Skylanders: Trap Team Interview – Jeff Poffenbarger Talks Bringing Life to Toys
Written Thursday, April 24, 2014 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Trap Team is the fourth game in the Skylanders series, adding yet another new system to the tried and tested formula that Toys for Bob essentially invented with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, a game that was originally conceived as a spin-off starring the titular purple dragon.
$2 billion in sales (as of February 2014), 175 million toy sales later, and the Skylanders franchise is among the top 20 best-selling of all time. Suffice it to say, Skylanders is big business, and Skylanders: Trap Team is looking to build upon its past successes with new trap accessories that enable you to capture bad guys and play as them at any time.
At a reveal event in London, we had a chance to sit down and chew the fat with Executive Producer Jeff Poffenbarger about Skylanders past and present, from prototyping to coming up with new Skylanders – 'Business Skylander' is a particular favourite – and keeping the series fresh.
Has Skylanders: Trap Team been in development since your work on Skylanders Giants wrapped?
Yeah. Shortly after we finished Giants we moved onto Trap Team.
So it's been in development for about two years?
Not quite. At the end of the day it'll be around two years, but right now it's been about a year and seven or eight months.
How much of that time has been spent just formulating new ideas for the game?
The way we do it is we take the first couple of months to prototype. So we'll take a couple of our ideas and start prototyping them for the game, see it working in the game, and then kind of move forward with what we think really works and sticks.
Does the team always have a few ideas left on the boil that can be dug out for future Skylanders games?
Absolutely. When we're going through all of these ideas, we'll find something we really like. It could be technology, it could be just the timing that means it's just not going to work out, so we'll put it in our back pocket and focus on something else. Then we have something that we can use if we ever want to move forward with it.
It happens a lot. Always in development we think of some really cool stuff to do and then you might not have time to do it. So, let's do it next!
Do you think Skylanders is a series that won't stagnate then? It'll always remain fresh?
Well that's our goal: to always have fresh, new stuff going on.
With the Starter Pack, you get the life and water elemental traps. But how do you get the other traps?
They are sold separately.
Do you get them with figures or are they entirely separate?
They're entirely separate, but I don't know if they're sold as single or doubles yet. But they are separate from the characters.
Will the pricing follow a similar structure to previous Skylanders titles?
I'm assuming it's going to be similar to last year's prices. This year you're getting this portal that has all this new technology in it, and we're not increasing the price.
Have you been surprised and overwhelmed by the success of the Skylanders series?
When it initially started and all the stores were selling out of stuff, it was a surprise. We knew that it was a quality gameplay experience, we knew we had something special, but the amount of support we got from people, from consumers was certainly humbling. And awesome, and all of those things wrapped into one. It's been great. It's been by far a career highlight for me.
What was it like for the team, handing your baby over to Vicarious Visions for last year's Swap Force?
We've worked with them before and have a great relationship with them. They were involved on some of the platforms early on, and we're all under the same Activision umbrella, y'know.
You knew it was in good hands.
Yeah. It's a great relationship we have with them.
But when they introduced jumping, didn't it make you think, “Ugh. Now we have to include jumping”?
We did get that! There are always other studios pushing people. I'm still not convinced that jumping is [needed]. Everyone loves it, and so I'm wrong, and that's totally fair, but I just... You see some little kids playing it and they have a hard time with the platforms and the jumping.
Is it challenging to have to build each game around such a huge back catalogue of characters?
It's a development challenge, and it's just one of those things you have to deal with; supporting all of these different characters and they have to all look really good. It becomes kind of difficult.
Presumably that's only going to get tougher and tougher with each game.
Every year it becomes more difficult.
Are you concerned it might reach a critical mass where there are too many Skylanders characters to handle?
I would think it might hit that at some point, but it hasn't yet.
Could there be a point where you have to say, “sorry, all of the old characters are done,” and start from scratch?
I don't know. It hasn't happened so far, although I could see something like that happening. It's not something that's being talked about or planned right now. We want to support as far back as makes sense and supporting all of the characters makes sense right now.
Were you taken unawares by the release of Disney Infinity or do you welcome a bit of healthy competition?
I've never heard of that. What do you call it again?
Disney Infinity. It's this other thing.
The competition is what it is. We focus on pushing, as the inventor of the genre. We have to keep pushing the innovation forward. Certainly it's not something where we're looking behind us at what the competitor is doing, because we did that three years ago. We just want to move forward and the world is big enough, right?
So it wasn't a case of “oh, come on!”?
No, no. I mean you see people do things, but overall it's a business. It's video games.
And the most sincere form of flattery...
…is imitation. Absolutely! That is the saying. I can't remember if I was saying I'd say that, and someone told me, “I wouldn't even say that.” But it is!
You've got a new portal of power for Skylanders: Trap Team to accommodate the new enemy traps. Have you considered perhaps integrating some sort of use for the old portals in the new game or future Skylanders games? They're essentially useless now in a way.
Well they're not useless for playing the previous games, but for this we really needed to change and upgrade the technology so that we could get that whole experience.
There are no future plans to use the old portals in some capacity in the future then?
They just can't support the new feature of bringing life to toys.
Since Spyro's Adventure, the Skylanders gameplay formula has remained pretty consistent throughout the series. Do you think part of the franchise's success is down to preserving that formula?
We like to keep the gameplay... well, not on the simpler side, but looking back on the previous games, we're certainly trying to make improvements on what we have there, be it in co-op or the single-player experience. Adding more or less mini-games, adding new card games or not adding them. We certainly look at that each time we release a new game, so that what we feel is that we're pushing it forward and doing new stuff. It's always a new adventure. A new story and new characters.
Are there any elements that couldn't be implemented in Skylanders: Trap Team that you'd like to see in future games?
I would be afraid to say those things, just in case. There are things out there, but I can't say.
What about the racing sections that someone suggested? Is that something you'd like to do?
Racing games are fun, but that's about as far as I can go with that. I can't talk about anything, otherwise someone else is gonna go and do it! We've got to make sure we don't show our hand!
Is it hard catering to an audience of children? As an adult you kind of know what you'd like to play, but knowing what kids want must be tough, right?
No, I don't think so. If you make something that's compelling and fun for them to play, they are the best critics. They are very honest, but catering to adults is I think way more challenging, because their expectation levels are different, and if you don't go exactly with their expectations, they'll let you know it, whereas a kid will just be like, “I don't like it. Thanks.”
I find it much more rewarding to make games for kids. And kids are involved in the development of the game too. We use 'em a lot.
You must have kids coming in and asking for awkward stuff that's impossible to do then?
Kids request a lot of different stuff, but no, that doesn't really happen. Kids will come up to us and say things that don't necessarily make sense, and I'll just shake my head and go, “yeah, I don't know.” But other than that, for the most part we fulfil a lot of those requests.
What's the most common request you get from fans?
Special bomb man! That was one. I think every kid has their own idea of what a cool Skylander would be. A kid once drew us an idea, and it was 'Business Skylander'. It was a man in a suit with a briefcase. So now we actually have... No, wait. We don't.
Aw, I was looking forward to seeing Business Skylander. That's a shame.
Yeah. Business Skylander was a good one.
What's the weirdest idea you've had pitched for a Skylander then?
Oh, business Skylander is way up there!
Yeah! I mean, I can't even think of 'em. There are so many ideas that come through, and there's always weird combinations of monsters and food items, but business Skylander was just... Yeah.
Skylanders: Trap Team will be launching on every console you could care to think of, in October 2014.