Paul Reiche III has wanted to let fans create their own Skylanders for a while. Ever since the toys-to-life video game debuted in 2011, fans sent letters showing the designs they imagined for their own Skylanders creatures. Today, the president of Activision Blizzard’s Toys For Bob game studio is announcing that players can finally do that.
Activision said that fans can create their own Skylanders in the video game or in a mobile app and then order a $50 custom 3D printed toy based on the design. Fans can also create trading cards or T-shirts with their custom characters. That’s a huge step in mass customization, and it represents Reiche’s attempt to innovate in a market that has generated $3 billion in sales and 250 million toys sold for Activision to date.
I visited Reiche at the Toys For Bob studio in Novato, California, and I played a preview veriosn where I created my own character. After the game goes on sale on all platforms on October 11, Reiche figures players will create millions. It’s a brilliant idea to evolve the series based on the imagination of players. And we’ll find out soon enough if it gives the toys-to-life market a much-needed boost.
I talked to Reiche about the market, and he believes each company controls its own destiny. And he believes Skylanders’ destiny looks good. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I played some of the game and created a character again. But you mentioned you had some news?
Paul Reiche: We do. Skylanders have a physical incarnation, but that’s just one of their natures. When we were designing Imaginators we knew from the beginning that we needed to let fans create physical versions of their Skylanders. We have a variety of ways of doing that. The most dramatic and cool is 3D printing.
We’re going to have a limited number of 3D printings that people can do. These are just two examples. You can see that they represent the colors. We created this system that takes the digital version of a character and makes a printable version. Then we have a relationship with Shapeways where we’ve created a whole ecosystem in which—these come programmed with tags. They’re fully playable, like any other Skylanders. Everything you do with your character will be represented here. We’ve worked with Shapeways to make sure they’re ready to go and playable as toys to life. This is this first time ever—you can go from the digital to the physical and have a fully playable character.
The way we’re doing it is interesting. We realized that we need to communicate the description of the character. We need to render the 3D printable file. But a lot of our players’ consoles aren’t actually hooked up online. Enough that it would limit them. So we looked for an alternate way to communicate. We found that every kid has a mobile phone, either they or their parents. That’s always online. So we created an audio communication system. You can press a button in the console game, it makes all these bleeps and bloops, and our creator app picks up that description.
Then we have a full version of the character creator available for free on mobile. You can create a character from scratch and transmit the character from the console game to the mobile app. Take a rendering of that and send it to Instagram or any other social network where you want to share, or you can order a 3D print. We’re giving away quite a few of them through promotional activities.
We also have two other ways you can enjoy it. The first is, of course, wearing it. I’m crazy excited about this. These are straight out of our rendering system. You create the name of your character and it shows your class and your element. It’s an awesome high-res rendering. These are just characters that people have created. I can’t wait to see how many of these get made. You can get them in different sizes and colors. But you can see that they’re nice high-res colorful renderings of your characters. These aren’t playable T-shirts, obviously, but they’re personal and they last. For us, that physical incarnation matters a lot.
Then we wanted to do something in the middle. Character cards are a known thing. We decided that you can order a Skylanders creator card directly from us. A kid gets a letter from Eon, welcoming their character to the academy, and then it will come with that same rendering from the card, but laid on a Skylanders background. It has the name of your character and it’s fully playable in Imaginators. It has the electronics inside it. It’s pre-programmed. You can use that to play as well. There are some cool things about the backdrops of the cards and so on.
You can also keep changing it if you want, or keep it the same. It has all the flexibility of creation crystals. If you earn something new, a new sword or something like that, you’re not limited to what’s on the card. You can change it up. The cards are thick and durable. They’ll last. They’re a compact way to carry a lot of characters around if you want.
This is what we have today – the cards, the shirts, and the 3D prints. These are cool things that range across price and availability. But having something physical that represents a creative decision you made is powerful. Particularly when it’s also playable. We didn’t hold back at all. This is something we’ve thought was necessary from day one to make Imaginators feel like a Skylanders experience. It was hard to make all this happen, to make it happen smoothly and make sure anybody’s console, online or not, can get into this system. We worked hard to get things back as fast as possible. We’ve looked at partners for 3D printing around the world, the ones we think are the best today.
We had learned all this technology ourselves from making toys. It’s a collection of interests and needs for the physical incarnation, the passion on our side to let kids create characters and create toys. And then the realization—physical mail has a magic to it now. Kids don’t get physical mail. Getting a letter from Skylanders is a big deal. We made sure the letter itself has theater in terms of its delivery. It’ll have the name of the person who ordered it.
Also, the transferring process—everything has that theater, that magic feel. One of the reasons why we put you into the capture room real quick is because we need you to build characters to demo a lot of the stuff we’re talking about right now.
We’re going to make this insanely successful. We’ve done it before. We do it by being passionate, by doing new things, by not believing people when they say it’s impossible. It’s all here. Everything we set out to do, we got done.
GamesBeat: Did you work on this for more than just this particular cycle? Did you have the idea going way back?
Reiche: We’ve had the idea of creating your own Skylanders for a while. But we needed to make sure we could do it well. Part of that was understanding the visual vocabulary of what a Skylander is. Having created enough Skylanders—we’ve created upwards of 200 here for our games. I think there are 300 or more out there. But we needed to create a wide enough range that we understood how to let players create characters that represented their interests, that were personal and unique, and fundamentally could look cool if they want.
They can be silly. They can be crazy. But you can create a really awesome, bad-ass character if you choose to do so. We had to believe that we wouldn’t put all this work in here and then kids could only make dorky-looking characters. It took us until now, until this cycle, to believe that we could do it. And on top of it, we also believed that we needed to find a new avenue of innovation.
