In a series of factories in China, metal blocks pound into one another to generate toys for the Skylanders video games. They create molds, engineered to manufacture figures in the smallest possible number of pieces, to meet cost projections and satisfy proper safety standards.
Paul Reiche, studio head at developer Toys for Bob, prefers the fantasy version.
"It's like dinosaurs [biting down]," he says.
"They're huge ... They weigh thousands of pounds. They slam together. They shoot this hot plastic. It's really dramatic. Then the pieces come out and they cool. And then thousands of people get involved ... cutting and gluing and hand painting these toys."
In their first six months on sale, publisher Activision sold over 30 million of those toys, leading to one of the most profitable franchises in the game industry. Or, arguably, the toy industry. By letting players "bring their toys to life" by placing them on a portal and then controlling them in the games, Toys for Bob and Activision have built a business that makes money on console games, mobile games and a toy line — as well as styluses, carrying cases, Halloween costumes, t-shirts, backpacks, books, bikes, calendars, plush dolls and posters.
Earlier this year, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick predicted that the franchise would "easily" bring in more than $500 million in revenue by the end of 2012. And in October the company released the series' second console game and toy line, Skylanders Giants, which starts to hint at the scale of the dinosaurs in the manufacturing plants.
Paid to think like a child
Toys for Bob's character and toy director, I-Wei Huang, has never been to the factories. Despite being half of the core character team, along with Reiche, he tries to keep himself relatively insulated from the business, often consciously attempting to not think about the financial side so he can remember what it's like to be a child.
Because that's the job. He's paid to think like a six-year-old.
At work, he sits across from a glass case filled with more than a thousand figures, down the hall from a never-ending toy generator in the form of a 3D printer, in a cubicle under a former airplane hangar decorated like a tiki lounge. At home, his house backs up to an elementary school.
He can hear the sounds of kids playing from his garage, where he builds machines like steam-powered robots and a hamster wheel mech walker for his niece's pet rodent, Princess.
"I'm still a kid," says Huang. "I don't think I ever grew up. I was talking to my mom just yesterday. She said, 'You know, you started drawing dragons when you were like three or four years old, and you just never stopped. How do you make a living doing that?'"
Huang's answer, it turns out, is in the question: he rarely stops working.
"He sketches characters nonstop. I don't think he can't make characters."
Reiche describes him as someone who is constantly thinking of ideas for new creatures, Skylanders or otherwise. "He sketches characters nonstop, and he's got these books of characters that he does at home," he says. "I don't think he can't make characters."
Even when Huang doesn't know what to draw, he starts drawing circles, often feeling his way through the doodle like using a Ouija board - which incidentally led to the Skylanders character Chop Chop, whose face is made of four circles.
"It's a sickness," says Huang. "It's beyond addiction. I should be treated, because I literally can't stop. When I get home, I draw characters, or make things that are kind of like characters. When I'm at work, I'm doing the same thing. I love it. I've got the best job in the world."
From Star Wars to flying saucers
Like most kids growing up, Huang played with lots of toys. He remembers arguing with his parents about how to construct a Lego R2-D2 figure, and whether the wheel should go in the middle. He once used chopsticks, paper and glue to make a hang glider for Luke Skywalker to fly off his bedroom's balcony.
Unlike most kids, though, Huang didn't outgrow the hobby when he reached junior high or high school. Instead, he decided to turn it into a career.
Not that it was a smooth process. Huang initially majored in mechanical engineering in college, not knowing exactly what he wanted to do. He didn't like it. "It was too much theory, and not enough visual problem solving, which is the only thing I'm really good at," he says. So he took a detour and studied animation instead. A choice, he says, that in part was financially motivated — "I didn't want to become a starving artist" — and also led him to the game industry. While in school, he took a part-time job as an artist on a game called Flying Saucer, "which no one has heard of and got released in Europe somewhere." But his break, as he describes it, came shortly thereafter, when he joined the team working on Toe Jam & Earl 3.
"I was lucky enough to be involved in that," he says. "I was a lead animator but also I did all the concept art and the modeling — that was my first entry into creating [a series of characters]."
Huang was hooked.
A furious creative genius
Fun without function
After working at Toys for Bob for a short while, Huang started feeling limited in what he was creating. So he set out in his spare time to fill the void. "We were working on a lot of titles that personally for me weren't fulfilling enough, because I [wasn't] creating my own world, so I'd go home and create my own world at home," he says.
Huang hunkered down in his garage in Dixon, California, a quiet freeway town just south of Sacramento. And he started experimenting with steam powered toys — things that he had seen in movies, but never in real life. The concept fascinated Huang, both for its unexplored territory and its lack of purpose.
