Ask any creative person: When you're working on a new project, it's inevitable that some ideas won't work out. A lot of times those dead ends lead to better ideas and more satisfying solutions, but "that's almost there but not quite" and "scrap it, let's start over" are both natural parts of the creative process.
Skylanders is no exception. Last year, Activision released Skylanders Spyro's Adventure -- an original concept devised by Northern California developer Toys For Bob -- to overwhelming acclaim and huge success. The game that let your real-world action figures come to life in a videogame turned out to be the top-selling kids' game for 2011, and the toys were so popular they have consistently been in high demand since their release last October. Not bad for a company that has never made toys before.
But like just about every other creative endeavor, every element of Skylanders didn't go exactly as planned. During the game's development, several characters and concepts simply didn't make the final cut. The game's design producer, Michael Graham, has been helping to shepherd Skylanders at Activision since its inception; he and Spyro the Dragon are old friends, having worked on the production team for the Legend of Spyro trilogy in the mid-2000s.
Now, as Activision and Toys For Bob prepare for the release of Skylanders Giants, Graham was nice enough to share some of the missing links in Skylanders' evolution -- handmade prototypes, untold histories, and some rare characters that have never been shown to fans before. These are the secret Skylanders you've never seen.
Michael Graham and friend
The Lost Realm of Spyro's Kingdom
Skylanders started life as a project called Spyro's Kingdom, which Graham says still featured "the toys-to-life idea -- taking your toys, putting them on a magic device, and having them come to life in the game. Spyro was going to be a full-grown dragon and the king of Spyro's Kingdom. You'd go to him for quests, and he'd tell you where to go and help you on your adventures."
Graham says this version of the game "was very close to something we were going to go forward with. I think it was April or May of 2010 where we were almost ready to hit alpha with Spyro's Kingdom, and it was time for the go/no-go call. That's where we said, 'this is fun and cute, but it can be so much bigger.'"
At this point, one of Skylanders' key elements -- "toys with brains," which remember your characters' progress as you level up -- wasn't in the mix. If the action figures had memory inside them, the save functionality would be hassle-free and invisible, plus they'd be platform agnostic -- a huge win for kids who might not own the same game system as their friends. "The goal was to make it very reminiscent of something you would do as a kid," says Graham. "You could put your toys in your backpack, go to your friend's house after school, and you could play with your Star Wars characters with your G.I. Joe characters with your Transformers characters; it didn't matter that they were from different worlds. We looked at consoles that way too: How great could it be if you could share in an experience regardless of what console you were on? So there was this big idea of what this game could be."
With Spyro's Kingdom nearly at alpha but an ambitious alternate plan on the table, the decision was up to the top brass, including Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick. But as Graham reveals, "Bobby believed in it completely. He said, 'What do you guys need?' And from that point on, it was this little idea that continued to grow to what we have now, which is a team of fantasy superheroes -- Skylanders."
The Fab Five
That superstar team started out with just five members. "Toys For Bob made some characters out of clay -- handmade and hand-painted, as a proof of concept," reveals Graham. "The five original characters for that concept included Rock Dragon, who ultimately evolved into Bash, and Bomb Troll, which evolved quite a bit from a grumpy old troll into what ultimately became Boomer." [For bigger images, just click the photos. --DA]
The generically named Rock Dragon became someone much more specific: Bash.
Boomer went through at least five prototypes en route to his final and decidedly un-grumpy personality.
"Ghost Eater became Ghost Roaster," continues Graham. "His handmade toy looks a lot different from the final toy, but the way they modeled him in the game for the prototype is very similar to what you see in the final game. We also had Fire Dragon, who later became Spyro." While His Purple Majesty was originally going to be a benevolent and regal NPC, "it was felt that we couldn't have a game called Spyro's Kingdom without Spyro as a playable character, so Fire Dragon became Spyro."
The first five Skylanders from the game's initial pitch: Rock Dragon (Bash), Ghost Eater (Ghost Roaster), Fire Dragon (Spyro), Cyclops Snail, and Bomb Troll (Boomer).
