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Guitar Heroes, Tony Hawk, And Spider-Man Helped Vicarious Visions Create Swappable Skylanders

Posted on Wednesday, September 25 @ 08:00:00 PST by

Last week I got to invade the personal work space of everyone at Vicarious Visions, one of Activision's key development studios. I grew up with VV's games mostly due to their dedicated work in porting popular franchises and licenses to portable platforms. Chief among those incredible handheld translations was Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 for Game Boy Advance.

Tony Hawk proved a huge success for VV when it managed to filter the 3D action-oriented skateboarding gameplay from console to an isometric perspective on a vastly underpowered handheld system. The company's work on Game Boy Color games impressed Nintendo so much that Vicarious Visions received an early license and kit to develop on the next-generation Game Boy Advance platform. With that, it struck up a handshake deal with Tony Hawk and Activision at E3 and the rest is history.

I spoke with Vicarious Visions Co-founder Guha Bala about the way that history on portables has helped their process with Skylanders, Activision's massive toy franchise that VV has the lead on this year with Swap Force. I asked Guha if he missed working on projects small enough to fit on a Game Boy Color:

"My favorite from back in the day was Mysterio's Menace which is a side scrolling platformer," Guha related. "I really have fond memories of those days. Throughout our history I can remember the problems we had to solve, the challenges we had in development. With Tony Hawk, it was an interesting and unsolved technical problem from a gameplay standpoint, but in building our studio we've had to not just solve problems, but grow our problem-solving capabilities."

At Vicarious, teams can organize on their own to tackle the challenges they face in development. Guha and his brother Karthik have taken offices in the studio's interior to allow for the greater development team to take larger spaces near the windows. This allows toy development and game development to work more organically so staffers can work out the best structure for meeting deadlines and solving problems.

Prototyping has also helped Vicarious to meet the challenges of a product as big as Skylanders. With Swap Force, where the game's signature toys-come-to-life theme is complicated by toys that can now interchange their top and bottom halves (and retain separate strains of experience and skill trees despite that swapping), Vicarious discovered that magnets could make the figurines entertaining and interesting to play with.

Guha described the simplistic fun kids have clicking magnets together and how Vicarious engineers experimented with them for Swap Force: "You know, the Guitar Hero (DS) guitar grip prototype was an ugly looking three-button thing, but after seeing it we could say 'OK, now this could feel good.'"

The same thing happened with "dynamically swappable" figures in Skylanders. Vicarious created several clay figures with interchangeable limbs and heads, but it wasn't until magnets came into play that Guha said, "All right, there may be a hundred details to figure out here, but I think I see it. The finished game is where we can say 'All right, that came together' and you get some satisfaction out of that, but many of the principles we had to make our old games are still relevant today."

Guha returned to
Mysterio's Menace and other side-scrolling platformers the team made previously, mentioning that "we have those gameplay elements in Skylanders Swap Force today." One bonus mission accessible by a Tech-family Skylander led me into a side-scrolling stage with moving gears and collectible trinkets scattered throughout. It was a refreshing break from the Diablo-esque hacking and looting in my hands-on time at the studio.

"With Swap Force, we have so much more power across all systems than we had back in the day. You could make the mistake and say that's all there to make the game look good, but what's really important is that everything has thoughtful design behind it."

I'll have more from my visit to Vicarious Visions as we get closer to release. Skylanders Swap Force will be out on Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and Wii October 13th in North America as well as next-gen PS4 and Xbox One at each console's launch.


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