how the Swap Force concept could work. The trio talked about their meetings with Activision and Toys for Bob as they passed around the three-part toy and discussed the possibilities. They said that the entire meeting, you would constantly hear the clicking of the magnets slamming together, and they knew that each person who got their hands on the prototype toy was really liking what they were hearing.

From there came the actual feasibility of the toys. One model we saw actually used phono-jacks to connect the different parts of the bodies so that the data could be transferred to the portal, but this style was rejected because it didn't have that "magical feeling" that helps makes Skylanders what it is. Also, the teams were trying hard to decide exactly what each of the three parts did and what they lent to the character, but when early focus testing showed the the kids really didn't like the idea of the heads coming off, Vicarious Visions decided to split the bodies in two instead of three. They felt that by dividing the character at the waist, another of their problems was solved; now the lower half controlled how you move, while the upper half was all about your attacks.

Visual and Rendering Technology:

After time spent with Steel, Russo and Gibson, it was time to get technical. We were introduced to Michael Bukowski, the Visual Technology Director and Sean Murphy, an Art Specialist and we got to see just what the new engine behind Skylanders: Swap Force could do.

Many enhancements were made to the studio's home-grown Alchemy Engine in order to not only make the game fit one of their core design goals, but to also make it a viable and stunning experience for both the current generation systems and the soon-to-be-released next generation machines.

So what was that design goal? It was actually something we heard from several groups during the day's events. Vicarious Visions wanted to make the game look and feel like an animated film that you would watch in a theater. They wanted the level of detail and visual quality to be on par with productions that takes hours of rendering time per scene, but to be done on the fly, and quite frankly, from what I've seen, they've met their goal, and from what I understand, they've done it in a way to lessen some of the standard toils video game artists have to deal with.

During the demo of the new engine, we saw as the world was switched from night to day in real time. We saw places where some extreme and unusual concept art was faithfully developed and rendered in the Skylands. On top of that, we saw several examples of how the next-gen versions of the game will use advanced techniques like parallax occlusion mapping to really add depth and detail to the landscape.

One example of this is the ripples of sand that line the ground of one level. We saw what this sand looked like with the occlusion mapping both on and off and it was a drastic change. Even details like how the character shadows play across these uneven surfaces looked right. I have to say, I was truly impressed by how much effort went into developing such a powerful engine for what some may say is "just a kid's game." While the environments are surrealistic and the world is cartoony, it's obvious that VV could easily make a photo-realistic game with what they've built.

Just how improved the game's graphics didn't hit home until later that day when I spent some time playing Skylanders: Swap Force on the Xbox 360 and then on the PlayStation 4. The differences between the current and next generation games are outstanding, but then I went home and put some time into Giants for the first time in a while. This, of course, gave me even more perspective on the new game's prowess.

Story and Cinematic Creation:

After being shown the effort put into making Skylanders: Swap Force's engine to sell the cinematic feel, we were directed to Dan Wallace (Senior Producer) and David Rodriguez (Lead Narrative & Writer), and John-Paul Rhinemiller (Cinematics Lead) who talked us through how the story was developed and how the cutscenes were created using tried and true methods from the film industry. Again, the goal, and result, is a feel that wouldn't be out of place on the silver screen.

We were shown a specific scene from the game in several stages. One was a story board animatic with temporary voiceovers done by VV employees. From there, we saw several stages as the video got closer and closer to the final product. One of the points the developers made sure to stress was the fact that the cinematics are in-game and in-engine, so while they look great, they are the same visuals that you will be playing through.


While visual style is a major part of any videogame, Skylanders: Swap Force also puts a lot of work and effort into the audio department. Christian Portwine, the Senior Audio Lead, was on hand to talk about what is all going into the latest game.

Last year, Giants introduced voiceovers for all of the Skylanders, and that continues, but we learned that there is more to a Skylander than its voice. We were shown the many sound bites and tracks that combine to make the various unique sound effects for some of the characters as they perform their various attacks. The two characters we were focused on during this session were Fryno and Wash Buckler, a new fire character and one of the most advertised Swap Force characters. Interestingly enough, the character sounds seemed to be a major part of the developers' focus testing. They wanted to make sure that the players got the right feelings and impressions from the sound effects.

The talk then went to the game's soundtrack. The past two games had Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe working together, but this time around, Balfe is handling the job without Zimmer, but from what we've heard, he seems to have been able to capture the same style and feel.

Portwine was excited to show us how the dynamic music system allowed the game to adjust the levels of a wide variety of musical components based on cues from the level. For instance, moving into a cave or Undead area would cause the more ominous stylings to rise up. If the player starts walking their character, then percussive elements start coming out, but they die down if the player stops for a while. The idea behind this is to keep the player wanting to move and progress in the level.

. Other cues include the player getting close to enemies and even walking through tall grasses. This last one in particular had a few other interesting features. Portwine explained that some of the background effects were randomized. Playing a level one time might cause frog croaks to come from a particular patch of grass, while a second run through could use insect chirping.

Character Toy Creation:

After the Audio department, we got a rare treat. We were let into Vicarious Vision's Toy Creation room. This room not only housed quite a few copies of the various characters, but several past versions of many of the toys, and most impressively, the studio's 3D printer, an Object Eden 260v.

Showing us around the room was Producer, Nicholas Ruepp and Lead Character Artist, Kevin Dobler. It is here where the character modelers print out their various prototypes of the Skylanders and see how well the designs hold up to manhandling. Afterall, many kids play with the figures outside of the Skylanders videogame.

One amusing story from this room included the creation of a character called Dune Bug.This character has an iridescent shell. While the character designers were able to get the shiny look right in the game, and even on their prototypes, apparently there were a lot of issues when going to mass production. It looked like VV was going to have to scrap at least a part of this character's design, but the toy makers were finally able to get the paint job just right.

In-Game Character Creation and Gameplay:

Our final stop in the tour of Vicarious Visions introduced us to Barclay "Buck" Chantel (Lead Artist) and Rob Gallerani (Lead Combat Designer) to talk about the efforts that went into not only coming up with the various character designs, but also refining them and balancing their various attacks and powers, not to mention the added complication of the mix-and-match characters.

Chantel and Gallerani were pleased to show us some of the interesting attack combinations that came out of the mix-and-match mechanic. For example, using Blast Zone's body with Wash Buckler's legs means that you can not only use abilities like bombs and oil slicks as you would with any character, but you could also light the oil slick on fire and hurl bombs through it to create flaming projectiles that deal even more damage.

The pair talked about some of the interesting abilities of some of the other characters as well. For instance, the Magic-type Star Strike has the ability to bounce back any projectile heading her way (provided the timing is right). If the reflected projectile is Star Strike's own attack, then it gets more powerful with each volley. The developers said that they were also pleased to see interactions like Star Strike's ability to bounce back larger projectiles like Fryno's motorcycle. It's obvious that this ability is not only good during the Story Mode, but it can also be a big boon in the Arena modes.

With Skylanders: Swap Force's release date just around the corner, it was good to get such an in-depth tour of the Vicarious Visions facilities and get to to know the development team behind the latest game. There are a few things that I was able to take away from the experience: one of those is that the VV team is working hard to produce the best looking Skylanders game to date, and the other is that each member of the team is as much of a fan of the games as anyone I've met.

-J.R. Nip, GameVortex Communications
AKA Chris Meyer

Related Links:

Multiplatform Skylanders: Swap Force Multiplatform Titanfall

Game Vortex :: PSIllustrated