"I was spending so much time drawing these things, and trying to figure out how to make it look convincing — I was actually researching into, how would it work, and how does it work, and how does steam power work, how does this and that work. And so I just started building. One day, I was just like, 'You know, it should work. Why wouldn't it work?'"
Huang went to work experimenting with heating alcohol to create steam to generate a high enough pressure per square inch to move the proper gears.
"The biggest compliment I've ever gotten was when a kid came up and wanted to give the Steam Walker a cookie."
He made the Steam Walker, a four-legged train-looking device that wobbles slowly when enough steam gets it going; the R/C Steam Rover, which turns into a slow remote controlled car running on steam power; R2S2 ("R2 Steam Too"), a steam-powered version of R2-D2 from Star Wars and a series of others.
Then when he felt like he'd done as much as he could do with steam, he poked around with other toys, like a remote controlled mechanical bug and the hamster wheel that walks around on mech legs.
Huang has taken these contraptions to a few conventions to show them off and enter in competitions, and enjoys the attention when children get excited by them — even when they just want to see the Steam Walker "pee" when it leaks water.
"Probably the biggest compliment I've ever gotten for making these things," he says while showing the toys in his garage, "was a kid came up — probably a two/three-year-old — and wanted to give [the Steam Walker] a cookie."
"For me, it's all about just having something different and quirky, and something that really has no real function," he says. "I never really wanted to make something that ... mows the lawn or something like that. Part of the appeal to me is just, it's stupid — it's silly — that someone would spend this kind of energy making these things for no apparent reason."
After doing licensed games by day, mad scientist toys by night, Huang decided to take his chances on an indie game startup. He remains shy on the details, but makes it clear things didn't go well.
A year later, he was back at Toys for Bob. But this time, he stumbled onto Skylanders, which gave him what he'd been looking for — a chance to create the kinds of characters he was working on at home, at work. It was his job to dream up characters like those he enjoyed as a child, for a new generation of kids. Everything was falling into place.
"When I first design a character — in the very beginning when it's just a really rough loose sketch — it's always the case that I'm back to when I was 10 years old," says Huang. "Like, ￼'What was I really into? What kinds of things?' And it could be something as simple as, 'Oh, that character had a really cool sword.'"
"In a certain sense, what we do is we close our eyes and we go back to that six-year-old inside of us, and we go, 'Wouldn't it be cool ... and this robot ... or a sword laser,'" says Reiche. "And then we sort of scale it up in sophistication a wee bit, because we get paid for it."
Huang shows a prototype character model that would have been too expensive to paint because of the individual yellow cracks on his body ...
… and then shows a revised version with a paint spray, which cost less and made it into the final product.
The process starts with Huang doodling and Reiche thinking up concepts, then extends to identifying the character's gameplay functions, to finalizing the character's design, to modeling it in high-resolution 3D, to animating the game character, to posing the toy version, to printing it out in a 3D printer, to adjusting the colors and shapes, to working with a company called Creata to make it safe, to working with former Guitar Hero group RedOctane to deal with manufacturing factories in China, to lining up the packaging and shipping the toys to stores.
The most difficult part of this, Huang says, is when it becomes less about the childhood fantasy of making the best possible toy and more about the realistic side of making toys that come in under budget.
"The hardest part, I think, is trying to reduce paint," says Huang. "How to make something that doesn't cost $50. We can make it look great, but it's really important for us that this is an affordable toy. We want kids to be able to buy these."
As part of his process, Huang insulates himself from the business side and tries to just think like a child making toys rather than someone concerned with budgets and spreadsheets, but he says the longer he works on Skylanders, the harder that is to do.
"I try not to [think about the cost]," he says. "It's hard now, since I have a lot of knowledge. It was easier on the first game. Now I know a lot of things. It's like, 'Oh my god; how are we gonna do that? That's gonna be so expensive or impossible to do.' But I try to block that out of my mind."
Sitting in his cubicle at Toys for Bob, he shows a "before" example of the kind of cost considerations he goes through, starting with a character "twice over our cost budget," featuring individual yellow cracks all over the character, with fading on its fingertips and sharp-looking claws.
Then he shows the "after" version, where the team went with a "free" paint spray across the character rather than cracks painted individually. Huang says that, in retrospect, he prefers this version, but that the process of making all these adjustments to keep costs down can be time consuming.
So much so, that while he's been working on Skylanders, he hasn't felt much of a need to create other characters at home. It's been like a nicotine patch, covering his addiction in a productive way. "I don't really need to create something at home anymore, because I get so much of that here," he says.