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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.
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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.