The incredible success of the Skylanders video games and toy line can best be described in one word: hyperfranchise. In its first year, Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure was the bestselling kids’ video game. In just 15 months, it generated over US$1 billion dollars in retail sales and outsold the top three action figure lines while shipping more than 100 million toys.
There are two main reasons for this runaway success: Skylanders is the first video game to integrate toys into video game play successfully. Players handle a physical toy character that interacts with the video game by way of a simple electronic portal. The original, compelling, and diverse characters featured in Skylanders are the other factor for the video game’s success.
The creative genius behind the character creation for Skylanders is I-Wei Huang, toy and character director at Novato, California-based Toys for Bob. Using Autodesk® SketchBook® Pro software as his creation tool, Huang has brought to life several dozen wildly different characters, from a ninja elf girl who wields bone swords to a tree-limbed giant. In the two games launched since Skylanders was introduced in 2011, it’s quite clear that Huang has an eye for what kids want. “I make sure that the eight-year-old me would love what I am drawing,” says Huang.
Today, characters that Huang creates must fit into and drive the extremely popular Skylanders video game franchise and toy empire. With incredible demand for more characters, more games, and more toys, speed of delivery is mission critical for Skylanders. Huang’s sketching now drives a billion- dollar franchise, something that might cause other artists to lock up under pressure. Fortunately, Huang works and concepts quickly by drawing digitally with the Autodesk SketchBook Pro app. He can think and draw swiftly and get feedback from colleagues by sharing ideas digitally; importantly, he also can design digital and toy characters at the same time.
When Toys for Bob launched the first Skylanders game in 2011, Huang had created more than 30 characters. Typical video game development happens wholly on screen, so game characters are not specifically designed with textures and colors necessary for toy creation. For Skylanders, Huang had to design physical and digital characters in parallel. For early toy creation, Huang and his colleagues made clay models of the characters in small quantities, laboriously hand painting each toy.
Huang often runs Autodesk SketchBook on his Samsung Galaxy Note® II, an AndroidTM phone with a pressure-sensitive pen. “This tool is something that shouldn’t be understated,” he says. “It's a true digital sketchbook that I always have with me.”
Critically, Autodesk SketchBook Pro software also allows Huang to work faster for his work on Skylanders. “Here I can try a lot of things and if I don't like something, I can just press undo. With a pen and pencil, if it doesn’t look good, I might have to redo two hours of work.”
Huang, who says he uses Autodesk SketchBook Pro to sketch “99 percent” of his many drawings, relies on the software to help him deliver rapidly and get feedback from colleagues who are involved in other aspects of video game and toy development. The whole process is so rapid, in fact, that following the blockbuster success of Skylanders, Huang wished he had been able to spend more time with some of the characters that came so quickly to life under his stylus, like Stealth Elf, the much-loved girl ninja fighter.
Using Autodesk SketchBook Pro software has led to interesting developments for Huang. He often draws circles as a way to warm up: One time a series of four circles became the facial features for a character known as Chop Chop. Another time, by sharing digital images from the SketchBook Pro app with his colleagues, Huang received quick feedback that helped him redraw a too-spooky character into a friendlier one called Stump Smash.
“I-Wei is brilliant at coming up with characters that are powerful, cute, and tactile,” says Paul Reiche, studio president at Toys for Bob.
After drawing characters, Huang hands them off to modelers who use Autodesk® Maya® 3D animation software and Autodesk® 3ds Max® 3D modeling, animation, simulation, and rendering software to model the characters and ultimately, fabricate them as toys.
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