When Skylanders Trap Team comes to Android, Fire OS and iOS tablets this October, it will bring with it an abundance of innovation, technological firsts and surprises, both good and bad.
The game will be the first AAA title to make the leap to tablet with the full experience, on the same day it arrives on every other platform. It will ship with its own, tablet-holding Portal of Power and include a surprisingly well-designed wireless controller. It features special streaming technology that will install and uninstall game levels and characters on the fly while you play.
The game, which ships with two Skylanders characters, two traps, the controller and portal, will cost a penny shy of $75 and, fully installed, will suck up a shocking 6 GB of space.
"From what we can tell, no one has dropped a triple-A game on tablet day and date with consoles," said Karthik Bala, chief creative officer at developer Vicarious Visions. "It's one thing to take an older game and bring it over, but to be able to ship it to all of those consoles at the same time takes a lot of planning."
It makes sense that Skylanders would be the first game to make that leap of faith into mobile, portable and console release synchronicity. Last year, Skylanders Swap Force was the largest video game and largest action figure sold. It's the sort of game that when it gets a sequel, Toys R Us sends a vice president to speak; a game that has spawned 175 Skylanders figures and 175 licensing and product partners.
But the true impetus for this push into mobile is the continued need to go where the gamers are. Tablets are everywhere, and often they're in a child's hands.
At a recent meeting in New York, Bala described introducing the tablet version of Swap Force to his young daughter. He said he asked her if she wanted to play the game in her room.
"She said, 'I can't. I don't have a TV,'" he said.
And then Bala showed her how she could play the full game on a tablet, with her familiar toys and a controller.
"She was laying on the floor with all of her toys around her playing the game," he said. "Now there's no reason to fight for the living room television."
Much of the design behind Skylanders is powered by the magic of the game's fiction. Skylanders toys aren't just hunks of plastic; they are characters that will be injected into your game and given life. Trap Team, due out on everything Oct. 5 in North America, is meant to do the opposite. Take a character in a video game and squirt it out into the real world, into a bit of plastic called a trap.
Skylanders wouldn't be Skylanders without these toys and the portal, and Vicarious knows that, so the studio set out to create a portal that made sense for tablets.
Surprisingly, that portal is much larger than the one that comes with the console versions of the game. That's because the portal is doing triple duty.
On one side of the large circular puck is a hole designed to hold a trap; on the other side is a slot designed to hold a tablet at the perfect viewing angle for hands-free playing. Finally, the custom controller pops into the underside of the Bluetooth-based Portal of Power.
Like other portals, this one lights up and glows when you place a character on it and play the game. But there is one significant thing missing from the design.
On the console versions of the game, the illusion of trapping an enemy character in the game and sending them to the real-world trap is created in large part through the use of a speaker on the Portal of Power and a television's speaker. When a creature is trapped, you can hear its voice travel from television to portal through those speakers. The audio solidifies the experience.
But the tablet version's portal doesn't have a speaker; instead, the developers continue to work on their use of 3D sound positioning as they tweak the software. Bala promises me the end result will be just as good as, if not better than, the console experience.
The same seems to be true of gameplay on the tablet.
In my short time with the mobile Trap Team, I was impressed with the game's look and responsive controls.
"Visually, this is the HD console graphics," Bala said. "Pixel for pixel.
"It's crazy how much faster tablets are getting."
At launch, the tablet version of the game will support the third- and fourth-generation iPad, Retina iPad mini, iPad Air, Kindle Fire HDX, Google Nexus 7 and the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro, Tab S and Note 10.1.
"As new devices come out, we're going to support them as well," he said.
On top of the console version's fidelity, the game also includes cooperative play with two controllers for every level, every moment, every character from the console versions. It even delivers experiences not available on other platforms, like touch controls and the ability to play the game without having to cart the portal around — a first for the franchise.
Don't have Skylander, will travel
On-the-go play will let players control two exclusive characters, "Instant Snapshot" and "Instant Foodfight," and use two virtual traps. The key difference is that playing this way won't allow players to upgrade their toy characters. It's simply a way to play on the go.
