By their own admission, Karthik and Guha Bala are two brothers who have been tinkering for over 20 years. As the founders of Vicarious Visions they’ve been doing this tinkering along with a host of talented partners and employees since the early 90s, and at the Skylanders Swap Force demo and studio tour this week, that history was apparent.
Vicarious Visions is most readily known for their work on the outrageously popular and profitable Skylanders series from the past three years, but as I toured their studio in the scenic countryside of Menands, New York, I realized just how long they’ve been in business, and just how many of their games I have played without realizing it. The light, airy studio is resplendent with history; glass cases are placed periodically in the lobby and halls, filled with each and every game Vicarious Visions has worked on, no matter how humble.
It was really a blast from the past for someone like me who has been reviewing licensed games for so long, particularly portable titles for the Game Boy line. Vicarious was the workhorse of the Game Boy back in the day, but I was also struck by how many bygone Spider-Man and Guitar Hero games instantly sprung to my mind as I glimpsed them in those cases. I always appreciated the work Vicarious put into making the Nintendo-exclusive Guitar Hero titles special, particularly the oddball but addictive DS entries with their tiny portable guitar grip. Seeing Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro also brought back fond memories of that underappreciated PS1 classic.
Then there were the things I didn’t even remember, like Vicarious’ first games including the PC adventure Synnergist and spaceflight RPG Terminus. I’d love to go back and explore these early titles, mostly because I was a grade school kid when they came out and didn’t even have a decent PC to play them on at the time, so here’s hoping GOG or Steam makes them available at some point. That said, as cool as touring Vicarious’ history-filled studio was, this was not just a sightseeing trip. This event was about Vicarious’ current pride and joy, Skylanders, and the soon-to-be-released third main entry in the toys-meets-videogames series, Skylanders Swap Force. It’s clear they’ve poured a lot of heart and soul into Swap Force, and for the first time I got to see numerous steps in the process of making this curious, and highly successful, hybrid game series.
After a quick stop to look at the new swappable Skylanders figurines and some brief background about the genesis of the idea, I saw a presentation on the game’s new rendering tech with developers Mike Bukowski and Sean Murphy. While the game is looking pretty slick on current-gen hardware—head and shoulders above last year’s game, Skylanders Giants—Mike and his team have added some new features that take advantage of PS4 and Xbox One. Swap Force uses an improved version of Vicarious’ proprietary Alchemy engine, with enhanced parallax mapping and ambient occlusion on next-gen hardware. Though subtle, these graphical effects add a depth and softness that bring Swap Force up to the level of graphical clarity you’d expect on a modern gaming PC.
Our next meeting was with David Rodriguez and Dan Wallace, who write the game’s dialogue and direct the cutscenes, respectively. David stressed that while it is difficult to write individual dialogue for the dozens of Skylanders characters in the game, he and Dan are working to imbue them with their own personalities that come across in idle animations, catchphrases and cutscenes. One of my few issues with Skylanders Giants was that every Skylander character felt like an empty cypher that all the other characters simply referred to by the title “Skylander,” irrespective of the hero’s personality, gender, abilities and so forth. I understand that it’s a difficult problem to address but I’m glad they’re trying new solutions to give each Skylander a little more narrative flavor. In any case it was pretty cool to see the process of going from animatics with temp voice over work to a fully animated cinematic rendered in-game on a current-gen engine.
Next up we spent some time with audio director Christian Portwine to check out the game’s music and sound effects. My group and I squeezed into the dimmed mixing studio and Christian demonstrated how they mixed the effects for each character. Every Skylander has a decidedly extensive number of sound samples, sometimes up to 20 for a single effect. The sound team did a lot of foley work (they got the movements sounds for an octopus Skylander by peeling a suction-cup bath mat off of various materials) and composited the samples into unified effects, making sure that the end result was cool and funny enough for the focus group kids without being too goofy or scary.
Christian then demoed how the music composite works. Dynamic music is nothing new in videogames but seeing the intricacy of it in Swap Force was really something. Each level has individual blended tracks of bass, percussion, melody and various fanfares depending on what the player is doing; simply moving or standing still adds and subtracts these various elements dynamically in real-time. It also helps that Lorne Balfe is once again providing the score—the longtime Hanz Zimmer collaborator has composed music for the game that has both a whimsical and heroic quality.
We finished out our studio tour by checking out the concepting and creation of the actual Skylanders figurines. While Vicarious Visions had previously contracted out some of the figure work to a third party rapid prototyping company, now the studio has their own industrial-grade 3D printer right there in the office. In this hallowed room we got to see all of the various iterations of the numerous figures, from basic clay-sculpted concepts to the subtle persistent tweaks represented in dozens of 3D printed miniatures. A number of the figures had even been hand painted by Vicarious’ artists. I’m not exactly a diehard Skylanders fan but it was still really cool to get an inside look at this process, and I could tell that a few of my fellow journalists could scarcely contain their fanboy excitement.
After the step-by-step tour through the development of the game, we all reconvened in the studio’s breakroom for a live gameplay demo of the PS4 version of Swap Force. Seeing the near-final game running on next-gen hardware, only a couple months from release, really brought home how much work has gone into the finished product and how Vicarious Visions’ team effort can combine so many disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
This studio has been around a long time—they’ve put in their time on bestselling series like Guitar Hero, and they’ve worked on possibly less glamorous licensed ports for GBA and DS—but one element is consistent. Vicarious Visions has an honest, persistent pride in their work, in a job well done through team synergy and a desire to always be just a little bit better tomorrow than they were yesterday. In an industry so focused on pouring resources into endless franchise iteration, where buzz and flash seem to be more important than substance, it’s refreshing to see a studio that not only understands the value of a hard day’s work, but also takes a modest pride and dignity in it. Skylanders is Vicarious Visions’ baby now. It may be a $1.5 billion dollar franchise, but it’s clear that Vicarious Visions will devote the same creativity, hard work and heart to it that they’ve always put into their games.
Stay tuned for my full gameplay preview for Skylanders Swap Force.
Activision paid for the airfare and lodging for this trip.