We’ve made a lot of great toys, a lot of great toys to life games, different categories of toys. We wanted to find something worthy of saying that the toys to life genre is moving forward. We take that personally, you know? We invented this genre and we want to keep it moving and alive and dynamic and have kids remain interested in it, wondering what will happen next year. This is everything we could bring.
GamesBeat: There’s a belief that the toys-to-life market has slowed down, after Disney did shut down Infinity. What’s your own feeling on this?
Reiche: I believe we create our own destiny. If we make exciting games that inspire people’s imaginations, that make them think, “Wow, that’s magical” — we can get as much success as we earn, as we deserve. But that only happens if you push the work you’re doing and surprise people.
This year, all good things are coinciding in October. We’re releasing our game. We’re releasing the creator app. The TV show comes out on the 28th. It all looks good. We’re hopeful that we have—we’re going to create a little phenomenon. Maybe a big one? Since our first game came out, I haven’t been more anxious and excited to see what happens.
We’ve worked hard to make 200 Skylanders here. But a couple of days after the game comes out, there will be a million Skylanders. We may not have made the best one. Someone out there—like Steampumpkin. I didn’t make that guy. He’s great. He’s a great character, on that T-shirt. I wouldn’t mind having that T-shirt. I can’t wait to see what people do. They’ll take their characters and put them up on Instagram and Facebook. I want to make sure we get a chance to show those to everyone.
GamesBeat: Is this all available right on launch day?
Reiche: Yeah. We’ll be releasing the promotional 3D prints over time. But a lot of it—it’ll be a big push right at the beginning. We want everyone to get excited, to understand what we’re creating, and put it under the tree.
We have different value options and different availability options. These will be a lot more limited, availability-wise. Shirts and cards are easier.
GamesBeat: What if you wanted to create, say, 30 of these, something like that? Could you order that many?
Reiche: I don’t know the answer to that yet. If you had access, before the limit expired—the details on that I’m not 100 percent sure of. I don’t know that we are imposing limits. I’ll get back to you on that. But we’re doing this through Shapeways, and the models that you create will be available to you on Shapeways if you want to do something else with them. If you want to print out a solid silver version, you can do that. The fact that it’s playable, though, that’s something we’re reserving. But we’re not trying to—this is something you’ve created and we want you to have access to it.
GamesBeat: How does this compare to the quality you can do with what’s released in toy stores?
Reiche: Injection molding is 100 years old at this point. There are things it can do that we can’t yet do with 3D printing. This is a technology that’s reliable, that is available around the world, and that is practical. But there are things—it isn’t transparent yet. We’re talking with leading-edge 3D printing creators with new 3D printing technologies. It’s not far off that you’ll be able to get something that looks indistinguishable from an injection-molded toy in many ways. But it’s not at a scale yet that allows us to work with it and let kids enjoy it. It’s moving fast, though.
There’s a bunch of interesting angles to this. The game and the experience and how it can impact kids’ imaginations is one of them. But just the relationships we’ve built, the technologies, we’ve built, the communications systems—the behind-the-scenes magic, how the ride is put together, is really interesting. I hope people get into that subject.
GamesBeat: Could you theoretically print to your own 3D printer, if you already have one?
Reiche: I don’t know the answer to that yet. It depends on whether you can download from Shapeways and then manipulate that into your own format. I’m not sure of the answer. I hope the answer is yes. I’d love it if you could do that. I want people making awesome things that we didn’t imagine. The ownership – “I made this and I’m proud of it” – is a pretty great idea.
GamesBeat: It seems like it’s not infinitely malleable, but did you figure what was enough as far as how customizable it could be?
Reiche: We wanted everybody to be able to make a character that was unique. Not that people couldn’t replicate it if they knew your recipe, but you could very rapidly combine things such that it’s unlikely that other people have done it as well. Because there’s the audio chirping, we think people will be embedding those recordings into YouTubes and sharing their recipes in a bunch of different ways.
We needed to have an interface and a system that a five-year-old, for whom this is their first big console game, could have a satisfying experience and make something that they liked. But at the same time, someone like me who wants to spend 45 minutes making their character just right could have all that control.
We’ve worked on creation systems before over the years and it’s a tough balance. If you offer people too many details all at once, sometimes they just detach. If you don’t provide any structure and let them learn the interface over time, it isn’t very successful. We needed to make sure—with randomize you come up with crazy-looking stuff. You’ll easily get something no one’s ever done before. Steampumpkin, I’ve never seen that one before.
We have a distribution group in our email here that’s just, “This is what I’ve made!” They’re hysterical. It’s Activision-wide. It’s almost like a challenge. Someone did a series of—are you familiar with Bizarro, the Superman character? People started making parodies of Skylanders. They’d take the actual Skylander and make a silly parody of it with our system. It was intentionally made to look like a goofy version of the original. They not only were making their own characters, but they were enjoying making fun of ours too. People care enough about Eyebrawl to make this joke version, down to the looks and the name and the tagline. It’s really clever.
When you use color and the aura effects, you can really transform what we intended. What we thought might have been a crazy-looking demonic form, when they add all kinds of pretty colors, it turns into this goofy sort of fairy version.
GamesBeat: Where did the audio encoding technology come from?
Reiche: We were looking for a solution. We thought about using QR codes on screen, but we’d have to get people to point at the screen and hold it right. So what’s a system you can communicate? We used to have acoustic modems, right? We went and found an app called Chirp, which initially did something much more limited. We called these guys and said, “Look, we like your technology. We need it to do more. Can you do that for us?” We got into a relationship for them and they expanded the tech for us.