The Curious Case of Cyclops Snail
The fifth prototype character is the odd one out -- Cyclops Snail, which Graham describes as "this little blue water slug that zipped around, left a little pool of sludge behind him, and he would scream and shoot electricity. He was just so weird -- really fun, but totally bizarre. After some feedback, we changed him from blue to purple, but then it was 'you can't have two purple characters, because Spyro is purple.' Then we got an early version of what Cyclops Snail's toy might look like, and we thought, 'Oh my gosh, these don't look at all detailed, not in the way that we want them to be.' He was revised again, made of oil and now called Tarclops, and that was the final straw. The character evolved so much, by the end, [character designer] I-Wei Huang at Toys For Bob felt that everything he liked about the character was gone, so we thought, let's just scrap it -- we've got to go in a different direction."
Two clay prototypes of Cyclops Snail and an early production version that simply wasn't detailed enough.
But in a way, you've already played as Cyclops Snail; you know him as Zap. "We reimagined the character," says Graham. "Same moves, actually; he plays exactly the same way as Cyclops Snail did. And even Zap went through a little evolution. His original concept didn't have his scuba tanks, and we shortened his snout quite a bit."
From snail to dragon! Note the lack of scuba tanks and different facial details on Zap's plastic prototype compared to the final toy on the right.
Wayward Wizards and Rocky Starts
Zap wasn't the only character to be based on an earlier concept. Consider this bearded "mesmorph wizard," who was among the game's first ten proposed characters. "He had a magical staff that created little gnome clones of himself that would explode," says Graham. He made it as far as a plastic prototype, and although "his powers were fun, we felt we could do more with the personality. We wanted all the characters to be heroic and aspirational. He was kooky and a very interesting character, but he wasn't the thing every kid aspires to be -- he was a weird, grumpy, old gnome wizard. But we still liked the way he played, so he became the wacky, bumbling Double Trouble."
Haldor made it as far as being cast in plastic before he turned into Double Trouble.
If you're a big Skylanders fan, Graham explains why he looks so familiar. "We kept him alive," he says with a smile. "He became Haldor of the Empire of Ice expansion pack. You still see his character there, and I think he works really well in that pack. But he was a playable toy at one point."
This nameless, faceless rock golem never made it past the clay stage.
Other character concepts didn't get Haldor's second chance. "We started to get clay figures from Toys For Bob that we weren't sure about -- should they be good guys or bad guys?" says Graham. This handpainted clay prototype of a stone creature wound up being neither, though he did inspire a bigger brother. "There was a large version that turned into the stone golem, the one you fight at the end of Stonetown, which changed completely from what this looks like. Then there were some other rock elemental guys that were using this figure as a temporary model for a while, but this guy never made it into the final game." That means you're looking at Skylanders' first true wayward rock star.
Lights! Castles! Apples!
"At the time, some of the thoughts for expansion packs were much different," says Graham. "There was a miniature castle prototype made out of clay, and a weird teepee thing that nobody really knew what it was."
Early clay models of the Adventure Packs -- the mysterious teepee thing and an early castle concept.
Other ideas were reworked because they were too similar -- the healing potion power-up won out over the golden apple, which did essentially the same thing -- and some just wound up not supporting the gameplay as it evolved, such as the lantern. "The idea was that you would go into dark caves and the lantern would illuminate the area," explains Graham. "What we ended up finding was that there really wasn't going to be a lot of places in the game to make good use of it. We had to pick and choose and scale back to things we could deliver on in a meaningful way."
Two early passes at the health potion, its cousin the golden apple, and the unused lantern.
In all cases, Skylanders' virtual and physical elements had to uphold the same high standards. Graham says the goal was always to showcase "the attention to detail and polish, not just in the game, but in the physical toys. We wanted to aim for best in class."
Enter the Giants
All these decisions and revisions have led Toys For Bob and Activision to create Skylanders Giants for 2012, which adds new super-sized, super-strong friends that tower over normal characters ("Making Giant characters seemed like a fun no-brainer," says Graham), as well as new magic tricks like toys that light up when placed on the Portal of Power. But Graham makes it clear that delivering detailed toys and an engaging videogame are both key elements to the Skylanders franchise as a whole – because that's what makes the audience happy. "We're making this for kids, and the kid inside all of us, no matter what age you are," says Graham. "If you're an adult and you still like to collect toys, that's great, because that means there's a part of you that has never lost the connection with the kid inside of you. We never forget who our audience is."