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The tablet-based Skylanders is a grand experiment, and may be the future of gaming

The tablet version of Skylanders is trying something different for the series. This isn’t a hacked down version of the main game, a value-add to get a little bit more use out of your toys or a new story to play through. It's a direct port of the full game, with everything that entails.

Vicarious Visions is bringing the full version of Skylanders: Trap Team to certain iOS, Android and FireOS tablets, complete with a dedicated controller and a portal that doubles as a stand for your screen.

This is a big deal, and it’s an incredibly smart move on the part of Activision, the game’s publisher.

A tactile, portable experience

"We’ve been wanting to do this for some time," Karthik Bala, the co-studiohead of Vicarious Visions told me over the phone. I had called to talk about the product, because it’s something that seems custom made for how we game in our family.

My oldest is nearing his teenage years, and my youngest is a baby, with the rest in between. Playing Skylanders can be something of a pain; it takes up the television that may be in use by another child or parent, and then getting out the portal and toys invites the attention of a younger child who just wants to pick up the toys and attempt to eat them.

This is the version of the game I'll be purchasing for my family

Without putting a television in a child’s room, something we’ve been loath to do, playing the game was nearly impossible. Having a version of the game that can be played in their room fixes everything. I may be a strange use case in this regard, but this is the version of the game I'll be purchasing for my family.

A child can now take the tablet into their room and set up a whole play set, complete with their toy collection in their personal space. They can make their own space to play and explore the game, at their own pace. This is the version of the game the can be happily played inside a pillow fort, and that sense of setting up the environment is something the team considered when creating this version of the game.

"It kind of becomes its own playset. I went to the team when we were starting out and said I want to create the Castle Greyskull playset," Bala explained. "You know what I’m talking about! Castle Greyskull and the Millenium Falcon! It changes your fantasy and experience with your action figures. It created a place, this play space that’s your own. Adults can’t come into it. It’s not like you’re sharing your living room space anymore. It has its own feel to it."

If personal screens mean that we’re no longer tethered to the television, having the full version of Trap Team that can be played anywhere there is some empty floor, or even on the road if they have a place to put the portal or want to play with the virtual controls, opens up the experience. Any corner of the house that's open can now become a place a child can enjoy the game on their own terms.

Console-based games force children to play a specific way: In front of the television, with a controller in their hand. This is a product that doesn’t water down the game, but allows children or adults to play anywhere, with a controller or without one, by using their toys or using the two characters that can be selected without the portal.

The version of the game is flexible and portable, but it doesn't force the player to accept another, lesser version of the game itself. The game pad even snaps into the bottom of the portal so you can take everything with you. This is an experiment in what it's like to mix the world of mobile gaming with console-style experiences, and it's likely that many other companies are going to pay very close attention to the outcome.

This wasn't easy to pull off

"We hand-optimize on a per-device basis, which is one of the most painful things about this project," Bala explained. "We’re able to dial down the graphics to whatever the maximum potential of the hardware is. But we couldn’t go below iPad third gen and preserve the integrity of the product."

Creating a mobile product isn’t just about supporting Android and iOS, it’s about supporting a variety of products with a varying amount of power and different screen sizes. If you want to do that well, you have to spend the time and money.

"For tablet, iOS, Android and FireOS isn’t three platforms if you’re going to compare Apples to Apples," Bala said. "It’s actually like 11 to 12 when you do chipset and OS combinations. We’ve had to work with device manufacturers as well as the chip makers and really understand what’s going on low-level and deal with a lot of confounding factors to make it work."

Skylanders iPad

Vicarious Visions aimed for graphical fidelity on the level of the Xbox 360, but that’s going to depend on the power of your own device. Here’s another interesting wrinkle: Since the software itself is a download there is only one mobile version of the product to put on store shelves. They get to support a pile of devices out of a single box.

While you’ll need to know what system someone has to buy the console version, one box is enough to sell the mobile version, no matter what hardware the player is running. It’s clever, and shows another advantage of mobile hardware. You’re buying the portal and controller, the game itself is sent to you digitally, and runs at a level that takes the most advantage of your device. The focus is on simplicity, for both the player and the retailer.

It's likely many other companies are paying close attention

The controller pairs automatically when you turn it on. If you turn it off the virtual controls instantly appear on the screen. You can use any third-party Bluetooth controller for multiplayer if you’d like to invite a friend. All your existing toys work. Children will be able to set everything up by themselves, and of course this could open up a whole new market of players who will then buy more of the high-margin toys.

If this sells well, and mobile hardware continues to grow in popularity and power it's possible, and even likely, that we'll see other big franchises release full-sized games on tablets. It's already begun, in some cases. This is a great fit, though, and it solves many of the problems the original game introduced for homes with big families. The power of a portable screen isn't that a child can take it with them anywhere, the real draw is that you can take it away when they're done playing.

The next level of puzzles.

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