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Activision ‘Skylanders’ Developers Discuss What’s Next For $1 Billion Game Franchise (Q&A)

Skylanders SWAP - H 2013
Skylanders SWAP

At New York City's Toy Fair, the company talks about next steps for the popular toy/video game hybrid -- which, after outselling all other lines in 2012, Disney was quick to emulate.

Activision is still best known for its Call of Duty first-person shooter game franchises, but the Los Angeles game publisher has turned its kid-focused, family-friendly toy and video game hybrid Skylanders into a $1 billion enterprise. The game maker is using the Toy Fair in New York City to debut what’s next for the franchise, which has sold over 100 million Skylanders toys to date.

In 2012, the combined sales of Skylanders Giants and Skylanders Spyro's Adventure toys outsold the top action figure lines in the U.S. and Europe, including Beyblades, Star Wars and Transformers. When adding in video game sales, the cross-platform franchise has topped $1 billion in just 15 months.

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This success has attracted the attention of Disney Interactive, which will launch its own cross-platform toy and video game product this June with Disney Infinity. Activision actually built the world of Skylanders with the writers of the original Disney/Pixar movie, Toy Story, on the original game. (Alec Solokow and Joel Cohen have not written for the Giants or SWAP Force games.)

Activision has a new line of toys and cross-platform game called Skylanders SWAP Force that lets players reconfigure 16 special characters into more than 250 combinations. These allow kids to mix and match characters' powers and moves, then bring them to life in the game. The new game will also be backwards-compatible with the full line of existing Skylanders toys.

In addition to the new SWAP Force characters, the game features 32 core Skylanders characters (16 completely new Skylanders characters and 16 new versions of characters from previous games), as well as eight new "LightCore" characters. Guha Bala, studio head and co-founder of developer Vicarious Visions, and Paul Reiche, studio head and co-founder of developer Toys for Bob, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter for this exclusive interview.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did working with Hollywood film writers help build this Skylanders universe? What's next for the Skylanders?

Paul Reiche: We worked with Alec and Joel on Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure and they brought to the experience the world building of Skylands and the background story of how these plastic figures can transform into living creatures. They have a great knowledge about how you assemble a story and how you integrate characters in a very playful way. They were Oscar nominated for the Toy Story screenplay. We have taken their work (on the original game) and gone forward with Giants and now with SWAP Force building on Skylands and creating these all new stories. With SWAP Force you see a whole new area of the Cloudbreak Islands and this volcano that’s filling Skyland with magic. You have a threat by our villain Kaos. It’s all based on the magic that they helped us create.

THR: What does SWAP Force add to the Skylanders franchise?

Reiche: Skylanders is really defined by this interaction between toys and a video game. It’s magical. With SWAP Force you now have these toys that pop apart and re-assemble and you can configure your own character. That’s one of the most exciting things we’ve ever shown.

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THR: What did you find interesting about building the Skylanders story?

Guha Bala: This is a fantastical, limitless world that we can explore and define with whimsy, but also tell heroic stories. There is a cast of characters that are returning favorites. Slim, the balloonist, really offers a ton of comic relief and is a great narrator throughout the game. There are heroic voices like the voice of Eon, the original Portal Master, and then there are new characters that we meet along the way. Our favorite villain, Kaos, is back with a nefarious plot that we’re here to foil. Filling in all the beats really allows us to go to the Cloud Brick Islands, a place that players have never seen before and a place that’s native for the SWAP Force Skylanders, and fill it out in a way with a level of richness that provides something very special.

THR: How does Skylanders compare to the Toy Story universe? How are they different?

Bala: The Skylanders characters and the SWAP Force characters are created to be able to bring toys to life and really enjoy that in a video game. When we design the characters in the universe, it’s about the physical play experience. It’s also about the play experiences in the game. When we design the characters and a collection of characters that play together, it’s with that single purpose in mind.