All of those features come with a cost, though in this case that cost is purely one of storage space. The game itself will be a free download, though players will only be able to play a bit of the early game with the on-the-go characters unless they buy the starter kit.
A full install of the game will take up 6 GB of space, well above the maximum download for a single app allowed by Apple. Vicarious was able to get around that by creating a game that only needs to install approximately 1 GB of software to function.
"The initial app is about a gig," Bala said. "It will serve as the intro to the game."
As players make their way through that introduction, the game will continue to download and install in the background, he said.
While a full install of the game is 6 GB, players can get away with a 3 GB install using "smart storage."
"What we do is that there are levels that will be downloaded and buffered," Bala said. "When you are connected to Wi-Fi, it's downloading ahead of time."
And characters are downloaded on demand. So the second a character is placed on the portal, a download is triggered. The game does the "magic moment" flashing lights and shoots the toy in, all while the character is being installed, a process that takes about 10 seconds.
"Most users have 13 toys in their collection," Bala said. "Pretty much all of the levels can be downloaded and most of your toys in 3 GB."
A lot of the rest of the space is taken up by other languages besides English, and all of those 175 characters.
If you're using smart storage, the game will fill up the space you've allowed and then will automatically delete the least played levels on your device, automatically reinstalling them when you decide to return to that area.
Finally, a good tablet gamepad?
"I finally got to tick off that box: 'design a gamepad controller,'" Bala told me as he handed over the diminutive controller created for Trap Team.
The controller feels good resting in my hands: It's small, but not so small that I find it uncomfortable. The gamepad is flat, but there's a lot of promise in those thumbsticks, buttons and directional pad. Playing the game with it for a few minutes, I start to think this is one of the better mobile controllers I've tried.
It will also be the first dedicated Bluetooth low energy gamepad to hit the market. That's in part because there is no Bluetooth LE standard like there is for classic Bluetooth, Bala said.
Since Apple doesn't currently include specs for BLE controllers, this one won't be "Apple certified," meaning it won't get a sticker when it hits stores.
While the game can support cooperative play with two controllers, Bala said the company hasn't decided yet if it will be releasing the controller as a stand-alone device.
All of the hardware that Vicarious Visions makes, be it the Guitar Grip for the Nintendo DS' Guitar Hero or a controller for Skylanders on tablet, is designed for a specific game, a specific experience, Bala said.
"They are built with purpose," he said. "In this case, we knew we wanted to create a full triple-A experience, and that required us to build a controller with a certain level of responsiveness, quality of sticks, in a portable way with Bluetooth support.
"We didn't want players to buy the starter pack and then say to them, 'Go buy a controller too.' Designing something that would work as a total package was really important."
The controller design was a hard problem to crack, he said. It was an iterative process that created a graveyard of different failed controllers and portals.
Finally, while on a fishing trip with some buddies, Bala stumbled across the solution.
"It just came to me," he said. "I drew it on a napkin, came in Monday morning and drew it on a whiteboard."
By that Thursday they had 3D-printed it and had a working model along with the portal design.
That's what they took to Activision.
"We said, 'This is how we're going to bring the full Skylanders to tablet,'" Bala said. "One of the awesome things about Activision is that you can go in with something crazy and people might look at it and go, 'Yes, do it.'"
Bala said he knew he had found the right design when he left the meeting without the portal and controller.
"They kept the prototype," he said. "It was the only one I had."
The hope was that the team could create "the Castle Grayskull experience for Skylanders," Bala said. "We wanted to do something that is very unique, that has the Skylanders play pattern.
"When you immerse yourself in it, you forget about the screen, about the tablet."
Bala thinks that's exactly what they've achieved, but he knows it's still a big gamble.
"What we're trying to do is very contrarian," he said. "But it's exciting to be pushing the envelope.
"It's new, but it's also where a lot of our audience is."
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