Skylanders Swap Force: balancing more than 250 character combinations

Vicarious Vision's Skylanders Swap Force might look simple on the surface, but trying to design a game that kids will come back to year round has been no easy task for the development team, according to co-studio head Guha Bala.

Speaking to Polygon, Bala said "a game like Skylanders looks kind of simple" because, on a surface level, there's a story that's easy to understand and characters that are either a single toy or two parts that combine. But in order get kids to return to the game, the development team has had to balance it in such a way so nothing feels overpowered and every character has unique abilities and a purpose. With 16 new Swap Force characters, 16 new core characters and 256 possible Swap Force combinations, the team has been busy.

"So one of the ways we approached balancing all the characters was by making different characters good at different things, so regardless of the attack effectiveness or the hit points they deal, they're just tactically better suited to different things," Bala said. "We also sub-divided them into different classes of character — like close combat and ranged combat — and we have variety within this class-based system, like some characters are better at platforming and they all have different speed moves."

The top half of a Swap Force character determines how they fight while the bottom half determines how they move.

In a demo of the game that Polygon played, we encountered areas within the Skylanders world that were designed specifically for characters with certain abilities. In one section there was a ladder that only characters with the ability to climb could access. Upon climbing the ladder, a mini game would be unlocked that required players to get to the top of a cliff while avoiding obstacles.

Bala told Polygon that the top half of a Swap Force character determines how they fight while the bottom half determines how they move. Both halves have eight upgrades, which gives players options in how they want to grow their characters. None of the character combinations we experienced seemed accidental. Combining the character Stink Bomb with Night Shift created Stink Shift — a new character that took on Night Shift's teleportation abilities and Stink Bomb's combat moves. Merging Stink Bomb with the pirate octopus Wash Buckler created Stink Buckler — a character with Stink Bomb's attacks and Wash Buckler's climbing abilities. Bala said players will be able to mix and match halves of Skylanders to gain the benefits of the different skills.

On the gameplay side, Skylanders also had a mix of enemies, hazards and environments that allow different character types to take advantage of them.

"We have a matrix of characters, which we match against a matrix of hero types and enemy types, and we can construct level situations that will make the game interesting," Bala said. "In order for kids to play this year round, this has to be a playground for their toys, so every level has to be a playground. This is really what makes it more than what meets the eye."

Skylander Swap Force will release this fall. Read Polygon's preview here.

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